Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Perhaps Science Fiction's best credentialed writer-director, Michael Crichton began his film career by writing the novel for Robert Wise's rather good The Andromeda Strain, which was followed in close order by an uneven stack of compromised thrillers. Crichton directed only occasionally, but his work achieved a good batting average at the boxoffice: Westworld was a big hit, as was Coma. The films usually centered on one basic idea like organ harvesting, almost always with a corporate conspiracy included in the package. 1981's Looker tosses a score of clever futuristic ideas into what might have been a fun Sci Fi salad, had the basic mystery storytelling been better. Albert Finney and Susan Dey are excellent but the sputtering, fumbling movie is mostly a missed opportunity.
Celebrity plastic surgeon Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) becomes a suspect when three of his patients all die under suspicious circumstances. Larry explains to Lieutenant Masters (Dorian Harewood) that all three came to him with ridiculously precise cosmetic changes, and then remembers that a fourth model, Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey) did the exact same thing. Larry spends the weekend with Cindy to protect her and accompanies the model on a tour of a high-tech plant where her 'perfect' dimensions are recorded into a computer. Who is killing the girls? Who is the man with the moustache seen on the balcony of one of the victims? What does TV commercial mogul John Reston (James Coburn) have to do with it all?
Looker is indeed a kitchen sink movie of Sci Fi ideas, many of of which have entered our everyday reality. In 1981 there was no digital imaging, but the words 'computer generated imagery' (CGI) are used. Computers are used to analyze and quantify TV commercials to maximize their effectiveness, and computers are used to animate digital maquettes taken from 'perfect' models. Leigh Taylor-Young's Hi-Tech company has perfected a hypnotic beam of light that can be projected from the eyes of television actors to influence viewers. In another application, the hypno-beam is also a 'time out' weapon that paralyzes its human target into a brief period of suspended consciousness ... sort of like a Super Triple Whammy from Li'l Abner's Evil-Eye Fleegle.
The script connects plastic surgery, beauty-obsessed Hollywood models and a string of serial killings into an easy-to-sell stack of commercial hooks. As a major requirement to make the movie is the hiring of a dozen of Hollywood's most beautiful women, there's even more incentive for the producer. Could Mr. Crichton have been frustrated by the long working hours in Tinseltown, and figured this project was good for a half-year's worth of hot dates?
Looker has a dated synth music score, fashionable (but motivated!) nudity and a 1981 attitude to casual sex in Malibu beach houses. Special emphasis is given to many ideas that are now considered part of humdrum reality -- such as the use of swipe-card IDs to enter secure buildings. Crichton's crystal ball envisions TV commercials that blend CGI and live action, but gets it backwards. Instead of real people matted into fake environments, his evil commercial producers put animated people into real scenery. The computer-obsessed moviemakers also seem to be wasting their time trying to get a real actor to leap into the air in the exact pattern perfected by a computer. Admiring this movie's brilliant but often inverted ideas of future developments is now its most interesting aspect.
Some ideas don't seem very practical, like the robots that move through the digital lab emptying trash bins. At least we see one plugging itself into a wall outlet for a charge. Or is it punching a time clock, like a watchman making his rounds?
Crichton's script stumbles over too many of his good ideas. Using live models as a basis for animated CGI characters is fine, except Looker's villains somehow need to trim millimeters off the real faces here and there, when we should think details like that would be much easier to alter in the digital realm. And why does the corporation need to kill the models after recording their precise dimensions? It's just to provide Looker with a murder mystery format. 1 Illogic rules most of the actions of the bad guys. A security system sounds alarms when Dr. Roberts and Cindy open the wrong door in the secret Looker Lab, but what difference does it make? With no guards or locked doors to stop them, they simply run to their car and drive away. The finale sees James Coburn's main baddie stalking a TV studio with a gun, when he knows darn well that his robot TV cameras are narrow-casting everything he does to his assembled guests. The gun battle in the futuristic TV studio makes for some ironic images --- kids in a cereal commercial are oblivious to a corpse on their breakfast table --- but otherwise the scene is extravagant nonsense.
The movie wants to be sleek and stylish but the average Dario Argento thriller makes it look cheap. When the lighting isn't good the 'fabulous' models can look downright ordinary. Susan Dey is a marvelous presence, somehow bringing her scenes to life under Crichton's ham-fisted direction. The writer-director keeps on ramming home messages about the insidious nature of Television culture. TV is such an easy target that we really don't care.
Finney and Dey are super, but are often sunk by lame expositional lines, edited in whenever their backs are turned to the camera. James Coburn coasts in a thin role and the rest of the parts aren't particularly well directed, with the exception of Darryl Hickman's surgeon. The women playing the models are mostly terrible. Leigh Taylor-Young acts more like a lifeless CGI mannequin than do the fake CGi people, but she always had that effect.
One of the film's tangential ideas is a Lulu. The Looker gun transfixes its victim for a minute or so, allowing the shooter to do whatever he wants ... steal something, get away, commit a murder. From the victim's POV, no time seems to elapse at all, and he can't account for things like sinks that instantaneously overflow with water, or the fact that he's bleeding from an unseen blow. A crazy car chase through Century City ends when Larry gets a jolt from the Looker gun, whereupon he's suddenly in the middle of a decorative fountain. Larry gets out and sees that his car has left the road and rolled a hundred yards through a park to reach the fountain ... but for him, it was all instantaneous. Thanks to Albert Finney's priceless reactions, the gag is very funny.
Warners' DVD of Looker is an excellent enhanced transfer of this fascinating, flawed Sci Fi thriller. Most of us saw it flat on cable TV so the Panavision images will seem fresh. The 'Visible Woman' pose of the naked Dey turning as she's being 'digitized' looks like an eroticized version of the skin-burn scene in The Andromeda Strain.
Michael Crichton provides both a brief introduction and a full commentary for the show, mostly sticking to observations of how his 1981 guesses at future technology panned out. He did quite well on that score, actually. Crichton remembers wanting to make the 'changes' during the Looker gun blackouts be as subtle as possible, but then discovered that if he expected anyone to notice them, they needed to be grossly exaggerated. The same thing must have happened when his producers saw the movie. Rather then let anything be ambiguous, even for a minute, somebody decided to interject all those extra expository dialogue lines. We're constantly reminded where the heroes are, why they're there and what they're doing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good -
Supplements: Intro and commentary by Michael Crichton, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 22, 2007
1. From Shaun K. Chang, 1.24.07::
Dear Glenn: Loved your Looker review. I noticed that you didn't mention any additional scenes that made it into the TV prints. When it premiered on NBC in 1985, about 10 minutes were added to the film between the time Finney and Dey escape from the lab, and the fight in his office later on. That 10 minutes consisted of them being captured by the Tim Rossovich character (the man with the moustache) and brought back to Coburn's house. Coburn explains that the models were murdered to comply with company policy to destroy all files and databases to prevent competitors from gaining access to things they worked on. Eventually, Finney and Dey escape from the house and we end up in the fight sequence at his office. I'm sorry to hear that Warners did not add this as an extra to the DVD. But I can't wait to get the disc. The Looker title song is one of my favorite campy theme songs. I have the 45 RPM vinyl for it, and play it whenever I need a break from lawschool. Also, did you notice Vanna White as one of the extra models in the film? Regards, Shaun
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson