It’s always fun to peruse the impressive career of writer-director Michael Crichton, whose brilliant, commercially savvy ideas so often hit the mark. He even invented a plausibly credible dinosaur movie. This 1981 thriller may be his least coherent show, with too many screwy ideas and a supporting cast that needed better direction. Yet it has the winning combination of Albert Finney and Susan Dey, and some very original thriller elements.
Warner Archive Collection
1981 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 93 min. / Street Date September 18, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Albert Finney, Susan Dey, James Coburn, Leigh Taylor-Young, Dorian Harewood, Tim Rossovich, Darryl Hickman, Kathryn Witt, Terri Welles.
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Film Editor: Carl Kress
Production Designer Dean Edward Mitzner
Original Music: Barry DeVorzon
Produced by Howard Jeffrey
Written and Directed by Michael Crichton
Best-selling writer Michael Crichton got into directing early, and by the time of Coma and The Great Train Robbery (both 1978) he had proved that he could put a fully entertaining picture together. His next effort Looker is much less consistent. The good ideas in his science fiction screenplay don’t add up to a convincing paranoid conspiracy thriller, and some shaky performances don’t help either.
Michael Crichton is perhaps Science Fiction’s best-credentialed writer-director. His background as a medical student may have contributed to his success as a technical writer — his far-out concepts in the original Westworld and Jurassic Park are communicated so well that we want to believe them. Crichton’s films usually center 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 classic Sci-fi salad, had the basic mystery storytelling been better. Albert Finney and Susan Dey are excellent but the sputtering, fumbling movie adds up to a missed opportunity.
A strong factor on the plus side is that Crichton’s crystal ball for predictions is as prescient as ever. The film imagines a time when video technology will be able to fabricate artificial actors, in this case for television commercials. The process shown vaguely resembles later Motion Capture techniques that are even now in the process of being perfected.
Welcome to glitzy Century City. Celebrity plastic surgeon Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) doesn’t realize it, but he’s about to be framed by a complex political/corporate conspiracy. Roberts becomes a murder suspect when three of his patients, all glamorous advertising models, die under suspicious circumstances. Larry explains to Lieutenant Masters (Dorian Harewood) that all three came to him with ridiculously precise cosmetic changes. He then remembers that a fourth model, Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey) has done the exact same thing, and becomes worried for her safety. Without telling Cindy why, Larry spends the weekend with her. She is surprised when he doesn’t try to bed her in his house in Malibu. Larry accompanies Cindy on a tour of the vast high-tech plant owned by Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young), where Cindy’s ‘perfect’ dimensions are recorded into a computer. Who is killing the girls? Who is the man with the mustache seen on the balcony of one of the victims? What does TV commercial mogul John Reston (James Coburn) have to do with it all? And why does Larry experience strange ‘blackout’ episodes, where he loses minutes of time and can’t account for his state of unconsciousness?
The late 1970s was an era of plastic glamour, as reflected in TV shows like Charlie’s Angels (1976) and satirized in Blake Edwards’ “10” (1979). Fashion and advertising models had the edge on many film roles. Looker doesn’t quite communicate the toxic artificiality of this. We instead spend a lot of time being voyeurs, looking at Dr. Roberts’ nude clinical photos, following his dress-for-seduction clients, and watching Susan Dey being mapped and digitized by a giant 3-D scanner. I can really see Looker being rushed into development and production. The murder victims are gorgeous models, who get a lot of screen time; we can just see a studio executive hoping that the project will guarantee him a half-year’s worth of hot dates. Looker must also have appealed to sex-starved tech professionals, even if the phrase ‘come up and see my etchings’ never became ‘come up and let me digitally map your body.’
The script connects plastic surgery, beauty-obsessed Hollywood models and a string of serial killings into an easy-to-sell stack of commercial hooks. The problem is that the mystery is so quickly outpaced by the sci-fi fun, that we lose patience with our slow-witted hero. The scenes of Albert Finney and Susan Dey sneaking into labs, climbing over rooftops, and dodging standard-issue killers with guns just drag the picture down. As always, the bad guys don’t realize that the game is over as soon as Dr. Roberts knows what’s happening. Dr. Roberts doesn’t do anything sensible, like tell James Coburn’s evil corporate boss that it’s pointless to keep trying to have him killed, because the truth will come out anyway.
Looker is indeed a kitchen sink movie of Sci Fi ideas, some of which have entered our everyday reality. Some ‘little’ things are worth mentioning. The high-tech plant is maintained by fairly unconvincing janitor robots, that Roberts and Cindy use to enter a secret lab. At the front of the building they pause to put their stolen security swipe-card in an access slot. I honestly can’t remember exactly when credit cards were given magnetic swipe strips. Seeing the technology highlighted makes us think of all the daily tech advances we now take for granted.
Now, the Big Concepts. In 1981 there digital imaging was in its relative infancy, limited by the computers of the day. The words ‘computer generated imagery’ (CGI) are heard in one conversation. Leigh Taylor-Young uses computers to maximize the effectiveness of TV commercials. A device records which parts of an image a viewer looks at first; we aren’t surprised when women’s bodies are the obvious focus point. Across a cut, the commercial product is placed in the same position where a model’s chest was one frame before. The example shown doesn’t really require computer analysis. Many film directors have taken advantage of this eye direction/misdirection idea.
The scanning of actors to create digital models for CGI work has been a standard for 25 years now. Looker’s human scanner does predict the creation of artificial actors, even if we don’t see how the computers give their digital maquettes realistic motion and expressions. The computer-obsessed commercial makers struggle trying to get a real actor to leap into the air in the exact pattern requested by a computer. Motion Capture technology would seem to be indicated!
Michael Crichton touches on this same Fake Video idea in his 1992 novel Rising Sun, when not using the book to demonize Japanese business trends. He proposes that new digital techniques for manipulating video images will render photo evidence legally suspect, invalid. His evil Japanese video magicians digitally replace a murderer’s face in some security footage with that of a man they want to frame for the crime. Nowadays, mapping new faces onto actors is standard trick in movie effects. Whole performances can be swapped out, when necessary. We have no guarantee that the actors we see acting, are… the actors we see acting.
Crichton’s crystal ball predicts TV commercials that blend CGI and live action, but gets the process backwards. Instead of (mostly) real people matted into fake environments, James Coburn’s evil commercials put animated people into real scenery. An entire floor of his corporate headquarters is covered with elaborate sets of kitchens, automobile showrooms etc., and filmed with robot cameras. The whole point of faking backgrounds, whether through backdrops or mattes, was always to save time and money constructing sets. Long before 3-D CGI backgrounds, automatic chroma-key matting was used to simulate expensive sets and scenery. Crichton’s scheme seems an extension of Douglas Trumbull’s experimental video process called Magicam. It combined live-action actors with miniatures by locking together two cameras, on side-by side sets built in differing scales. It was overly complicated and visually limited. And the miniature sets weren’t cheap to construct, either.
Crichton’s imaginative ‘Magicam’-like setup enables a grandiose climactic set piece. A live audience watches a commercial demo being created before their eyes. Robot cameras stalk around the vacant kitchen set, and the computers insert the digital actors in real time. The Hitchcock-like joke is that Albert Finney is hiding on the robotic set, and is simultaneously engaged in a shoot-out with James Coburn and his henchman. On the screens downstairs, men with guns are mingling with the digital actors selling breakfast cereal. As a thematic pun, Crichton is implying that advertising is aggressive criminal activity.
That gag isn’t as funny as it should be because James Coburn’s character should realize that his actions with a gun are all being watched by his guests downstairs — the red lights say which robot cameras are active. Crichton said that he wanted the film to have many subtle effects, but the shots showing gunmen and corpses in the middle of TV spots don’t look right — the unwanted human figures shouldn’t be integrated into the blocking compositions, but they are.
Although using live models as a basis for animated CGI characters is just fine, the idea becomes strained when the villains need Dr. Roberts to fine-tune the models, trimming millimeters off the real noses, faces and breasts. Details like that would seemingly be much more easily altered in the digital realm. The computers could combine parts of different models, if desired. And why is it so important for the corporation to kill the models after recording their precise dimensions? It’s just to provide Looker with a murder mystery format.
Hurting the final scene is the realization that Coburn and Taylor-Young’s characters had no reason to create the TV spots ‘live’ for their party guests — they would have just played back a completed tape instead. The few laughs obtained by the clever shoot-out in the movie studio come with altogether too much effort.
Looker can’t resist pulling in even more Big Concepts.
James Coburn’s digital commercials aren’t just going to sell products more efficiently, they’re going to be used to elect a fraudulent politician and take over the country. Leigh Taylor-Young’s hi-tech company has also perfected an hypnotic beam of light that can be projected from the eyes of television actors to influence viewers. This effect is supposed to happen with normal TVs, so it must be part of the TV signal. It would seem related to the same hypnotic, Philip K. Dickian consciousness-altering TV signal in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. The eyes of commercial characters glow when they’re telling viewers what to buy. When Coburn’s bogus political candidate says ‘vote for me,’ everyone watching will presumably be compelled to do so, as if hypnotized by the children of Village of the Damned. The eyes on TV glow, just like the moppets in the horror movie.
This take-over-the-world idea pushes Looker into a much bigger arena, where the small-scale sneaking around and assassinations just aren’t all that interesting — Coburn’s John Reston’s feeble attempts to control Dr. Roberts seem very lightweight.
But the film’s second application of the hypno-beam is a Lulu. Placed in a ‘Looker Gun,’ the beam becomes 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. With his target person thus transfixed, the shooter can do whatever he wants … steal something, get away, commit a murder. From the victim’s POV, no time seems to elapse at all. He can’t account for things like sinks that instantaneously overflow with water, or the fact that he’s bleeding from his lip. A crazy car chase through Century City ends when Larry Roberts gets a jolt from the Looker gun, whereupon he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a decorative fountain. Larry gets out and sees that his car has left the road and rolled through a park to reach the fountain … but for him, it was all instantaneous. The gag is very funny, thanks to Albert Finney’s priceless reaction.
I suppose that veteran Sci-fi fans see the Looker Gun as a refinement of a 1963 Twilight Zone episode, in which A Kind of Stopwatch causes time to stand still.
Looker has a dated synth music score, fashionable (but motivated!) nudity and a 1981 attitude to casual sex in Malibu beach houses. The movie wants to be sleek and stylish but it looks cheap in comparison to the average Dario Argento thriller. When the lighting isn’t good the ‘fabulous’ models can look downright ordinary. On top of his farfetched conspiracy, Crichton tosses in some lazy digs about the insidious nature of Television culture. TV is such an easy target that we really don’t care.
Albert Finney and Susan Day are so good and likable that we don’t mind that he’s stuck playing 3rd-rate thriller scenes, and that her character seems too sweet and honest to be yet another Tinsel Town supermodel wannabe. More often than not their scenes are harmed by lame expositional lines, added words edited in whenever their backs are turned to the camera: “I’ve got to stop him!” It’s as if the filmmakers decided that audiences wouldn’t follow the story or understand why Dr. Roberts is doing what he’s doing.
The Great Train Robbery had a terrific cast that likely needed little in the way of direction, but in Looker we see Crichton struggling with many of the performances. With perhaps the exception of Darryl Hickman’s surgeon, nobody else seems well cast or directed. James Coburn coasts in a thin, poorly written role that places his nasty conspiratorial nature right out in the open. Some of the actresses playing the models just aren’t good enough — if we’re supposed to care, they really need to be convincing. The first one can’t read her lines at all. She’s then seen walking to her door in her underwear, to greet somebody. Instead of defending the models, the show makes them into pea-brained bimbos. Leigh Taylor-Young has a slightly larger part, but she’s no Helen Hayes either. Her executive schemer acts more like a lifeless CGI mannequin than do the fake CGI people. I’ve seen Taylor-Young give okay performances, but critics were never pleased.
The film works best when we just admire the fun Michael Crichton has with his brilliant predictions of future developments. In that way Looker is a bit like Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Looking just eight years into the future, Wenders’ film imagines dozens of credible advancements, technical and social. He didn’t predict smart phones or The Internet, but he did predict another handheld personal electronic device that would dominate its users.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Looker is a sharp and attractive transfer of this fascinating, flawed Sci-fi thriller. If you first saw it flat on cable TV, the wide 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.
The late Michael Crichton provides both a brief introduction and a full commentary, 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 people would notice them only if they were 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.
When I reviewed the Looker DVD in 2007, correspondent and friend Shaun K. Chang wrote in to tell me about a missing scene:
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 ten minutes were added to the film right after Finney and Dey escape from the lab. That ten minutes consists 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 proprietary secrets. Eventually, Finney and Dey escape from the house and we end up in the fight sequence at his office. 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 law school. Also, did you notice Vanna White as one of the extra models in the film? Regards, Shaun.
Warners must have read Shaun’s note. They have rounded up a flat encoding of the TV version and have added its missing nine minutes or so as another extra for the Blu-ray. Although things do get cleared up a bit — the girls are eliminated because they’re now considered corporate assets that must not fall into the hands of competitors — the story premise still feels trite. And poor James Coburn must make his speech like a bad James Bond villain, carefully confessing his entire conspiracy to two people he intends to kill in a few minutes.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good –
Supplements: Intro and commentary by Michael Crichton, deleted scene, trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 27, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson