Director Michael Crichton’s Sci-Fi Gem “Looker,” A Satirical Take On Beauty, Media, And Consumerism
Everyone out there knows Michael Crichton, right? You may not know his name, but you sure as heck know the many projects he’s written or Directed over the years. Here are just a few: Jurassic Park, Westworld, E.R., Twister, The Andromeda Strain, and too many more to mention.
His work tends to be cautionary in nature: he told tales of how technology, while it is inherently a boon for society, can be a quite problematic if bad actors use it for their own selfish gains.
One of his lesser known works is the 1981 sci-fi film Looker, which he wrote and Directed. After The Vietnam War and Watergate, the public’s distrust in the government and corporations grew and grew. As a result, the “government/corporate conspiracy” genre was born.
Cinema, at its core, is more than just entertainment. It is also a mirror into the collective psyche of the world at large. During the post WW2 period, the fear of nuclear annihilation was palpable. Filmmakers recognized this, and for decades dozens and dozens of sci-fi movies came out, ruminating on the evils of the atomic age, usually getting the message across by concocting a monster that was created by the careless use of nuclear power. Them! (giant ants), Godzilla (giant lizard), Tarantula (giant spiders), the list goes on and on. They seem cheesy now, but back in the day these films struck a chord with the general population, because the fear of death by nukes was far more immediate than it is today.
In his day, Crichton was at the vanguard of the “evil corporation” genre of storytelling, and most of his works hit the viewers right in the gut, preying on their primal fear of being controlled or manipulated by a faceless enemy. Be it the dinos in Jurassic Park, or the suddenly self aware robots killing the patrons in Westworld, his stories touched a nerve with the film going public.
The cynicism in his works plays into the public’s inherent distrust of any agency of power or authority. Once folks became aware the government would lie with impunity at every opportunity, or that companies would do anything and everything to sell their products regardless of the impact on society, it was ingrained in entertainment creators from that point on to mirror that angst.
Looker’s Failed Attempt At Satire
The story itself is fairly unique for its time: successful L.A. plastic surgeon Dr. Larry Roberts (played earnestly by Albert Finney) is approached by 4 beautiful TV commercial models, each asking for incredibly minute alterations (down to mere millimeters) to their faces. Roberts learns they have been asked to meet a standard of “perfection” by the company Digital Matrix, a computer-imaging outfit owned by Reston Industries. Nowadays it's obvious this setup doesn’t pass the smell test: Reston Industries MUST have something evil going on, right? Well, they do.
The models, once they meet the beauty standard, have their entire bodies scanned by an imaging computer, so their digital recreations can be used for commercials without the models actually being present on set. The ladies get a sweet 200K/year for the rights to use their images. Sounds great, until the beauties start dying. It’s always something, isn’t it?
Roberts fears being implicated in the killings, since he worked on the 3 dead girls. Cindy, played in cheeky fashion by Partridge Family alum Susan Dey, is the only living model left. Together they attempt to save themselves, while also trying to root out the conspiracy.
The fun part of the flick revolves around what L.O.O.K.E.R. (Light-Ocular-Oriented-Kinetic- Emotive-Response, for short) really is. Reston has come up with a thingy that sends out subliminal messaging right from the computer generated performers in the commercials, through the TV box, straight into the subconscious of the viewer.
While it can be effectively used to sell crap, the true intention of Reston comes in the last act, when we learn that the current candidate for President has aligned with Reston (played with deliciously sinister aplomb by James Coburn), the goal being to send out “vote for me” messaging from the digital version of the candidate into the noggins of all the poor saps out there watching.
One of the main gimmicks used in the action sequences is the “Looker Gun,” a hand-held version of the L.O.O.K.E.R. program. Instead of sending subliminal messages, the gun basically zaps you, causing the victim to be hypnotized until it wears off. The Reston henchman uses it to immobilize and kill the models, and he also freezes Roberts in his apartment for hours at a time to search for incriminating evidence. The zap-ee experiences lost time (pretty much like the neuralyzer Will Smith used in the Men In Black movies), which rightfully freaks Roberts out. The only way to avoid the effects is to don some reflective Terminator-like shades.
The back and forth use of the Looker gun by both sides has its clever moments, but it wears thin by the end.
Crichton intended the movie to be a satire. The climax, showing the good and bad guys having a ridiculous shootout in the middle of computer generated commercials, is silly fun. At the end, Reston lies hemorrhaging from a gunshot wound during a commercial for a brand of toothpaste called “Spurt.” A little on the nose, don’t you think?
Crichton Predicts The Future
Here’s what Crichton told Advertising Age in 1981 about his thought process while creating Looker:
“From the beginning, I tried to write what I thought was a ridiculous story where people were enticed by computer-animated images. It was meant to be a comedy originally. Then when we went around to animation houses asking for bids, this odd thing happened, which was that nobody we talked to said, ‘what a bizarre idea’ or ‘how silly.’ Finally we had a guy who said, ‘Well, of course you know everyone’s doing this work … this is the hot new field.'”
In present day however, this is common practice. Actor Andy Serkis has made a career of having his image scanned, then acting to computer generated characters (Snoke in 2 Star Wars movies, Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboots, and Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films). Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o has done the same for 2 Star Wars installments. As a matter of fact, long deceased actor Peter Cushing’s face was digitally placed over the body of a live actor for Star Wars: Rogue One, reprising his role as Grand Moff Tarkin from the original Star Wars decades ago.
Crichton was particularly prescient in Looker regarding beauty, media consumption, and the lengths corporations will go to in order to gain control of our hearts and minds, but the execution of the film comes off as neither satire nor thriller, just a half baked mess. These themes were presented in a far more creepy and compelling way in the David Cronenberg masterpiece Videodrome, which I highly recommend checking out.
Crichton should, however, be commended for his forward thinking ideas, even though he didn’t deliver this time.
Photos: The Ladd Company, Warner Brothers