She’s a looker. She’s got it all and she’s got it made.
Looker is a perfect encapsulation of the 80s media culture with its emphasis on beauty and perfection. It accurately predicted new technological breakthroughs and the potential pitfalls of the same. Unfortunately it’s not the most eloquent film, as we’ll explore.
The trailer for Looker is about beauty, vanity, and Hollywood. Someone is killing beautiful actresses that have undergone plastic surgery. How is this science-fiction you ask? The trailer doesn’t provide the clue, but read on and all will be answered.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
A commercial actress and model named Lisa Convey (Terri Welles) comes into Dr. Larry Roberts’ (Albert Finney) plastic surgery offices with a specific list of work she needs done, down to the millimeter. He performs the work, just as he’s done for three other women. One evening in her apartment, after she had healed from the surgery, Lisa answers the door (in lingerie and heels no less) only to be attacked by an unseen assailant. She becomes disoriented by several strange flashes of light and falls from her open window to her death.
On Friday September 28, Dr. Roberts is met by Lt. Masters (Dorian Harewood) at his office who informs him of the death of Lisa, as well as Susan Wilson. The officer notices a missing button on Dr. Robert’s coat and a monogrammed pen, both things that were planted at the scene of Lisa’s death. Roberts continues his day and meets with Cindy (Susan Dey) who is coming in for a follow up and to provide a new chart due to her older one having gone missing. Tina Cassidy (Kathryn Witt), the 4th model, shows up later acting paranoid, knowing someone is out to get her.
She leaves suddenly, leaving her purse, so Roberts looks inside and finds a list of measurements from Digital Matrix Inc. (DMI). He heads over to her apartment to see what is wrong but shows up just in time to see her leap from her balcony, apparently committing suicide. Lt. Masters shows up shortly to find Roberts in the apartment, making him seem even more of a suspect. He is allowed to leave and finds Cindy at a photo shoot and invites her to dinner at John Reston’s (James Coburn), a famous industrialist and commercial director. It’s all under the guise of friendship, but Roberts feels he needs to keep an eye on her.
The next day Roberts takes Cindy to her commercial shoot for Hawaiian Tropic at a beach location. She is having difficulty making all the correct moves as requested by the DMI software on set. They offer to have her scanned at their offices later that day. At the DMI facility, Cindy is scanned by a computer to make a digital model of her, while Roberts is shown around by Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young), Reston’s wife and business partner in DMI. Suspicious, Roberts steals a key card and returns with Cindy later that evening to get a look into the LOOKER lab, a room where they are experimenting with a Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses gun. They are attacked by a moustached man (Tim Rossovich) with a Looker gun which causes them to lose time.
Commercials are being tested with audiences and, based on pupillary scans of these test viewers, are being perfected to optimally sell the products. Roberts discovers that the Looker technology is being inserted into these commercials, which are being perfected with the digital actors. It can make people more susceptible to the advertising, and is targeted down to the millimeter–hence the “cut list.” Cindy is abducted by moustache man from the doctors office. The following morning, Sunday, Larry is being chased by the two men in his car while they fire Looker guns at each other. He is hit and ends up in a fountain. He sneaks into a DMI security vehicle which gets him into the Reston Industries complex in Los Angeles. Stealing a security guard’s uniform he sneaks into the event where John Reston is presenting his new digital actor commercials to the shareholders.
Unexpectedly, Reston starts the presentation with a speech from Senator Robert Harrison (Michael Hawkins), who is actually a digital construct programmed to say what Reston wants it to say, and influence the shareholders with the subliminal Looker pulses. Moustache man accidentally shoots Jennifer in the DMI control room, where she is holding Cindy hostage. Reston, seeing Roberts on the TV monitors heads into the studio and shoots moustache man while aiming for Roberts. Lt. Masters, who has been following Roberts intervenes and shoots Reston on camera, as the shareholders watch. Roberts finds and rescues Cindy and the two walk off into the “sunset,” planning their first date together.
“The American government forces our children to attend school, but nobody forces them to watch T.V. Americans of all ages submit to television. Television is the American ideal. Persuasion without coercion.” – John Reston
History in the Making
Looker is a slightly cheesy and mostly banal story of a 1981 where corporations unleash technology on an unsuspecting populace in order to pad their bottom line. It’s also a cautionary tale of beauty and hubris with all the problems that this new technology creates. Its themes are chilling for the time, but might possibly have been dismissed as too far-fetched in 1981. I’m here from the 21st Century to tell you that Looker was more prescient than it seemed at the time, but did not have the oomph and focus to tell anything more than a television movie-of-the-week style story. The potential is there for a much harder-edged film, but unfortunately there were too many loose ends to tie up.
Looker was the fourth film directed by Michael Crichton and the third original story, not based on one of his novels, that he directed for film. Anyone familiar with Crichton’s work to date, which includes Westworld and Coma–both written and directed by Crichton for the screen–and The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man adapted by other filmmakers, know that the author/director creates near-future scenarios that are scientifically and socially thoughtful. Looker is no different. Crichton crafts an interesting premise that unfortunately his directing skills are not up to executing, except at the most cursory levels.
The film’s import, however, was something that wasn’t understood at the time. Crichton conceived of a technology that was able to capture the look and personality of a person, store it in a computer and then use it again at the operator’s request to make a digital double–ostensibly for commercials. But John Reston has other ideas for the technology which also includes the brainwashing/hypnotizing aspects of the LOOKER device. As fantastical as this premise sounded in 1981, these elements have been frighteningly realized 40 years later. They’re not exactly as Crichton described but there is enough similarity to modern life that it makes him look like a seer. Maybe he just understood the human condition a little better than most.
As Sci-Fi Saturdays has explored over the past few months, science-fiction films at this time were melding themselves with any other genre they could find. Love stories, westerns, and spy movies all paired up with the sci-fi genre to create a new hybrid. Looker continues that trend by joining with the thriller to create a techno-thriller of sorts. It’s a modern day film, but with suitable advancements in one or two areas that drive the plot of the film, hence the sci-fi aspect.
As a genre piece however Looker doesn’t have the common tropes associated with the majority of sci-fi films. No space ships or warfare, no aliens and laser pistols either, but Looker looks ahead. Artificial Intelligence and evil (well, morally flexible) corporations have as much right to be in a sci-fi film as any of those other things. And these elements were ones that would only increase later in the decade. And these elements are provided in spades, formulating what is logically a chilling premise, but comes off as more superfluous.
Perhaps the biggest and most obvious element of Looker is the focus on the looks and perfection of the female models. The 70s and 80s were a time where increased emphasis was placed primarily on women to achieve a desired look, even going so far as to utilize plastic surgery to alter their natural look. Looker takes that pursuit of perfection to an even higher degree with the models needing work done down to the millimeter. As the audience studies from Digital Matrix come back, computer modeling shows specific changes that need to be made to the models to create the perfect woman. The film presents this beauty as an objective fact, rather than opting for “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The models are of course all white, relatively leggy, hovering around the 36-24-36 Playboy ideal of beauty. In fact the models (except for Susan Dey) were all former Playboy models.
The problem with presenting this look at beauty is a double-edged sword. Looker apparently falls into the same trap that it’s trying to critique by depicting the women as objects. The majority of time spent with Lisa, on-screen, she is dressed in lingerie and high heels, being ogled by the camera. Susan Dey, while attractive does not fall into the same physicality as the other women in the film, but she too is subjected to long takes of the “male gaze,” including an extended nude scene where her character is being scanned for the commercials. It seems as if Crichton was actually enjoying having nude and near-nude women on the set, and wanted to shoot as much footage of them as he could.
All this preamble about the perfect model is provided by research that points to the audience testing of the commercials. DMI discovers that minor changes will help redirect the eyes of the audience towards the product, helping to better sell the product. But Digital Matrix doesn’t stop there. They need the models to move in specific ways that aren’t reproducible by the now flawless models. So they turn to digital actors that look and perform perfectly. Now the perfect spokesperson can sell Spurt toothpaste or Believe perfume with enhanced connection to the audience. Looker depicts multiple in-universe commercials that look like the same garbage being broadcast on televisions at the time. But the ones in the film have even another layer of corporate deviousness as they contain a hidden code making the audience more susceptible to the pitch. Devious when it’s promoting floor wax or toothpaste, but even more evil when Reston decides to use the same technology to create a political ad from the Senator he’s promoting. The film shows that Reston and his group are creating the evil ads on both sides; a commercial that sells indiscriminately as well as the pitch against “faceless corporations with their expensive media campaigns,” as the digital double for Senator Harrison explains. Imagine current political commercials using this sort of technology.
The Science in The Fiction
The study of media and selling is not a new concept. Advertisers perform audits on their commercials with groups of people to gauge different responses. Fitting the optimal amount of sex, product placement, and memorability into a 30-second blip is more a science, even in 1981, than it was a decade before. But Looker goes even further claiming that Digital Matrix has discovered a series of light impulses that induce amnesia and provide a hypnotic state. Dubbed LOOKER in the film, which stands for Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses, they insert this pulse into the commercials at moments when the spokesperson is trying to sell the product. Whether it’s Lisa and her perfume or the Senator speaking about the downfall of society, the TV audience would be more susceptible to the pitch. They also turned this technology into a gun, since apparently the perfection of the human body was not as easily controlled as they thought, and they needed a way to “blind” the models so they could be assassinated.
This still sounds absurd though. Companies can’t actually program the audiences to buy more products or to believe certain political views, right? Not in the way that film predicts, but right now in 2021 there are devious corporations that do program their products to work with the natural responses from the human body to encourage use. Dopamine is a chemical secreted by the body, a neurotransmitter, that plays a role in how humans feel pleasure. It is released at various times including when we take a bite of delicious food, when we have sex, after we exercise, and, importantly, when we have successful social interactions. Social media companies design their software to “train” people into producing dopamine, and then using that “high” to drive engagement. A Harvard article about the process notes that “Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold ‘likes’ on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. So when you make your post, you may be disappointed to find less responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on.” Sounds suspiciously like the process being used in the film!
The film also predicted the creation and use of CGI characters and deep fakes. It seems as if the original plan for Reston Industries was to use plastic surgery on models to perfect them and then use them to sell their products with or without the use of the LOOKER technology. When the perfect looking models could not perform perfect moves, they were body scanned and converted into a digital actor, before being killed (apparently to keep them from saying that they weren’t the ones in the commercial). Of course at this time the “computer generated actors” were played by the real actors, indicating precisely how realistic the simulations were. There was also some form of AI that controlled how the digital doubles acted, extremely similar to many computer simulated doubles today. With recent advances in technology, such as the deep fake, where one person can be substituted into a video for another person, the line between reality and fiction continues to blur.
The Final Frontier
While CGI rendering of realistic characters was still decades away (the first photorealistic depictions of people in CGI would show up in the late 90s), Looker did use a computer to render a 3D, polygonal shape of Cindy’s face and shade it in as a transition between a wireframe scan and the substitution of actual footage of Susan Dey as the computer actor. All of this (in a short sequence) was about a year before TRON which contains a much more extensive use of computer graphics to generate objects, but not people. The first “humanoid” use of computer technology would be a rudimentary stained glass knight from Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985.
Looker has some great ideas about media culture, beauty, and the misuse of technology but never gets beyond seeming like a made-for TV film. Albert Finney is not an action star, and the film has problems with the flow due to editing and story structure. There are things that are just not as clear as they could be, and that’s a shame, since the themes of the film are more important now than they were in 1981. From the police detective who is investigating/not investigating Roberts to the actual motives of James Coburn and his company, the film is all over the place. But that’s how it goes, since it seems that Crichton’s movies written for the screen, while interesting, are never as good as the films that are adapted from his books.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.