Thursday, April 29, 2010

LOOKER (1981)


For members of my generation, Looker was a must-see on HBO due to the fact that Laurie Partridge (a.k.a. Susan Dey) had a full-frontal nude scene in a PG movie. The muddled plot and dull story went completely over our heads at the time in wake of the taboo. Granted, it’s all very clinical, just a scene of her standing nude, body scanned by lasers, but it was PG—we didn’t have to sneak out to watch it! And it would be several more years before Sheena brought a new level of PG nudity, to be banished forever by the PG-13. Still, for years, little else about the movie stuck in my pre-pubescent mind—just that scene and a teeth-grindingly infectious theme song.

There is a danger when revisiting older movies and finding surprising relevancy that you come away with the feeling that the movie is actually an unappreciated masterpiece. Michael Crichton’s Looker is a prime example of this danger. By the time the credits roll, you run the risk of being so impressed by its prescience that you’re convinced that it’s much better than it actually is. It’s not a misconception that can doom you, necessarily, or even make you appear particularly foolish at fancy parties. So perhaps it’s less “danger” and more “misfortune” because there is a good movie inside Looker begging to be let out.

Four television models have come to renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) in desperation for nearly undetectable cosmetic tweaking. One woman insists that her nose is .2 milimeters too narrow and her cheekbones .4 millimeters too high. The other women have similar complaints. Dr. Larry consents to these expensive adjustments only to discover much later that each woman has died, either via accidents or suicides. What’s worse, thanks to some conveniently-found evidence linking him to the victims, Dr. Larry is the chief suspect in what has rapidly become a murder investigation (for once, the police are not depicted as utter dolts).

Dr. Larry’s attempts to clear himself lead him to Digital Matrix, a computer-imaging company owned by the Reston Industries. Using groundbreaking technology, Digital Matrix takes full-body laser scans of models and creates a reusable, programmable virtual actor or actress. The human gets a paycheck-for-life in exchange for their image rights, thus effectively ending their professional career. This idea came about from intense marketing research and nearly-fanatical focus-testing. Previous live models used in commercials, four of them Dr. Larry’s clients, were found to be “nearly perfect” within a fraction of a percent among viewing audiences, but when the women moved, it distracted the viewer from the product being sold. With the computer-generated actors, the commercial programmer could more easily control the eye’s focus. Using a subliminal flash hidden in the CG-eyes, the viewer is also hypnotically compelled to not only want the product but need it. This tech also led to the development of a hypno gun utilizing a light flash, during which the “frozen” victim, completely hypnotized and unaware of the passage of time, can be manipulated, physically, to do anything.

That’s a lot of technobabble MacGuffin for one minor little science-fiction pot-boiler, which was the film’s primary detraction during its initial release, but it’s precisely what makes it seem so relevant today. Almost as if Crichton could see into the future, he took the notion of subliminal advertising (as explored in publications like Subliminal Seduction in the ‘70s) and combined it with the infancy of computer-aided entertainment and crafted a potentially-intriguing corporate mystery. Adding additional weight to it all is the casting of Albert Finney and James Coburn. The two actors are solid throughout, even when shooting at each other with the glorified flashlight guns (a pun on the title, which obviously refers to the perfect models but also L.O.O.K.E.R. (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses)—i.e. the hypno-flashy-thingie and forebear of the Men in Black mind-erasing flashy-thingie).

While Crichton had played with the equation of technology+entertainment x greed=nogoodnicking a lot during his career (Westworld, Jurassic Park), his little Jules Verne moments in Looker are overshadowed by his optimism. A consumer-driven society manipulated by advertising corporations didn’t seem evil enough at the time, so he inserted a bit of political hoopla into the works, with the technology ultimately used for election fixing, completely undercutting the satire of the first two-thirds of the film. Which is, unfortunately, what keeps Looker from being anything more than a surprising little oddity given worthwhile relevance over time. Because the really intriguing notions are not the hypnotism and manipulation but the “moving props” created by computers.

To wit: a few years back, an actress friend of mine announced proudly that she was going to be in The Dark Knight. Further explanation revealed that she—just as Susan Dey’s character in Looker—was paid to visit a CGI house to receive a full-body scan. Her image was then saved in a hard drive to be inserted into crowd scenes whenever she was needed. Because she was paid a flat fee, her image could also be used for other movies that house worked on, present or future. In a sense, she had sold her rights to be a live extra, eliminating not only work for her but for Second Assistant Directors, Extras Casting, Background Actor Houses and large-scale Craft Services. 2010, meet 1981 (by way of 1984).

In Looker, these digital actors can be plunked into pre-shot scenes or even “keyed” into live commercials, as evidenced by the climactic shootout during a tech press conference. Most insidious, however, is the “need” for these CG actors arising from “real” women and men failing to meet the industry standard of “perfection”. No matter how beautiful or thin a woman is she is still a few millimeters off of 99.9%. Impossibly high standards for beauty are measured against cold scientific statistics, all in the name of selling perfume or cereal. The flashy-thingie time-stopping gun is fun for the visuals, the political scam gives a sense of urgency, but the artificial models borne out of dissatisfaction with genuine beauty is the genuine chiller of the story.

Encapsulating all of this thick theme and thin plot is a confusing story and lackluster direction. Prior to its release, Warner Brothers chopped Looker into bits in an attempt to hide the fact that the story isn’t very interesting. In fact, the entire motivation for Reston killing the models wound up on the cutting room floor, relegated to the television cut, taking the place of the required removal of copious amounts of clinical nudity to suit the FCC. As Coburn’s character explains in a lengthy deleted scene, the women themselves were the “templates” for the CG models—basically the blueprints. So to keep them out of the hands of the competition, “the forms were shredded”. This scene has been removed from all commercial VHS and DVD prints without even gracing a Special Features menu. Just this little addition could have kept Looker in satire and allowed a modern viewer to feel a little better about wasting his or her time watching it. Instead, substance was sliced away in favor of style—surgically, mirroring the theme that what’s inside isn’t important.

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