Starring Albert Finney, Susan Dey, and James Coburn
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
A mystery about the murder of models reveals the dangers of corporatism, consumerism, and media domination in this suspenseful sci-fi thriller.
Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) is losing patients. Someone is killing off models, specifically those models who have gone to Dr. Roberts for precise plastic surgery. The plot sounds like that of a typical 1980s thriller, a campy, forgettable bit of entertainment.
However, despite its setting in present-day Los Angeles (as opposed to a dystopian future or a distant planet), Looker, written and directed by author Michael Crichton, is actually a science fiction film, centering on technology that doesn’t yet exist–for example, hypnotic pulses embedded in television images. Like much science fiction, it uses its focus on technological menace to warn of the current dangers of corporatism, consumerism, and media domination. In fact, far from being a light thriller with no purpose other than to entertain, Looker too often uses a thematic cudgel to pound its message to the audience: stop being mindless consumers of television and pay attention to the corporate overlords who threaten to take over the country. However, while the treatment may be heavy-handed, Looker sometimes seems prophetic.
One prominent concept that Looker features as an unknown wave of the future is CGI (computer generated images), something that is now familiar. In the film, the corporate bad guys use computer generated images to manipulate the public into purchasing products and even into voting for politicians. This extrapolation seems like a big stretch from a plot about the dead models.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that it gets so caught up in its cautionary ideas that it forgets to complete the basic mystery that it began with—why the models are being killed. The scene that explains the reason for the murders was cut out of the final film. This scene can be viewed on YouTube, and the explanation—that the corporation was trying to protect its proprietary research and development—may have seemed inadequate and outrageous in 1981 but seems more fitting in our paranoid times.
On the surface, Looker appears to exploit the female body. During the two murders we witness, both models are killed while wearing lingerie. The film contains numerous images of scantily dressed women in bathing suits and underwear. The film’s central set-piece shows a woman’s naked body being scanned for computer animation. (This sequence features the first ever CGI human character in a feature film.)
Yet, this surfeit of female body images suggests that the film is commenting on the exploitation and commoditization of women and their bodies. The initial scene and important background to the film involves beautiful commercial models getting plastic surgery in order to live up to an idealized notion of beauty that will optimize their ability to sell products. The pre-credits sequence features the body of Terri Welles (a real-life Playboy model at the time) entirely desexed and broken down and rebuilt into an image of idealized female beauty.
We learn later in the film that the plastic surgery project failed because the models only retained this idealized form when they were still. When they moved, when they became animate, they no longer matched the ideal. The film shows that the media image of the ideal woman is one no real woman could fulfill. So, the real women must be eliminated and destroyed to maintain the image of perfection.
The lyrics of the film’s theme song, written by Barry De Vorzon and Mike Towers, also highlight the dichotomy between the media images of women and real women (“But when she smiles is she really smilin’/ She’s the only one who really knows,” “The magazines always show her smilin’/So perfect in every way/But in the night, I hear a young girl cryin’”). The repeated line “Always on display” points to the notion of the exploitation of women. That this song is first heard while Welles is strutting around in a black bra and panties creates an interesting irony of exploiting the image of a woman’s body while simultaneously criticizing that exploitation. The riveting electronic music that makes up the score emphasizes the film’s focus on technology and helps create suspense.
The film is aided by the performances of the two leads, Finney as Dr. Roberts and Susan Dey as Cindy, the lone survivor of the models who had plastic surgery to make them perfect. Both actors make their characters seem like real people, who just happen to be caught in an extraordinary situation. Dey portrays Cindy as flirty, intelligent, and ambitious. In one of her best scenes, she goes to visit her parents for comfort, but they are too engrossed in television to notice that something is very wrong with her. Dey isn’t given much dialogue, but her frustration, fear, and disappointment are evident.
Finney helps sell the unconventional storyline by reacting with strength, confidence, and gravity to the increasingly bizarre situation. He has a great scene early on when Dr. Roberts is questioned by the police lieutenant (Dorian Harewood), who suspects Roberts as the murderer. Finney portrays Roberts responding to the questioning coolly and efficiently, with just the right amount of professional competence that borders on arrogance. Harewood, who is great here, hints at the lieutenant’s suspicions without outright revealing them to Roberts.
In addition to Harewood, several supporting performers in the film are excellent, even those with limited screen time. The embodiment of corporatism in the film, John Reston, is played by James Coburn. Coburn’s rich delivery helps ameliorate some of the heavy-handedness of the speeches he’s given. Reston’s partner in crime, Jennifer Long, is played with polished grace by Leigh Taylor Young. Terry Kiser has a great scene as an increasingly frustrated commercial director.
Looker is a lot more thoughtful than a simple summary of its premise would suggest. Its biggest problem, in fact, is focusing too much on the ideas it wants to convey and not enough on simple storytelling. But it manages to be suspenseful and visionary and, certainly, never boring.