Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie Reivew: Looker (1981)

These days most people associate the late Michael Crichton with blockbuster successes like Jurassic Park and ER. Although I enjoy his post-80’s output, my favorites will always be his directorial efforts with Looker and Runaway. Both are focused on his concerns about where technology is taking us, particularly when it runs amok. It’s hard to pick a favorite but I’d have to give Looker the edge, and it’s all the more interesting/prophetic given the advent of CGI. The film is about what might happen if computers advanced to the point that virtual actors could be produced for the advertising world, and certainly we’re just about there (if we aren’t already). Crichton posits that evil companies would take advantage, doing everything from killing actresses and models, to implanting subliminal messages in the mind of the viewer. I don’t know if anything like that has ever happened behind the scenes (let’s hope not), but luckily in the case of Looker Albert Finney is on hand to take care of the situation. Yes Albert Finney. Along for the ride is some wildly dated 80’s fashion and music, but thankfully they don’t diminish an otherwise exciting thriller.

Albert Finney plays Dr. Larry Roberts, a highly successful plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. After one of his patients, a beautiful model, dies under mysterious circumstances, he begins to look closer at a disturbing trend. Recently models have been coming in with very specific requests for adjustments that are aimed at making them “perfect.” While investigating the situation Roberts’ latest patient and potential love interest Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey), invites him to come with her to a job prep session at a company called Digital Matrix Inc. There she is subjected to a full body scan, in which her image is downloaded into a computer. Following the session she is later provided with a list of improvements to achieve the perfect look, prompting Roberts to put two and two together. Also it turns out that frequent villain James Coburn runs the company which is never a good sign. Roberts and Fairmont spend the rest of the movie in a cat and mouse game with the Digital Matrix baddies, who are planning to use the computer models to implant subliminal messages in the minds of the American consumer.

You have to hand it to Crichton, although his concepts can be at times far-fetched, there’s usually a nugget or two that are eerily on target. In the case of Looker he nailed the development that digital actors and actresses would someday become a reality. The first instance that many would likely identify as the warning shot across the bow would be Jar Jar Binks. If that wasn’t an ominous portent of things to come, I don’t know what is. Mark Hamill is noted as saying that George Lucas prefers the puppets to actors, and in some ways that attitude is understandable. After all it’s far easier to manipulate zeroes and ones than a human being with whom one must negotiate to produce a performance. Apparently James Cameron is a student of this school of thought, as he spent the past 10 years developing a technology that makes Lucas’s commitment to a human free cinema positively half-hearted. Avatar clearly shows that real-looking fake characters are more than possible. Now if they can get the voice piece down we are living the dream (or nightmare) of Looker.

Honestly I’m of two minds on whether this digital actor business is good or bad. On the surface I’m guessing most people would react negatively to the thought of traditional actors being replaced by entirely digital counterparts. I’m not a big fan of CGI to begin with, but that may be due largely to the generation in which I came of age. I like practical effects, even though I can occasionally appreciate something with a lot of computer imagery (e.g. The Matrix). Even so, given our culture’s obsession with celebrity, it’s hard to imagine we’d be willing to let go of the real actors and actresses entirely. After all what would become of the celebrity gossip shows? Would CGI models be followed around by the TMZ group in fabricated moments of spontaneity? I don’t know, but it makes for a hilarious (and sad) possibility.

Likely regardless of generational effects, I’d say folks will always prefer to have some actual human behind a performance. On the other hand, CGI holds some intriguing possibilities. I read somewhere, in relation to Avatar I believe, the idea that one could take a young image of Clint Eastwood, his voice samples, and create a perfect model to be used in films. Carrying that forward Eastwood could keep making Dirty Harry films long after he has passed on. I’m not eager to see Clint go anywhere, but it would be fantastic to be able to see new Eastwood movies well into the future! And don't even get me started with the possibilities as they relate to Steven Seagal.

Looker doesn’t just stop with pondering the simulated person idea though. It takes it things a step further by suggesting that scientific analysis could discern what images are “perfectly” appealing to the viewer. There’s a scene where Finney views a commercial while his eye movements are tracked. The results of the test show that instead of following the product, he followed the movements of the attractive model (he humorously suggests he was interested in her bathing suit). What the folks in the film are trying to do is to use the models strategically to ensure that the product is the focus. Granted the sci-fi angle also comes into play, with Crichton inserting light pulses that essentially hypnotize the viewer. That’s a bit sinister to say the least, yet there are certainly things happening in our world that could lead down such a road.

The current parallel I’m reminded of is that of Internet marketing. For example when you go to a particular site or conduct a search, thereafter you receive targeted marketing to steer you in a direction you may otherwise have missed (for better or worse). The idea is that your interests are anticipated, and to some extent stealthily cataloged. It won’t be long before this finds its way to televisions that know what you like (I’ll bet there are already sets out there that do something like this), and certainly phones have been there for a little while. I have to admit that sometimes I like it when I discover something via electronic suggestions, but there’s also something unsettling about it as well. It can probably be summed up best as a relative of privacy invasion, but with the tech boom showing no signs of slowing the trend isn’t going anywhere.

Conceptually Looker is certainly prescient and intriguing, but how is it in terms of entertainment value? This is one of those movies I have very fond memories of as a kid, in large part because I must have seen it 20 times when it ran on cable in the 80’s. It played constantly. Between it and Wolfen I was under the impression that Albert Finney did nothing but sci-fi and horror, as those were my first introduction to him! Going back and watching Looker now it’s not quite the home run it was for me at that point in my life. The pacing is a little too relaxed, and Crichton doesn’t consistently figure out how to generate suspense. That said when Looker works, it works like gangbusters. One of the iconic elements of the film is a light gun the villains use that causes victims to lose their perspective of time. So you get hit by it and wake up anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours later (allowing the villains time to ransack apartments, punch people out, or worse). This makes for some extremely cool action sequences that remain to this day unique and effective. Of particular note is a mid-film car chase where Finney and the villains are firing light guns back and forth at each other. Great stuff.

The element that’s most likely to turn most newcomers off is just how 80’s the whole affair is. The fashion, the cheesy commercials, and especially the music don’t fare so well. Even a self-avowed 80’s aficionado such as me found it at times distracting. The truth is however that this aspect isn’t in place artificially, and Crichton incorporates the dated materials in a way that is natural. In other words the cheese is contextually valid. Unfortunately it can be off-putting to those predisposed to ridicule and dismiss that sort of thing . . . and it makes it a difficult sell for fans trying to introduce it as a serious piece of serious sci-fi. The only legitimate gripe in my opinion is the title song which opens the film. It sounds like an obnoxious imitation of a bad Kim Carnes song. Interestingly the song and the score are done by Barry De Vorzon who also scored The Warriors. The electronic score works for the most part, it’s just when it veers into rock that trouble rears its head. The music is highly effective in the light gun sequences where it does a great job in building tension.

Any cult film devotee, sci-fi fan, or Crichton reader should absolutely seek out Looker. It features fine performances, and anticipates some of the technical developments that are happening in the present day (excluding light guns as far as we know). Better still are the inclusion of action sequences that are unlike any you have ever experienced, and have held up remarkably well in the 30(!) years since its release. For an outstanding double-feature I would recommend pairing it with Crichton’s almost equally as interesting Runaway, or Finney’s bizarre excursion into horror with Wolfen. You really can’t go wrong with anything on that list : )

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