Looker (1981)

It’s no coincidence that Michael Crichton’s name is a popular one on the earliest portions of the timeline of CGI in film and television. After his 1973 film Westworld pioneered 2D computer animation in a feature film, the television spinoff Futureworld continued the trend with the first use of 3D computer graphics to animate a hand and a face. Crichton’s 1981 venture Looker — which he wrote and directed — claims a similarly important milestone: the first CGI human character. Her name was Cindy, and she’s kind of the digital australopithecus that ironically enough seems only to have evolved into Andy Serkis playing bigger monkeys.

So why are Tron and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan lauded to this day for basically doing what Looker did a year earlier? Simple: because Looker is awful. END OF REVIEW.

Crichton had strayed from the medical thriller at the end of the ’70s with his raucous period piece The Great Train Robbery, so Looker marked a return to the genre for which Crichton was best known and a return to a story idea he’d held for a long time. That story revolved around a devious company so hellbent on selling merchandise that they’d kill for it, which admittedly is a straightforward concept. Out of the thousand evil movie corporations, which is the worst? Tyrell from Blade Runner? Rekall from Total Recall? SPECTRE? BiffCo from Back to the Future II? Hell, you could make an argument for the DNA-plundering InGen from Crichton’s own Jurassic Park being straight-up evil, too.

I’m not sure if Looker‘s Reston Industries is more evil, but I am sure that they’re infinitely more moronic. Their master plan, eventually uncovered by the heroic Beverly Hills plastic surgeon played by Albert Finney, is exacted in several stages. If you were to follow this step-by-step process, you too could be an evil corporation:

1. Develop a technology that judges where consumers are actually looking while watching commercials. Are we just looking at the beachbody bathing suit girl, or are we looking at the thingy she’s holding and trying to sell?

2. This research results in a “score” — not for the consumer, but for the beachbody bathing suit girl. The greater the score, the greater the visual impact.

3. Send the models to a plastic surgeon for a series of alterations so minor that they are all but imperceptible to the naked eye. The research shows, somehow, that these alterations will result in the perfect television commercial model. With luck, this leads to consumers making more impulsive purchases on unnecessary shit.

4. Throw away all of the work you just did by deciding that a human model can never actually achieve perfection. Scan the models into your digital body scanner and create manipulatable 3D versions of them. Use these in your commercials instead.

5. Have your commercials be somehow hypnotic by inserting subliminal messaging throughout, effectively rendering even the computerized versions of the models a waste of time.

6. Develop a completely unrelated technology that basically freezes someone in time, blinding them while you sneak around and move their stuff around or kick them in the crotch or something.

7. Kill the models. Because. Well. Just do it.

Congratulations! If you stuck with it, you’re both as “evil” as Reston Industries and as impressionable as all of the people who went along with this shit in Looker. We’ll let slide the fact that the initial idea makes no sense at all. If the commercials are hypnotic and subliminal anyway, can’t you just have an imperfect model? Or even an ugly old man doing the selling? Besides, if you have the technology to create a realistic person in a computer, why did the models have to go get their faces altered? Can’t you just move cheekbones up on the computerized version?

But wait, you say, it’s supposed to be a satire. Of course! We consumers are stricken into making purchases not by beauty but by the idea of perfection. Our modern consumption is ridiculous when you sit down to consider it, so the scheme of Reston Industries is thus necessarily also ridiculous. “Television is the most powerful selling medium in the history of mankind,” says James Coburn’s Reston. He notes that it is completely voluntary, that getting someone to buy something off a commercial is persuasion without coercion. Great points all, and actually a great initial seed for a satirical take on the modern consumer.

Looker‘s not really a satire, though. The last two steps on the above outline are actually the majority of the movie, and the weaponized light blinder gun is ostensibly the focus of the film. What’s satirical about that? You might make the leap to say that the blinding device is linked to the subliminal commercial technology, and that these two disparate technologies are actually the same. But it’s never clear why Reston weaponizes the thing, nor is it clear in the theatrical cut why these models are being killed. To go one further, Reston just ignores his own notions about the “completely voluntary” aspect of commercialism by forcing subliminal messaging into his advertising.

If the “satire” of Looker is to be taken at face value, it has to at least make a shred of sense. After that, sure: open those floodgates of ridiculousness. Think about the end of Network when that leap is made from sense to nonsense — it’s effective, scary, and satirical in the way Looker hopes to be. It’s sensical nonsense, in a way. Apparently there’s another cut of Looker where Reston’s motivation is more clearly laid down, but I can’t imagine it helps the film very much. Crichton’s best intentions are certainly visible, but the final product is something cluttered and unclear, tonally all over the place, by turns confusing and just plain boring, ultimately something looking in a hundred different directions but never moving from the place where it started. The effect can essentially be summed up as follows:

Looker (1981)
Looker (1981)

Don’t stare for too long.

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