Monday, August 16, 2010

Down To The Millimeter

Somewhere on the long list of movies that it’s probably acceptable to watch while under the influence of something would have to be Michael Crichton’s sci-fi conspiracy thriller LOOKER and I wonder if it’s all right to be under the influence of something while I write about it as well. I can’t imagine that it would cause the movie to make any less sense to me and maybe it would improve things. A mishmash of various thematic concepts, LOOKER has a decent amount of trashy charm as well as a certain degree of prescience in regards to the media’s treatment of women and how far computer technology has come in the decades since. But none of it really comes together in a coherent way and it plays as if all the pieces Crichton thought would somehow magically fall into place during shooting simply never did. The movie needed a stronger directorial hand to bring the disparate elements together as well as bring some juice to all the satirical possibilities but apparently Michael Crichton wasn’t the man for that and even at just over 90 minutes it becomes kind of a bore. An oddly enjoyable bore, but still.

Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney), known as the best plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, reluctantly performs surgery on several beautiful women, television commercial actresses to be precise, according to exact specifications to the millimeter that they have given him. When the women begin turning up dead from apparent suicides, the police take an interest in the doctor but since this isn’t an episode of COLUMBO we of course know that he’s not the culprit. Some paperwork left behind leads Roberts to the high tech research firm Digital Matrix, a company run by Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young) who is in league with the powerful commercial producer John Reston (James Coburn). When Digital Matrix takes an interest in Roberts’ patient Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey, charmingly introduced blowing a huge bubble from the gun she’s chewing) the doctor begins to keep a close eye on her even tagging along with when she goes to the Digital Matrix headquarters to possibly be recruited, determined not to let anything happen to her as the two get to know each other even better.

Released in October 1981 (the same day as HALLOWEEN II, for those interested in such things) LOOKER certainly has a surprising amount of nudity for a PG rated film and while I suppose you could argue that it’s all presented in a ‘clinical’ context considering the gorgeous Playboy models we get to gaze at, as well as none other than Susan Dey as she’s scanned at Digital Matrix, I’m not sure I’m buying. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I’m just pointing this out. Scripted by Crichton himself, (or, as Vincent Canby in The New York Times put it, “which Mr. Crichton has directed from his own original, stupifyingly nonsensical screenplay.”) LOOKER starts out as what seems to be a commentary on the treatment of beauty in wealthy Beverly Hills combined with a murder plotline. From there it moves into the then-advanced concept of computer generated imagery and media manipulation with a focus on “the most powerful selling medium in the history of mankind” to use digital animation to sell things to the viewer and essentially turn them into zombies with the hope that this will all go together. Not to mention containing various sci-fi elements like a special gun (which we’re told is the LOOKER device, providing the title with a double meaning) that both gives its user invisibility and has the power to immobilize people for lengthy periods of time. Just typing all this out actually makes all this sound pretty cool but the way it plays is unfortunately not as much fun. Part of this is due to how the oddness of the concept has dated when compared to how the actual technology developed—the early look at how digital actors could be used to manipulate the media and also the world of politics is intriguing looking back at it now (though using computer generated actors in real settings and never trying the opposite seems a little strange) but there are also some dull, clumsy maintenance robots similar to what Crichton would center RUNAWAY around a few years later. There’s an uncertain feel to the approach the film takes as if Crichton himself was unsure as to what this movie was supposed to be or at least how to present this technology that was still being developed at the time. It’s as if he didn’t quite know how to visualize enough of the future just yet or maybe he started working on the project without ever making it clear to himself what the story was actually about.

Even with some of the weirdness it contains the whole thing still feels strangely flat, complete with a number of sets that just feel like sets as if this were a science fiction film being made in a movie about Hollywood—characters and situations aren’t adequately explained as it moves from one sequence to the next, like it’s hoping that the technology and oddball tone will be enough to distract us. This even extends to how as much as ultimately gets explained about Digital Matrix (plus I’m also a little confused by how Susan Dey’s character seems to have already had the surgery yet is just now going to the facility for the first time) we’re never told just why the models in question that Albert Finney operated on were actually killed to begin with. Apparently the TV version contained some extra footage that did explain this (and yet, reading up on this makes the whole thing sound like more trouble than it’s worth for the bad guys) but in the theatrical cut the matter is just left hanging there, pretty much forgotten about and the movie is content to just let the villains discuss their plans in places where you’d think they’d be concerned about somebody overhearing them.

The blackouts caused by the LOOKER gun gives everything a genuinely off-kilter feel for brief periods before we fully know what’s going on but it winds up feeling like weird for the sake of being weird, a plot gimmick that maybe Crichton couldn’t fit into some other project. Maybe it fits in with the film’s view on perceptions of reality but it still winds up feeling slightly shoehorned in. Even on a structural level the brief time frame of the movie’s plot feels a little screwy in a “Hang on, all this only started yesterday?” kind of way. There’s a car chase through Century City (still being built up then, from the look of things) that is intriguingly staged but the way it begins literally out of nowhere with no explanation where the characters are coming from feels like the movie was having problems in the cutting and they just decided to jump in to the scene, hoping that no one would ever notice. Also, at one point the chase moves from Century City to a fountain in Los Feliz miles away in the blink of an eye and I’m sure this isn’t meant to be taken literally (maybe they just didn’t get permission to use the fountains actually in Century City) but it’s still slightly indicative of how much sense this film really makes in the end. Crichton absolutely offers some cool ideas and interesting concepts but there’s no real dynamism to how any of it gets presented and this, combined with how muddy the plot becomes, kind of kills the fun. There’s nothing wrong with a film that contains as many elements as this one does but if it doesn’t all fit together in the right way it just becomes kind of a hodgepodge. True, in this case it’s a hodgepodge with gorgeous, scantily clad women (like 1981 Playmate of the Year Terri Welles during the opening scenes) and cool sci-fi concepts but if something like that can’t be made to work in a coherent way by somebody like Michael Crichton then what hope is there for any of us?

There are a number of genre projects from this period which deal with perceptions of reality—ALTERED STATES and VIDEODROME come to mind—that also went through revisions during and after production. In the case of VIDEODROME it certainly all came together brilliantly. With this film, it’s just kind of a bunch of stuff. Sleazy stuff, with enough potential intrigue that I can imagine wanting to see it again at some point but even at 93 minutes it sort of drags. There are elements here and there that stand out like the striking compositions when Albert Finney is getting continually pummeled in the Looker Lab and a particularly good bullet hit near the end that is pretty damn impressive. Based on comments left by people on my Facebook page after I had said I watched it I could believe that if I’d seen this film on HBO when I was a kid (and, frankly, I’m not sure how I missed it particularly since it was PG) I’d be even kinder to it than I already am right now, but such is life.

Albert Finney as the famous plastic surgeon who operates to the strains of Vivaldi seems mildly intrigued by all this new technology but it almost seems as if he figured out at some point this was not much more than a connect-the-dots thriller so he decided to cash his check and focus on where to go to dinner when the day’s shooting wrapped. It’s hardly the most demanding role of his career. Susan Dey (to some she’s Laurie Partridge—to me she’ll always be Grace Van Owen) doesn’t get to do very much to display her acting talents but she is pretty and likable, easily coming off as more intelligent than any of the models who briefly appear. James Coburn in his immaculate three-piece suits has an enjoyable presence as always but he seems distracted as if he hasn’t had things fully explained to him and isn’t even sure if he’s supposed to be a villain or not. At one point he confidently states, “We don’t have anything to hide, do we?” while at the same time seeming fully aware of what’s being covered up, not to mention how later on he’s brandishing a gun in a place where he can be easily spotted by the entire world. Ultimately, he’s just a bad guy and that’s about it. Leigh Taylor-Young of I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS! and SOYLENT GREEN is maybe this film’s equivalent of Elizabeth Ashley in Crichton’s COMA, with the actress’s inherent woodenness used to hide something much more sinister and the odd feeling it gives off at least seems to go with the film’s tone. Dorian Harewood is the cipher cop whose suspicions of Finney don’t amount to very much, former NFL pro Tom Rossovich is “Moustache Man”, Darryl Hickman from THE TINGLER is another plastic surgeon in a few brief scenes (actually, he may be the most likable person in the entire film) and apparently Vanna White is in there as a model somewhere but I didn’t bother looking for her. The electronic score by Barry De Vorzon has some effective stretches, particularly during the climax, but the way it sometimes drones on like any number of similar scores from this period makes it hard not to wish that Jerry Goldsmith had been brought onboard to give things some oomph. There’s also the ultra-cheesy main theme song sung by Sue Saad (“She’s a Looker/That’s what they say/She’s got it all, yeah, she’s got it made”) that sounds like it’s meant to be intentionally cheesy in a satirical context but it’s probably just cheesy. Not to mention that I still can’t get the damn thing out of my head. I’m not even sure I want to get it out of my head. Please send help.

So I made it through writing this piece without any outside assistance, booze or otherwise, but nevertheless I actually feel like I have a stronger appreciation of this exploration of then-future technology than when I started. I doubt that any of the main people involved, currently alive or deceased, would consider this among their finest work but none of them have anything to be embarrassed about either. It’s not as good as it could have been and that music actually reminds me that maybe a version of the basic concept would have worked better coming from somebody like John Carpenter, a director who could have focused on the satirical thrust of the message the film is trying to make (Paul Verhoeven comes to mind as well) instead of the exploration of the technology, the area where Crichton’s expertise always lied. But since this is the LOOKER we have I’ll have to live with it, just like I’ll have to live with that annoying theme song and right now I can’t seem to get either one out of my head. I think months from now I’ll remember the ridiculousness of this movie and smile a little. It’s not all that good. It’s not something I really should recommend. In the end, I guess I kind of liked it anyway.


Robert H. said...

Nice examination... you're absolutely right - the whole is lesser than the parts, but they're great parts, dammit!

The schizophrenic nature of this - is it a comedy wanting to be a thriller, or a thriller wanting to be a comedy? - is probably what makes is somewhat endearing. The nudity helps as well.

Chrichton did a commentary for this which was somewhat interesting... never addressed that missing footage that shows up in the TV versions (and sadly, they weren't added as bonus scenes.)

Kim Carnes did a cover of the title song, and it's as infectious as the original.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Glad you enjoyed it, thank you very much. Unfortunately I wasn't able to check out the Crichton commentary when I had the disc from Netfilx but (and, I swear, I'm not kidding about this) I still haven't been able to get that damn song out of my head!

Joe Martino said...


Yes, a most guilty pleasure. Both you and Robert H nailed it. This flick is all over the f'ing place, but of course the nudity helps - greatly!! It kept me watching it on HBO for years.

Crichton was so much fun, you could never take him seriously, but his balance was off here, as in RUNAWAY too. He was never able to pull off comedy / suspense as well as he did in the under-rated THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. Guess it was probably his choice of material.

For the past few days, I can't stop humming the title song in my head, and I blame you. Along with the Paul Anka title song from NO WAY OUT - it ranks up there as possibly the one of worse ever.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


At least this one is kind of fun in a goofy way, unlike RUNAWAY which for me is just way too bland. I really need to see THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY again, it's been years.

That NO WAY OUT song is pretty bad too, but I don't think it sticks around in the brain like this one does!

Anonymous said...

Crichton's into said this was the first film that realized 3d computer modelling.