Skip to main content

They’re killing all the girls that are perfect.

Looker
(1981)

(SPOILERS) Edgar Wright’s recently revised, gargantuan list of favourite movies (a more interesting and economical rundown might have detailed what didn’t make it on) included many I haven’t seen, and a good few I thought “Oh, I must revisit that”. Of the latter, one such was Michael Crichton’s uneven science fiction thriller Looker, which typically for the author includes prophetic warnings of technology allowed to rampage unchecked. It’s also loaded with satirical swipes at the beauty myth, TV addiction and our capacity to be influenced by advertising. The movie arrived at the perfect moment, predicting a decade that would wear shallowness as a badge of pride, yet floundered in execution, perhaps because as a director, Crichton is a better writer, and as a writer of screenplays, he’s a better novelist.


It might have been preferable for someone with more of a stylistic bent to take this material and run with it. What Verhoeven (then still in Holland, obviously) might have made of the satirical content is tantalising, and likewise how De Palma might run with the opportunities for sleights of perspective and orientation. Crichton’s direction is competent, functional and unadorned, so never in danger of taking your breath away. He composes several strong sequences, however, most notably the visualising of the 3D imaging in which Susan Dey’s model Cindy has her body print measured; the projected patterns overlaying her simultaneously suggest hi-tech and the right side of psychedelia.


Crichton also has a ball with the L.O.O.K.E.R (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses) gun, creating a disorienting and eerie “lost time” effect as its subjects are zapped and rendered varyingly incapacitated, unable to perceive their aggressor and coming back to awareness with vital changes having occurred in their surroundings. In the early stages, when the source of the disturbance is still a mystery, the jumps in clock times evoke alien abduction scenarios.


Later, when Albert Finney’s Dr Roberts is set upon by Tim Rossovich’s moustachioed heavy (a sure sign of a change of decades that a facial caterpillar now signifies a bad guy), Crichton fashions an inspired action scene as the beleaguered plastic surgeon must attempt to turn the tables on an antagonist who has a perpetual advantage. Crichton even throws in a car chase with the device, leading to Roberts and auto reviving in a fountain, the villains departed (why Reynolds didn’t keep the pair of sunglasses he picked up in the lab is one of a number of glaring plot holes).


Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough substance elsewhere in the story for Crichton to sustain matters. He would later revisit the virtual world as a scene of a crime in the ill-advised sexual harassment thriller Disclosure. Here, the problem isn’t the conception, but simply that he has insufficient places to go with it. James Coburn’s John Reston is revealed to be behind everything, through his company Digital Matrix Inc, during his first encounter with Roberts, through an incredibly clunky “I’m the villain don’t you know” piece of exposition with his assistant Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young). The only mystery is how the device works and why Reston has been having the models who visited Digital Matrix bumped off. And an explanation for the latter never materialises.


Well, it kind of does in one of the cut scenes that showed up on TV, but the explanation isn’t entirely satisfying. We’re introduced to Roberts (“Everybody says you’re the best plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills”) agreeing to perform surgery on the fourth in a succession of perfect beauties who show up at his clinic with a list of precise nips and tucks to be engineered. The dialogue is occasionally clumsily on-the-nose (“She’s a real looker”; “Has a big man with a moustache been here?”) and occasionally amusingly offhand (“I’ve got some tricky eyes at noon”). When the women start showing up dead, the doctor is quickly set up as a suspect (a button from his jacket is placed at the scene of a crime).


When Roberts begins his own investigation, he is given a lesson in the skin deep nature of perfection, told that while the models looked perfect, as the computer at Digital Matrix dictated, they were still flawed on the inside, unable to reproduce the detailed instructions for how to render the scenes in advertising projects. The actual detail here rather breaks down; Roberts is shown an ad where he is distracted by the model instead of focusing on the product, but surely no amount of doctoring is going to alter that? The only real way would be to remove the model entirely, rather than shift focus. We learn that mapping the model will lead to them being paid $200k per year, to utilise their image rights, the virtual clones rendered over physical set and props. Again, some of this is rather baffling in concept; why not just map the car and have that reproduced to, rather than physically opening its boot and having the virtual model overlaid, appearing to do so herself?


We discover that the models, not unlike the light gun, induce an “auto-hypnotic suggestive trance” to encourage viewers to buy the product (visualised in the blue-glowing eyes, although I’m guessing this is supposed to be a cue for the viewer rather than eyes actually glowing every time one starts on telly, a bit of a give-away if so, although there’s lots of this sort of obvious clumsiness, so maybe not). And the next stage is to repeat the process with that other prized field of populace manipulation, politics, with a virtual Senator Harrison (Michael Hawkins) encouraging voters in his presidential bid.


One of the issues with Looker is that, amid all this hi-tech intrigue and high-conspiratorial play (it’s suggested the police may be in on things too, but that ultimately proves not to be the case), Reston and his cronies haven’t been terribly clever about framing Roberts. Everything they do seems designed to display staggering ineptitude and make as big a scene as possible. Perhaps the dedication to following computer logic has resulted in them making howlers. Or perhaps hubris leads them consider themselves untouchable.


In the deleted scene, Reston explains that the murdered models were “walking examples of our computer research” and that it is “corporate policy to shred all old documents and keep it out of the hands of competitors” thus providing their motivation. But... if every time they map a model, to use in adverts, they kill the real one, it’s going to be a tad blatantly obvious who’s responsible. And even if this was a one-off, for test purposes (with the political side being the real objective), it’s still incredibly dubious and risky. Other theories have been voiced, that the girls found out about the political side (what, all of them, include Cindy, who hadn’t a clue, and how did they find out?) or that the company simply didn’t want to pay them (right).


Crichton seems to be taking an almost casual approach to internal logic, assuming that, amid all the chasing and shooting, viewers will forget to ask the questions (very meta-, eh; we’ve been hypnotised by Crichton himself… except it didn’t work as no one was interested in watching the thing). As it is, one gets the sense the scene was excluded because it was so unconvincing, and Crichton, without anything better, hoped no one would notice (what in fact happened was that no one noticed the movie).


Reston paints himself as a promoter of global order, as any corporate true believer would rationalise (“It’s the multinationals who want peace and stability throughout world while governments spin recklessly out of control”), and it’s to this end that he is steering Senator Hawkins’ campaign. The general gist of Hawkins’ spiel could have been written yesterday, with its appeals to American values, forefathers, and “ending the pollution of the environment and in our lives”. Of course, the idea that the public should even need hypnotising through such a method is really Crichton’s point; we’re doing a very good job of swallowing whatever we’re fed hook, line and sinker.


Reston: Who would have predicted that free people would spend one fifth of their lives voluntarily sitting in front of a box with pictures? Fifteen years in prison is punishment. But fifteen years sitting in front of a television set is entertainment.

Reston goes on to provide further specifics (“One and a half years of life with commercials, fifteen minutes every day of life”). Crichton’s polemic is a little reactionary, since one might equally claim spending one’s life with one’s head in books is a waste, when you should get out there and live it. He has a point, but like most of his points here he hasn’t distilled them to a sufficiently digestible concotion.


For example, fake advertising runs throughout the picture, but rarely carries the sharpness of presentation that would make the barbs sting. Some of the background accompaniment raises a smile (“Constipation is nothing to be sneezed at”), and the TV-addicted parents of Cindy are very similar to Emilio Estevez’ telly evangelist-transfixed parents in the later Repo Man


The intercut finale, playing out as viewers see the real combatants interposing themselves into the virtual characters’ scenes is frequently quite funny – moustache man winds up dead on a kitchen table as kids complain to mum that they’re tired of the same old breakfast; the ad for Spurt toothpaste (“New Spurt makes any mouth come alive”) that plays out as a bloody squib erupts from Reston’s neck is a particularly mirthful touch – but never quite as effective as it could be (one only has to look at any earlier scene, in which Crichton labours an insert of Roberts stealing entry tags, to see where the picture is coming up short).


Paul Lohmann, a veteran of Robert Altman and Mel Brooks, photographs Looker nicely enough, and there are some nice design touches, such as the illuminated floor that would look at home in TRON, but Crichton’s approach fails to embrace the potential. His inclusion of title cards (Friday; Sunday) feels arbitrary, as if he saw it in a movie, liked it, but has no good reason for it narratively (it probably resulted from the temporal disorientation of the gun, but doesn’t play as a helpful guide). Barry Devorzon’s score is early ‘80s synth heaven without ever being especially distinctive; the most effective choice on the soundtrack is the use Vivaldi as Roberts works on a patient and then again accompanying Cindy’s topographic scan. That said, the cheesy songs (Looker and High Wire) are good fun.


There’s a slight TV movie feel wafting through Looker, from the henchman to the second choice leads. Coburn is always a fine catch, but he isn’t used especially effectively here (indeed, his best scene might be the cut exposition, as dissatisfying as it is). Finney had spent four years away from the big screen, yet returned with a couple of movies where he filled shoes he had mostly steered clear of in his career; the classic hero type in this and Wolfen. You need to give Finney something actorly to get his teeth into to make the most of him, and Looker simply fails to do that.


For all that, Looker’s not a bad film. It’s arresting premise sees it through a lean running time, and the sequences with the L.O.O.K.E.R. gun and the body mapping are particularly noteworthy. What it really lacks is the immediate, portentous quality of Crichton’s ‘70s thrillers (Coma, Westworld); a tangible sense of how these advances in technology can lead to the whole world unravelling. Perhaps plunging more assertively into the political side would have done the picture favours, but as it is, this element seems like little more than an afterthought. It’s ironic that a movie taking pot shots at the illusory nature of perfection should be undone through settling for such an average appearance.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.