Michael Crichton’s work, from The Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park via Coma and Westworld, has generally been big at the box office; his 80’s period, with techno-thrillers Looker and Runaway, is rather less celebrated. But Looker is the most interesting of his failures, a thriller/satire that looks at television, fashion, technology and murder in a caustic, cynical way and comes to some fairly wack-a-doodle conclusions.
“Computer generated imagery…’ murmurs plastic surgeon Dr Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) as he tries to understand the bizarre conspiracy against him. He’s being framed for the murders of various beautiful women, clients of his surgery, who were also engaged by a sinister company known as Digital Matrix. Run by the saturnine John Reston (James Coburn), it’s not easy to get a handle on what exactly Reston’s up to beyond looking suave; he’s using plastic surgery to create perfect women, who he then uses for tv commercials which have a subliminal pull on audiences. That’s more than enough conspiracy for one film, but Looker throws in a bonus in the form of a hypnosis gun which makes the victim loose their sense of self temporarily; they experience drop-out, and time seems to move on without them unless they wear special reflective specs that bounce the hypnosis rays back onto their assailant.
Neither of these ideas come from Crichton’s top drawer, and it’s quite a leap to connect the technological gimmicks supplied here. Reston’s thinking has a certain logic; ‘Television is the American ideal. Persuasion without coercion. Nobody makes us watch. ..And the average American now spends more than one and a half years of his life just watching television commercials. Fifty minutes, every day of his life, watching commercials. Now, that’s power.’ We still have plenty of adverts today, but it’s easy enough to filter them out. Crichton predicts the use of computer imagery that would create a monster sized hit for Jurassic Park, and also form the basis for today’s deep-fake culture. But he doesn’t manage to meld his vision into a coherent story, and Finney looks uncomfortable running around with an accessorised time-stopping gun and glasses combo.
That said, there’s a striking sequence here in which there’s a Tenet style LA car chase in which both parties are armed with time-freezing guns, and it’s not bad, although the car–in-the-fountain punchline defies all logic. Looker is an expensive looking, big budget studio confection that doesn’t quite land, but is certainly fun to hear 1981’s wide-of-the-mark ideas of what kind of conspiracies we should be worried about in the future…