starring Albert Finney, James Coburn, Susan Dey, Leigh Taylor-Young
written and directed by Michael Crichton
by Bill Chambers Michael Crichton's Looker is a kinky paranoia thriller in which an unlikely sleuth teams up with the nearest bimbo to solve a murder mystery. It is, in other words, vintage De Palma, and if he'd actually helmed it, legions of cinephiles would've flameproofed it by now. At the risk of further estranging myself from De Palma geeks, I must admit I rather enjoyed watching a Body Double without Armond White guilt-tripping my subconscious--which is not to say that Looker circumvents an auteurist reading altogether, but the idiosyncrasies that betray it as 'Crichtonian' (like a novelistic conceit that starts off each new act with a placard indicating the day of the week*) are less than venerable and thus hardly lend themselves to an apologia.
Initiating the Charlton Heston phase of his career, Albert Finney stars as Dr. Larry Roberts, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon whose attractive clientele keeps turning up dead. As his latest patient, Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey), fits the profile of the deceased, who've all undergone the most minor adjustments ("My nose is 0.2 millimetres too narrow...and I have a mole here on my ribs ") to guarantee a lucrative modelling contract with the Orwellian-sounding Digital Matrix, Dr. Larry--partly to play the white knight, partly to clear himself of any suspicion--decides to put her under his surveillance. When Cindy is summoned to have her body digitized at the centre of operations (an arresting sequence, and not just because Dey doffs in her clothes in what has become a ritualized act of rebellion for former child stars), Dr. Larry tags along and gets a fifty-cent tour of the facilities from evil R&D head Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young, still lovely, still Spock-browed). Later, the odd couple return as intruders and uncover a plot to poison the very milk of the glass teat. They also stumble upon some really cool guns, the titular Light Ocular Oriented Kinetic Energetic Responsers.
In his true vocation, Crichton has published his fair share of clunkers, but it nevertheless comes as a mild shock to discover that Looker is an abominable screenplay wrung for every ounce of cinema, if not redeemed, by an unheralded visionary eye. There are obvious limitations to the written word: On the page, it'd be difficult to indicate the same snippet of Vivaldi playing in Dr. Larry's operating theatre and during Cindy's body scan (in both scenarios, women are being wilfully artificialized) without looking like a dilettante--yet nothing about Crichton's pedantic prose suggests he is capable of such a poignant motif. Looker meanwhile boasts two subversive, formally radical set-pieces that, through the aid of ace cinematographer Paul Lohmann (who became a master of 'scope as Robert Altman's go-to DP in the '70s), are worthy of De Palma himself.
The first, the film's centrepiece, is a lengthy fisticuffs between Dr. Larry and a goon (Tim Rossovich, literally billed as Moustache Man) who repeatedly stuns our hero with the L.O.O.K.E.R. device, enabling him to throw punches and kicks at his leisure. Crichton shoots it mainly from the villain's perspective, thereby reducing the classic western brawl--Dr. Larry flies through panes of glass as though they're saloon windows--to crude virtual reality. There are several possible readings for the subjective, head-on views of Finney, which after all suggest a mirror image (and we do catch ourselves miming his every wince in sympathy)--for starters, that we identify with the gallant doctor even though our P.O.V. belongs to The Man. Moreover, however incidentally, Crichton has fruitfully juxtaposed our vicarious attachment to movie stars with our irreconcilable impulse to martyr them.
The second standout sequence is the climax, wherein duplicitous tycoon John Reston (James Coburn, entering the John Huston phase of his career) and Moustache Man play cat-and-mouse with Dr. Larry on a soundstage. Both parties wind up intermittently compositing themselves into a closed-circuit feed of computer-generated adverts, elsewhere causing a room full of unwitting test subjects for Reston's brainwashing technology to burst out laughing at the incongruous sight of an armed thug skulking in the foreground of a bedroom-set commercial for sleeping pills. This one endearingly eccentric, familiar detail--nothing brings down the house quite like the peek-a-boo intrusion of a boom mike--helps make palatable such an implausible showdown and its comically dated mise-en-scène. Although Crichton's propensity for hyperbole once again overshadows his mad prognostication skillz, Looker at least inaugurated the computer-age media satire, its influence obliquely felt in movies as diverse as Josie and the Pussycats and They Live.
Indeed, if the film is legitimately prescient about anything aside from our increasingly image-conscious culture, it accurately forecasts a storyteller-cum-augur's decline into a quilter who conflates various issues and genres with reckless abandon. As is the case with his last few books, Looker is a bully pulpit--albeit one not given to Crichton's insufferable conservative leanings of late--rendered transparent by its gratuitous cockteasing: it dovetails from one alarmist exposé to the next (extreme makeovers! dehumanizing technology! corporate corruption!) without adequately consummating their individual narrative pretexts/contexts. We're never told why the models are killed; presumably, it's so that Reston can use their visage in perpetuity without ever paying them, but does that mean Moustache Man's gonna whack the little kids hawking Oaties breakfast cereal, too? Furthermore, did said little kids have to book appointments with Dr. Larry? (Doubtful on either count: the movie doesn't seem to want to transcend the fashionable misogyny of its day.) What is the practical application of the L.O.O.K.E.R.? Such loose ends finally prove immune to the directorial sleight-of-hand, but Looker's surface pleasures are undeniable. Maybe that's the ultimate irony of the title.
One of six films that won the second round of Amazon's DVD Decision 2006, Looker debuts on the format in a handsome 2.37:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that occasionally succumbs to pinholes and a high density of grain. Since Cindy's MoCap session (see above) looks cleaner and richer, colour- and contrast-wise, than anything else in the picture, I'm guessing it was shot on slower stock. The accompanying Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is hushed at reference volume but responds well to amplification; Barry DeVorzon's synth score has some nice stereo imaging, but the whole thing sounds a little damp. In the meantime, Crichton delivers a swell feature-length commentary full of auto-analysis ("I live in the future," he confesses) and seldom-heard production anecdotes that encompass his abortive attempt to bring Congo to the silver screen long before Frank Marshall came along. While he expresses a certain pride that the aforementioned fight scene presaged not only first-person shooters but the Men in Black neuralizer as well, he hasn't deluded himself into thinking he's made a masterpiece--although he treads lightly in his criticisms, perhaps out of deference to Looker's cult following. Crichton likewise materializes in an optional video introduction that basically recapitulates the first five minutes of his yak-track; because he has no shame, quasi-auteur Laurent Bouzereau takes credit for directing and writing this piece. Looker's weathered theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Originally published: January 29, 2007.
*Alas prompting the post-game query, "How the fuck does all that go down in 72 hours?" return