Sunday, April 14, 2013
Capsule Film Reviews: Looker
Looker, which I first saw on cable television, probably HBO, probably in 1982, is a film that works on several different levels. On one level Looker is the tale of a plastic surgeon, Dr. Roberts (Albert Finney), and the four beautiful models who work in television commercials who come to his office complete with measurements down to the milimetre that will fix their "defects" and make them more beautiful and more desirable (played by real life models Terri Welles, Kathryn Witt, Ashley Cox, and Susan Dey) than they were before and they are all already beautiful and desirable. On another level Looker is a tale about a corporation, Digital Matrix, run by James Reston (James Coburn) and his lieutenant Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young), which is doing cutting edge research on how viewers watch commercials and, in the process, helping corporations sell more product on television thanks to improved product placement. On the final level Looker is a mystery: Why are the beautiful models Dr. Roberts has helped make nearly perfect committing suicide?
It is the this mystery which draws all the threads of Looker together. It is the research Digital Matrix has been doing on how viewers actually watch commercials--research Roberts is given the opportunity to partake of--that leads Digital Matrix to ask the four models to have plastic surgery done on them to make them more perfectly beautiful in order to guide the eyes of television commercial viewers toward the product the commercial wants to sell. Unfortunately, as we learn in the course of the film, the models don't have the physical skills to land where the computer says they should in the frame in order to have maximum product placement impact. Additionally, Digital Matrix, by making the models more perfect, are guiding viewers eyes not toward the product they want to sell but to the models. So Digital Matrix decides to create computer generated versions of the models so they can place these avatars for maximum sales effect in the commercials. No longer needing the real models Digital Matrix, as the television version of Looker particularly makes clear, a version not, sadly, available on the Warner Brothers DVD, decides to eliminate the nearly perfect models they created to keep competitors from getting their corporate secrets. I didn't, by the way, need the pedanticness of the television version to tell me this.
Digital Matrix, we learn in the course of the film, is using another of its corporate secrets, L.O.O.K.E.R., Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses, a weapon that can stop time for he or she who it is "shot" at, to eliminate Lisa, Tina, and Candy. Dr. Roberts and the fourth model who has been made nearly perfect Cindy (Susan Dey) uncover this mystery by film's end.
Looker is a fascinating critique of Western conceptions of female beauty--Digital Matrix is attempting to remake women's bodies to make them more beautiful and more alluring in order to sell more corporate product--the military-industrial complex--L.O.O.K.E.R. is being developed with possible military uses in mind--and corporate power--Digital Matrix is using its research and L.O.O.K.E.R. technology to manipulate viewers to buy not only corporate products but Digital Matrix approved political candidates.
Looker, as Crichton speculates in his commentary, probably mystified audiences when it was released in 1981 in part because it was so different from what film goers at the time typically expected. Audiences, notes Crichton, weren't familiar with the term digital. They weren't used to seeing digital technologies, the computer generated technologies Looker was among the first films to use. Since much of what was science fiction in Looker is now science fact the film may be an easier viewing experience for film goers even if it seems technologically primitive next to films that use G.G.I. these days. Even if the film may seem "primitive" by today's standards, its critique of corporate power, its critique of commercials and corporate manipulations through commercials, its critique of the triumph of the 18 to 25 demographic in Hollywood, the similarities between selling economic product and political product, and the social and cultural construction of beauty are not. These critiques are as timely today as they were in 1981, perhaps even more.
Another plus is that Looker has a great theme song performed by new wavers Sue Saad and the Next, some great faux commercials actually shot by commercial directors, and a hilarious satire of commercials at film's end where violence erupts into stereotyped clean cut middle class American settings. Wonderful intellectually stimulating film. Check it out.
Looker, 1981, written and directed by Michael Crichton, 2:35:1