Everybody’s Into Weirdness: LOOKER (1981)

This week, Jacob explores Michael Crichton's supermodel assassination tech conspiracy thriller.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The thirty-ninth entry into this disreputable canon is Michael Crichton’s media manipulation supermodel slaying sci-fi satire, Looker…

Year: 1981

Trailer: Coma

She's a looker
That's what they say
She's got it all
She's got it made
She's a looker
With a beautiful face
Always on display –
Sue Saad, “Looker” (Theme Song for the Movie, Looker)

As a novelist, Michael Crichton was King of the Brainy Beach Novel. Books like The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Sphere, and (most famously) Jurassic Park combined his love of science with ascetic pulp. Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical, taught anthropology at Cambridge and writing at MIT, and was published in both the Papers of the Peabody Museum and the New England Journal of Medicine. But all that education becomes an afterthought while a legion of Viking warriors are being torn to pieces by a tribe of bear-skin donning barbarians in Eaters of the Dead (somewhat transcending the novel’s construction as a detached anthropological epistolary). His interests collided at an intersection of the intellectual and the visceral; a tendency that translated to cinema once he put down the pen and picked up a camera in order to adapt his own work and bring new stories to the screen.

Feeling like a Shane Black riff on '80s tech noir (that obviously predates the whiz kid Lethal Weapon scribe’s debut credit by over half a decade), Crichton’s Looker introduces us to the tacky, mirrored world of working supermodels via a moment of pastel tomfoolery. Stalked by a shadowy figure hiding behind her curtains, Lisa (Terri Welles) falls to her death from the balcony of a glass-laden apartment after being inexplicably frozen by some sort of unseen interval-halting firearm. The investigating detective (Dorian Harewood) questions Lisa’s plastic surgeon, Larry Roberts (Albert Finney), who fills the dick in on the possible motivation for such a beautiful girl to apparently take her own life (paraphrased: “perfection won’t solve her problems”). However, the files on Lisa and three other women who also committed suicide and were patients of Dr. Roberts’ are missing, so the murder hound is suspicious. Simultaneously fearing for his own freedom and almost unprofessionally concerned about the models’ final moments, Dr. Roberts teams with Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey, of Partridge Family fame), another beautiful “looker” seeking flawlessness through minute bodily adjustment, in order to discover just who is behind these mysterious, connected deaths. Their journey leads them into a labyrinth built by shady businessmen, looking to manipulate media messages via television commercials that feature supernaturally unblemished females as the faces of their distraction campaign.

The narrative is quintessential Crichton – big ideas packaged inside of a quite silly conspiracy plot that involves a smirking, smarmy entrepreneur (James Coburn, ostensibly falling just short of telling us all to go fuck ourselves through clenched teeth) and a hulking henchman (former Philadelphia Eagles tackling dummy, Tim Rossovich), styled like Harold Greene on steroids (or Ron Burgundy, for younger viewers/readers). None of it makes a whole lot of sense (or any, really), but Crichton tells the story with the same propulsive attention to page-turning that transformed so many of his paperbacks into international best sellers. There are car chases and a gun that paralyzes existence. Computers scan the bodies of women in order to create fully CGI characters, years before action movies utilized digitalized stunt men to film otherwise impossible, explosion-laced set pieces. Looker is actually ahead of its time in many ways, but Crichton’s fascination with emerging technologies often hinders the movie’s momentum, as insert shots will linger far too long on key cards unlocking office building doors. In essence, it’s a thinking person’s entertainment that also doesn’t mind attempting to appeal to lowest common denominator taste, resulting in instances where the two sensibilities amalgamate for salty results. A perfect example: the soundstage shootout finale that is hilarious satire, inserting palpable violence into manufactured product placement, but is never riveting as a traditional thriller climax.

Hovering just under the surface of these nutso computerized schemes is a humanistic tone that treats its characters with affectionate care. Looker is just as much a criticism of our society’s fixation on conventional attractiveness as it is a sci-fi actioner, looking to win over the matinee and midnight movie crowds. When the beauties come to Dr. Roberts, requesting facial alternations that are specific to the millimeter thanks to corporate mandates, Crichton is digging into the unattainable physical excellence utilized to sell useless merchandise and, in turn, becomes the standard to which young women compare their natural forms. Dr. Roberts cannot believe these already incredible looking women would want to alter how they look, their stipulations so outrageous that something has to be rotten in this artificial Denmark. Yet what could’ve been a mere plot point becomes reinforcement for the film’s sardonic subtext; namely, the way our perception of what is an acceptable reality is shaped by money men we never see. It’s a sentiment that antedates another sci-fi slice of mockery – John Carpenter’s They Live – but replaces Carpenter’s sweltering anger with an almost gentle need to affirm natural born loveliness. Preserve what’s already gorgeous about you and embrace the flaws that make us human; don’t buckle to the outrageous demands of those who only want to pickpocket you at the nearest department store.

Anchoring this intellectually fractured potboiler is Albert Finney’s charmingly aloof performance. Finney’s been on a long strange trip as an actor, traversing between Shakespeare for the stage, playing Hercule Poirot for Sidney Lumet (Murder on the Orient Express), and hunting killer wolves on the streets of NYC (Wolfen). In Looker, Finney never seems to be given a dramatic thread to cling to, stumbling from one scene to the next, aghast at the goings-on in this corporate murderverse. He’s the perfect audience surrogate, utterly befuddled by this illogical escapade. Dr. Roberts is reacting to these ridiculous scenarios the same way we would; mouth agape, trying to keep cool as a mustached man shoots invisible laser beams at you. Being the consummate pro, Finney manages to inject wholesale empathy into what could've been a hardcore scumbag. We feel the same compassion he does for these beautiful women, all trying to keep up with their industry's preposterous standards.

It’s difficult to empirically label Looker a “good” movie, but who really cares about that qualitative bullshit? It’s incredibly fascinating, and the movie’s flaws act as an unintentional bolstering of its themes. Now, this isn’t some argument that Crichton intentionally made an imperfect motion picture, but rather a championing of the late writer/director/author’s devil may care, smarty pants fingerprint. He’s playing fast and loose, having wormed his way into becoming a somewhat regular director of these studio B-pictures and making sure that they all carry his unique signature, defects and all. None of Crichton’s books were essential literature, and none of his directorial efforts were art house fare. However, they all cared about being more than an A + B = C series of mindless diversions. All of Crichton’s yarns were about something; you just had to dig beneath a stack of yellow-paged, dog-eared tomes in order to find a textbook on a subject you never thought you wanted to be educated on. His work was the definition of high/low theatre, and cancer robbed us of yet another one of our great storytellers in 2008.

Next Week at Weird Wednesday: Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls; Alice, Sweet Alice; Starship Troopers; Message From Space; Rabid; Child’s Play; Lost in the Desert; Suspiria; Effects; Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan; Thomasine & Bushrod; Hard Ticket to Hawaii; Raising Cain