Looker (1981)

British actor Albert Finney was, first and foremost, an acclaimed British stage actor, which is why he vanished from our theater screens after his tour de forces as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and in Ridley “Alien” Scott’s The Duellists (1977).

Then, in 1981, Finney returned to our theater screens — and our HBO cable programming, where most of us seen the films — with a vengeance, in the heist-caper Loophole (never seen it), the horror film Wolfen, and this Michael Crichton-penned and directed science fiction-suspense flick. It’s another patented, intelligent statement on the state of man by Crichton that takes the worlds of television and its related advertising to task, as well as the medium’s obsession with beauty. To than end: Susan Dey goes topless in a couple of scenes (for three minutes and tastefully done).

But seeing Laurie Partridge from our TV past isn’t why we’re here, this week. For this week isn’t about boobs: it’s about goofy and outdated computer technologies and whacked techno-predictions of films from the ’80s and ’90s.

Welcome to our “Ancient Future Week.”

Sure, Looker is noted as the first commercial, mainstream movie to commit a full, computer-generated, three-dimensional solid representation of the human body to film. But that’s not what makes this one of our favorite, goofy “ancient future” favorites around the B&S About Movies cubicle farm. It’s those nifty Light Ocular Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses guns, aka the L.O.O.K.E.R gun.

But alas, the movie, sans the gun scenes, is a hot mess of chopped up celluloid and not even a LOOKER gun can wipe the box office bad from our memory.

Don’t believe us? Then let co-star James Coburn tell it — from the pages of Psychotronic Video No. 9/1991:

My part was pretty much on the cutting room floor. They really pissed that film away. They had Albert Finney running around in a security guard’s uniform throughout the film. It didn’t make any sense. It could have been a good picture. It was about how television controls. It was about how commercials manipulate people to buy products, politicians, whatever. But, they cut the film up for a television print. I don’t know why they did that. They spent some bread on the picture too. It was a $12 million production. That’s not much today, but back then it was a pretty big budget.”

And it shows, Mr. Coburn. We believe you.

Sure, those LOOKER guns and goggles and light wand-bar thingies are pretty cool — zapping away people’s memories and all, but what in the hell is going on? And we could say, “What in the hell made Albert Finney hold out three years — only to pick Looker as a project he wanted to do?” As we learned from James Coburn as to what happens often with a box office failure: The film in the script and on the storyboards never ends up on film. And the story that ends up on film, doesn’t come out of the editing suite quite the same way.

If you recall that Crichton also wrote and directed Westworld (1973) and Coma (1979) — both awesome films that we enjoyed that became critical and box office hits — and remembering he dipped his toes into the “ancient future” with the less successful Tom Selleck bomb that was Runaway (1984) — you’ll see those film’s concepts are laced throughout the plot. Looker is a tale about how technology can be used to manipulate consumers’ impulses and responses to advertising. This same concept, even less effectively, plays out in the 1980 Lee Majors-starring Canadian thriller, Agency — only with a stronger political slant and without the sci-fi angle. And to that end: Digital Matrix/Restin Industries (run by Coburn’s John Restin) is “backing” the next President of the United States.

Albert Finney is Dr. Larry Roberts, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who comes under suspicion for the murder of four of his model-patients. He comes to discover each were employed, and sent to his practice by, an advertising research firm that’s developed a process of digitally scanning bodies into 3-D models — and never having to use the real models in advertising campaigns, ever again. Why do they have to be murdered after? Exactly. And the reasons are never explained.

Well, guess what?

Thanks to the advent of film restoration reissues on DVD and Blu-ray, the “scene” that explains the “why” can finally be watched, albeit a couple decades too late. Why was this cut from the U.S. and theatrical and home video versions — and left in the European prints that run 15 minutes longer than the domestic 93 minute (one hour and thirty-three minutes) cut — is only for a Warner Bros. executive to tell. Since then, there are commercial TV prints that have this missing scene restored. And we wish someone would rip the TV version, as this missing scene is absolutely crucial to the story — so we can see James Coburn’s point about his dissatisfaction (you’ll notice the local station ID logo that appears within the clip, below). The “document shredding” analogy as to why the girls were murdered is an excellent testament of the sharp mind and pen of Michael Crichton.

In addition — we think — to using their “Light Ocular Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses” technology to hypnotize consumers into purchasing a product — and vote — they also developed a weapon-version of the technology for military applications: when fired, the LOOKER gun creates the illusion of visibility of the user, as the victim “shot” looses all sense of time.

So, this one has it all: consumerism manipulation, political manipulation, and the distortion of technologies to, instead of helping people, lull them into submission. And you get a great soundtrack by Barry De Vorzon, who also gave us the soundtracks to Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Rolling Thunder, and The Warriors.

Unfortunately, what Looker does not have is the editing that gave it a lick of sense when we went to see it at the local twin cinema all those years ago. I have watched the longer, overseas version since then, and Looker is better than I remembered.

And it’s probably more likely to happen now, than then — thanks to social media. And the way everyone has been carrying on this past year and change in cities across America, probably is. Is Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai today’s John Restin?

They’re looking at you.

No freebie, kids. Ah, but we found a deleted-scene clip and the trailer. You can rent-to-stream on Vudu and You Tube. Because of its oft-runs on HBO in the early ’80s, it’s a fan favorite and has a wealth of ripped clips to sample via You Tube and Google’s video-search feature. You can purchase Looker via the Warner Archive at WBShop.com. You can also purchase copies of the hard media and streaming version at Amazon.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.