Movie Review: LOOKER (from 1981)

The talented, late actor Albert Finney starred in two films released in 1981, neither of which performed well at the box office at the time. His urban horror film WOLFEN (released in July of ’81) was powerful and well-done, however. It explored the tension between nature and the encroachment of humans and their technology via an often haunting, atmospheric screenplay about highly intelligent wolves killing people in parts of NYC. There was even a Native American shamanic thread within the narrative, adding further depth. I watched that movie with rapt attention in the theater and then again on video about a year later. I can see why Mr. Finney chose to perform in such an interesting, thought-provoking project.

LOOKER, released in October of 1981, is also an urban-oriented suspense thriller, though far more superficial than that year’s WOLFEN. As a teenager, I remember feeling curious to see the film when it was new in the local movie theater, but, somehow, I didn’t manage to get around to doing so until very recently, over forty years later.

Albert Finney stars as Dr. Larry Roberts, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. Susan Dey costars as Cindy Fairmont, a professional television and print model and one of his recent patients. Three models, all patients of Dr. Roberts,’ are mysteriously killed in close succession, two of them on screen. Larry and Cindy become caught up in the police investigation of these murders, which point to Digital Matrix, a research firm that’s directly a part of a large corporation headed up by John Reston (James Coburn).

LOOKER is a fairly weak screenplay, which, I read, would likely have been more coherent and logical if it were not so edited down to just ninety-four minutes. It presents some science fiction technology that borders on the absurd, namely a certain light pulse (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses or L.O.O.K.E.R.) gun. This weapon temporarily blinds a person with carefully pulsed light, hypnotizing the victim to lose sense of time for several moments and render their assailant briefly invisible to them. Some similar technology is used on television commercials, whereby the audience is hypnotized into buying the endorsed products. The presentation of this and the CGI of human models is visually interesting and intriguing, especially for how long ago this movie was made. The actual CGI in LOOKER is minimal (on CRT screens within the movie), whereas real people (including Dey’s character Cindy) play what are supposed to be CGI creations within TV commercials. We viewers are never explicitly told why three models are killed and a fourth one, Cindy (Dey), is in grave danger. But, we eventually surmise that Digital Matrix simply does not wish to continue to pay a salary to live models once it creates CGI duplicates of them to use on TV at no further cost and only for profit.

The core premise of this what now seems like a fun cult movie from the early ’80s is that TV is a means of hypnotic control of the masses by predatory corporations and humans are disposable, even replaceable with computer technology. In a way, this campy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek production is hauntingly prescient. It presents AI made imagery, now taking off hugely on social media over the past few years, without actually calling it that. The development of “deep fake” online videos of people and the current debate about concerns over AI stealing from and, eventually, replacing the work of graphic and other visual artists are indicators that we have pretty much arrived in the strange world LOOKER was foreseeing.

LOOKER is visually slick and entertaining in places with its display of beautiful women models wearing tasteful clothes and bathing suits. And I always find Los Angeles city and beach scenery make for pleasant viewing. Finney’s and Coburn’s presences lend some ruggedly masculine gravitas to this amusingly bizarre, if often flimsy, film. Nevertheless, what manages to come through somewhat are the grave implications of technology driven by hyper-capitalism. If left un-checked, this economic model can and will further steal lives and souls from humanity. I do wonder if some footage left on the cutting room floor rendered this movie more vapid than what it may well not have been had the final print been, say, about half an hour longer. According to Mr. Coburn himself, “They really pissed that film away,” because of over-editing. It seems like an opportunity was missed in producing a more substantive, memorable project.