Cyberpunk Review » Looker

March 5, 2007


Movie Review By: Dan Swensen

Year: 1981

Directed by: Michael Crichton

Written by: Michael Crichton

IMDB Reference

Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: Low

Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: Medium

Key Cast Members:

  • Larry Roberts: Albert Finney
  • Cindy Fairmont: Susan Dey
  • John Reston: James Coburn
Rating: 5 out of 10

Looker Screencap

Uneven, satirical, and oddly prophetic in its own half-baked way, Michael Crichton’s 1981 film Looker takes place in a terrifying universe of glamour, dehumanization, corporate deception, and Susan Dey hooking up with Albert Finney.


SFAM NOTE: We welcome new reviewer Dan Swensen, who also runs a terrific Sci-Fi blog called the If others are interested in joining the review team, please post a message in the review forum.


Overview: The year is 1981, and pudgy, befuddled plastic surgeon Larry Roberts (Finney) becomes involved in a mystery when one of his models, dissolved in tears, arrives in his office raving hysterically about mysterious people trying to kill her. Hours later, the model inexplicably falls from the window of her high-rise apartment, and evidence of foul play points to Roberts himself. Justifiably concerned, Roberts begins playing amateur detective, teaming up with his patient (the vapid and insecure Cindy Fairmont, played by Susan Dey) to find out what’s really happening to these models, who seem to be dying off in droves shortly after visiting Roberts’ office to be “perfected.”

Mostly relying on the incompetence of the antagonists and the near-complete apathy of the cops, Roberts eventually tracks the clues back to a company called Digital Matrix, a computer graphics and advertising firm that specializes in creating digital replicas of top commercial models. While these models are given lucrative contracts in exchange for their digital likenesses, they seem to mysteriously die shortly thereafter, their handsome royalties left unpaid. It doesn’t take long for Roberts to figure out that Digital Matrix is duplicating these models, then killing them off, as their “digital doubles” will do their job better — and for free.


Looker Screencap


Machines and Misogyny: In an age where digital replacement and enhancement of actors is now extremely commonplace, Looker seems both surprisingly relevant and woefully dated at the same time. Penned in by Hollywood’s desire for complete perfection, the models of Looker fret over millimeter-sized flaws, consumed with self-loathing over even the slightest imperfection. As the story progresses, the audience finds this to be more than mere vanity — in Crichton’s world, Digital Matrix has reduced human behavior to a set of algorithms, able to determine (and manipulate) the focus of a viewer’s attention with ultimate precision to maximize product exposure and desire.

Because these manipulations require inhuman accuracy, the models themselves soon become not only obsolete, but liabilities to the company. The theme of dehumanization — the models looked upon by the corporations, and themselves, not as human beings but commodities to be used up and thrown away — is very strong in the first half of the film, underlined by a casual misogyny that may or may not have been intentional (it was 1981, after all).



In addition to the prophetic “digital doubles” of the film, Looker’s most science-fiction invention is the L.O.O.K.E.R. device (short for Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses), a “light gun” that stuns and paralyzes the target using light. Anyone exposed to this weapon experiences a sort of “missing time” as they stand paralyzed, allowing the weapon’s user to move around, invisible and undetected, for short periods. Digital Matrix uses the device to cover their tracks, making the models’ deaths appear as suicides.

While Looker is more than a bit plodding at times, the film’s use of this device is undoubtedly the most clever effect in the film, as characters find themselves losing time without knowing how or why. (It’s also worth mentioning that the L.O.O.K.E.R. device is the movie’s only real special effect, and provides the film’s most interesting visuals.) The L.O.O.K.E.R. device is a neat little concept, one I wish could have gotten better treatment in a better film.


Looker Screencap


The Bottom Line: Unfortunately, Looker is a movie with a few good ideas that don’t quite survive the runtime. The last half-hour of the movie is an extended game of “humorous” cat-and-mouse in which the heroes and villains chase each other through a virtual landscape of digitized commercials — the best of which is a genuinely macabre moment featuring digitized kids complaining about their breakfast cereal as a real human lies dead on the prop kitchen table.

While these scenes are mildly funny on a multitude of levels (the style of commercials, for all their “digital” glory, are more akin to something out of the Fifties than anything out of science fiction), they’re out of tone with the rest of the film. Albert Finney is no action hero, and doesn’t even have the charisma necessary to be a good everyman. Susan Dey’s character is too insecure and flat to be anything but an object of pity, and James Coburn’s turn as the villain, while passable, is too brief to be interesting.


A mustachioed Eighties thug gets a taste of the L.O.O.K.E.R. device.


That’s not to say that the film can’t be enjoyed as good cheese, however — there are some amusingly inept moments (watch for the car “crashing” into the fountain), and the few special effects are decent enough. Overall, Looker is probably more interesting as a historical piece than as a thriller — though it’s dated badly on a number of levels, the ideas of dehumanization and artifice that it puts forth were, for 1981, surprisingly forward-thinking. It might also be interesting to note that Looker made the first real attempt at a realistic CGI character, as well as the first movie to used 3-D computer shading.

After its release in theaters, Looker haunted the bleak hinterlands of early Eighties cable television for awhile (probably sandwiched somewhere between showings of Krull and The Entity), and is out on DVD now. Oh, and if you care about that sort of thing, Susan Dey is naked in it.

-Dan Swensen

This post has been filed under Memory Modification, Man-machine Interface, 5 Star Rated Movies, B Cyberpunk Cinema, Cyberpunk movies from 1980-1989 by Dan Swensen.


March 5, 2007

SFAM said:

Terrific review, Dan! I hadn’t even heard of Looker, let alone seen it. I’m adding this to my order now. Thanks again!

[ETM] said:

Welcome to CPR, man. Great review.

*goes off to search for Susan Dey pics*

Hugo said:

If you’re into visual effects (especially Computer Generated Images or CGI) and you Google, ‘Milestones in CG’ (or something similar) this film inevitably pops up in such lists as having the first completely CG ’sim’ (a CG character that is meant to not so much be a rough interpretation of a human being such as the characters in ‘The Lawnmower Man’ but moreover be as real-looking as possible). If memory serves me they took hundreds of photographs of Susan Dey and scanned it into a computer to make a ‘3D composite’ of her.

Please note I am not a VFX expert and everyone I said above may be hugely inaccurate :P. Thanks for the review, Dan!

Mr. Roboto said:

I haven’t watched Looker in years (since at least 1990 on TV). I remember that light-gun being the coolest “weapon” I’ve seen up to that time.

I also remember that they also used a similar L.O.O.K.E.R. effect for the models in commercials, in the form of a blue “flash” in the model’s eyes. It was meant to be a form of subliminal message delivery that made people want to buy the product being advertised.

I need to find that DVD!.

[…] that would be unfair to both of you. Anyway, have a “look” (haha! Oh, the wit) at the Looker review over at […]

M.Christian said:

I always thought the technology was interesting — but the movie considerably less so (yawn)

March 9, 2007

Case said:

Question: If you’re reviewing this, can Tom Selleck in RUNAWAY be far behind?

Dan Swensen said:

Hey, that’s a great idea. :)

David Gentle said:

Aw, I loved Runaway. go ahead, knock yourself out.

March 11, 2007

SFAM said:

Hi Case, actually its funny you should mention that - I’m about two-thirds the way through Runaway right now! After I get the changes to the Wordpress application fixed, I’ll probably be reviewing a really low-budget movie called “CLONE” first, but will probably be doing Runaway after that.

March 14, 2007

Laura said:

really accurate description Dan……Good Job!!! :)
I saw this movie twice!

June 5, 2007

Phentermine. said (trackback):

Phentermine cheap….


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September 10, 2007

Marc McKenzie said:

All right, LOOKER! Yeah, it is dated, and it is not the best example of 1980’s SF. That said, it is a reminder that Michael Crichton used to write and direct movies, it does have one of the coolest weapons ever (the L.O.O.K.E.R. gun)…and it does predict, with chilling, dead-on accuracy, the use of CGI as a major factor in media.

The fact that the film also shows just how easily people can be manipulated by the media is also sadly accurate.

Yeah, it is cheese, and it isn’t a great example of SF, but you know what? There are still a few diamonds in the rough within the movie that make it worth a look (no pun intended).

September 27, 2009

Paissurry said:

Thank you for great post!

January 26, 2010

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[…] Strain and the television series ER, he has also written and directed several movies including Looker and […]

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