Looker (1981) Retrospective

Dr. Larry Roberts (Finney), a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, is puzzled when four beautiful models working in television commercials request cosmetic surgery to make changes so minor as to be imperceptible to the naked eye. When these models later start dying under mysterious circumstances, he discovers they are all linked to the same advertisement research firm.


The Digital Matrix research firm rates advertising models using a scoring system to measure the combined visual impact of various physical attributes in television commercials. In an experiment to increase their scores, some models are sent to Dr. Roberts to get cosmetic surgery to maximize their visual impact. Though the models are physically perfect after the surgery, they still are not as effective as desired, so the research firm decides to use a different approach. Each model is offered a contract to have her body scanned digitally to create 3D computer-generated models, then the 3D models are animated for use in commercials. The contracts seem to be incredibly lucrative for the models; once their bodies are represented digitally, they get a paycheck for life, never having to work again, since their digital models are used for all their future work in commercials.

However, when these same models start dying under mysterious circumstances, Roberts becomes suspicious and decides to investigate Digital Matrix. He has a strong interest in investigating the deaths: he is considered a prime suspect by the police (from evidence planted at the scene of one of the murders) and his most recent patient, (with whom he is in a relationship) Cindy (Susan Dey). Cindy is the last of the models to be digitally scanned.


During his investigation, Roberts discovers some advanced technology that the Digital Matrix corporation is using to hypnotize consumers into buying the products they advertise. He also discovers the Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses (L.O.O.K.E.R.) gun, a light pulse device that gives the illusion of invisibility by instantly mesmerizing its victims into losing all sense of time.

Michael Crichton has a feeling that some sort of subliminal or high-tech generated advertising is bound to turn up on the tube one of these days. He calls it “below the belt” advertising. It probably won’t be as blatant as mind control through computerized tv commercials, the theme of his upcoming movie, “Looker”, it is likelier to be a more subtle intrusion, with mere market share at stake.

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Crichton didn’t see it that way when he started the screenplay in the mid-1970s. “From the beginning, I tried to write what I thought was a ridiculous story where people were enticed by computer-animated images,” said the author/movie maker. “It was meant to be a comedy originally. Then when we went around to animation houses asking for bids, this odd thing happened, which was that nobody we talked to said, ‘what a bizarre idea’ or ‘how silly.’ Finally we had a guy who said, ‘Well, of course you know everyone’s doing this work. … This is the hot new field.””

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The lifelike animation work of computer companies is not being done for sinister purposes, of course. It’s just the next important step in the advances of computer animation. “They’re doing that work because it’s interesting work,” he said. “But a lot of these people are also involved in advertising because advertising uses computer animation the network logos, those shimmery ‘ABCs’ that spin in space and gleam and glitter.”

Though sparse in visual effects, the film is notable for being the first commercial film to attempt to make a realistic computer-generated character, for the model named Cindy. It was also the first film to create three-dimensional (3D) shading with a computer.

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In “Looker,” gorgeous models are zapped by a “Looker gun” as part of Reston Industries’ scheme to create computerized commercials whose lifelike presenters are given special mind-control powers by a “Looker” device.

“It doesn’t work,” said Mr. Crichton, “and the whole end of the movie is funny. It was meant to be funny. The villain has this elaborate plan and it all falls apart. I’m not very worried about all this, but what I am saying is this: Here are the trends, here’s what’s being done, here are the pressures on advertising to perform…

“Advertising is not necessarily benign now, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to get more benign. Probably it’s going to get more fiercely competitive, and if more is known about how we look at things and what makes us buy, what motivates us to do things, then advertising’s going to grab all that and use it. It does now. Eventually you get to the point where there could be something very different from wires in the brain and that sort of Orwellian 1984 form of thought control. Instead, there will be just a series of images that are very, very compelling: you just can’t take your eyes away.”

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What Michael Crichton has come around to thinking is that “it’s possible to imagine that we’re coming to a point where there’s enough pressure on advertising to deliver-and where there’s enough competition among all these messages that you really have to have more impact. So people will do whatever they can, whatever they can think of or come up with to make that piece of advertising work. And if that involves sneaking into the back door of consciousness, they’ll do it. Absolutely They’ll do it.”

Looker became an early production of The Ladd Company. It was Leigh Taylor-Young’s first film in eight years.

Looker (1981) Barry De Vorzon Score/Soundtrack

Directed by   Michael Crichton
Produced by Howard Jeffrey
Written by     Michael Crichton

Albert Finney as Dr. Larry Roberts
James Coburn as John Reston
Susan Dey as Cindy Fairmont
Leigh Taylor Young as Jennifer Long
Dorian Harewood as Lieutenant Masters
Darryl Hickman as Dr. Jim Belfield
Terri Welles as Lisa Convey
Terry Kiser as Commercial Director

Crichton: A Futuristic View of Ads by John Revett
Looker – MichaelCrichton.comwww.michaelcrichton.com

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