Kevin: Albert Finney has passed away at the age of 82, leaving behind a body of work including classics such as “Tom Jones,” “Two for the Road,” “Miller’s Crossing,” and “Erin Brockovich.” Weirdly though, the film I will always associate with the legendary actor is the nearly forgotten 1981 Michael Crichton thriller “Looker,” which seemed goofy and ridiculous at the time, but in hindsight was scarily prescient about issues we are dealing with today involving unattainable beauty standards and the use of computer generated actors in place of the real thing:
“Looker” was an HBO staple back when I was a kid, and I’ve probably seen it more times than I will ever watch any of the current Best Picture nominees due to the fact that it came out when you could have abundant female nudity in a film and still get a PG rating, thus allowing it to be shown on cable multiple times during the day. Finney stars as the most in-demand plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, who begins to investigate why already gorgeous models and actresses coming into his office seeking absurdly minimal enhancements keep winding up dead soon after.
While Crichton was obviously better known for novels such as “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park” that predicted the rise of super-diseases and cloning advancements, “Looker” (which he wrote and directed) also anticipates the current obsession with unnecessary plastic surgery procedures and use of technology such as Photoshop to help people conform to an idealized and naturally unattainable standard of beauty. Of course this also allows Crichton to have his cake and eat it to, satirizing the increasingly absurd lengths we’ll go to for the “perfect” look, while also cramming his film with tons of vintage ’80s beauties, including a post-“Partridge Family” and pre-“L.A. Law” Susan Dey:
Eventually Finney and Dey discover that the surgeries and murders are all connected to the sinister Digital Matrix research firm run by the reliably oily James Coburn, who has been digitally scanning the bodies of Finney’s patients to create completely lifelike 3D computer-generated models for use in commercials. While the women are promised paychecks for life in exchange for use of their likenesses, Coburn soon after has them killed, which seems like a lot more trouble than it’s worth, unless his payroll department is really unorganized and he doesn’t want to deal with keeping track of monthly residuals.
It also doesn’t occur to him that people might find it a little ghoulish that they are being sold products advertised by murdered women long after their death, but hey, if no one seems to have a problem with Snickers using Marilyn Monroe to sell candy bars more than 50 years after her tragic overdose, then I guess anything is possible:
“Looker” thus presented a future in which actors could keep working forever, which seemed far-fetched decades before movies like “Rogue One” brought Peter Cushing back from the dead to reprise his character from the original “Star Wars.” In being the first film to feature a computer-generated character, beating “Tron” by a few months, “Looker” also predicted the use of motion-capture technology to create lifelike characters such as Caesar from the newest “Planet of the Apes” films or Thanos from “Avengers: Infinity War.” (NSFW, and again, this was a PG movie):
Of course some of the Crichton’s conceits like technology that can hypnotize commercial-watchers through the TV screen or a light gun that can instantly cause a person to freeze in their tracks still have not materialized. But no matter how outlandish the film gets, Finney fully commits and treats every plot turn with total seriousness and gravitas. And if nothing else, the theme song for “Looker” is completely timeless, listening to it today it sounds like it could be from any time from early 1981, mid-1981, or late 1981: