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The one element of storytelling Michael Crichton has never remotely understood is that of smuggling. For the best-selling author and occasional (though seemingly retired) film director, the themes are always right there in the premise, waiting for the boilerplate suspense narrative to be grafted on with very little care. To be fair, Crichton wasn't half-bad at spinning a yarn early in his career, with The Andromeda Strain and Westworld (a film only) being particularly enjoyable fluff with laughably "serious" underpinnings. But, like so many others, the guy got lazy in the 1980s, resting on his Harvard M.D. pedigree and belching out one high-concept, low-aiming work after another. One might admire the work ethic and business savvy, but only the least demanding consumer could be satisfied with pseudo-scientific crap like Congo and Sphere. Unfortunately, the books sold briskly, so Crichton kept the poorly-crafted pap coming until he decided the narratives didn't even have to make sense anymore (as amply demonstrated by the ludicrous Timeline). What's most confounding about Crichton's appeal is that his works are ostensibly "plausible," which is to say that they are backed up by real science before they get blown out into something fantastic. Such was the intended appeal of his 1981 film Looker, a Hitchcockian thriller with sci-fi trimmings that sought to warn viewers of potentially nefarious advances in advertising. Wedding this with Hollywood's just-catching-fire craze for elective plastic surgery to fix perceived bodily imperfections, Crichton certainly wasn't stretching to suggest that ideal beauty sells better than plain-jane mediocrity, while the notion that marketers would eventually refine it to a numerical science was already out there what with the practice of polling and focus groups. But Crichton once again has no interest in setting his tale in a believable reality, which would be fine if he weren't so heavily hammering home the cautionary aspects of the narrative.

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Starring Albert Finney as a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon with a conscience who grows unsettled when his perfection-seeking female patients start turning up dead, Looker is nothing more than a gimmick-laden slab of sci-fi hoping to wow audiences with some gadgetry and flesh, the latter being surprisingly abundant for a PG-rated release (seriously, Looker might be some kind of a record holder in this regard). Sensing that these deaths aren't at all coincidental, Finney rather aggressively inserts himself into the life of Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey), who appears to be his last surviving female patient fitting the aforementioned profile. Thankfully, Dey is playing an actress, so, in a first for a Crichton story, it's entirely reasonable that she'd be enough of an emotional cripple to not mind an older, successful doctor suffocating her with attention. This also allows Crichton the luxury of moving the plot forward by having Finney exclaim "I'll go with you!" every time Dey attempts to leave his beach house. In less convincing developments, the evil advertising house behind the model murders also happens to be the primary investor in Finney's dream hospital for burn victims, but it's run by James Coburn, so one naturally kind of likes the manipulative bastards. Aside from the supposed forward-looking sci-fi, the real draw here is a light-emitting gun that stuns people into a trance for an indeterminate amount of time. The whole concept makes absolutely no sense, but Crichton does exhibit a welcome sense of humor with its aftereffects. He also opts for a fairly light-hearted tone down the stretch with a gunfight in a virtual studio that seems intended to be a high-tech update of the hall-of-mirrors showdown from Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai. Somehow, it just doesn't measure up. The dated synth soundtrack is from Mr. "Nadia's Theme" himself, Barry De Vorzon. Voted out of the vault by DVD consumers in 2006, Warner Home Video presents Looker in a nice, first-time anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras include an introduction from Crichton, a feature-length commentary with the writer/director, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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