Sometimes it seems like a movie has to wait for its time to come – and for Looker (1981) that moment is now. Industrialist James Coburn explains that it’s the politicians who cause all the trouble – “Multinationals want peace and stability. Governments are recklessly out of control.” It’s up to private industry to save society.

In Looker, Albert Finney plays plastic surgeon Larry Roberts. Four of his actress patients have come to him with a shopping list of minor adjustments to their bodies, and when they start dying in mysterious circumstances, Larry has to protect the survivor Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey – The Partridge Family, LA Law) and convince the police that he’s not killing off his patients.

Written and directed by Michael Crichton, (Westworld, Coma) the movie is a lighthearted thriller in the vein of North By Northwest which deals with concepts that seemed like science fiction in 1981 and seem like science fact now. On initial release, Variety called the movie, “silly and unconvincing”, partly due to the choices made in the original edit. The Blu-Ray currently available from Warner has a deleted scene in the extras which was apparently added to the TV cut, and which makes the plot clearer (while hinting that additional material might have been cut from the cinema version).

Finney discovers that the millimeter-accurate list of plastic surgery corrections have been provided by a firm called Digital Matrix which is involved with the production of TV adverts. Their next step is to ask Cindy to submit to a computer scanner in exchange for a lucrative lifetime contract. The scanner is the size of an electricity sub-station and Cindy has to descend naked on an illuminated platform in the roof. Once inside, the computer scanning effects are a combination of trick lighting and animation, as a digital copy of Cindy is created to serve the company.

When Finney uses a stolen electronic pass to visit Digital Matrix at night, he discovers that the firm has developed a light gun which can both create the illusion of invisibility and put victims into a trance so that an hour can pass in the blink of an eye. The scene in which Finney flicks through the technical manual describing the gun shows just how long ago the movie was made. Today, you’d be able to buy both the gun and the manual as part of the merchandising, whereas in 1981 the camera skims over the detailed schematics in seconds.

The ability to create the illusion of invisibility points to some of the inconsistency detected by critics. The fact that the gun can ‘freeze’ its victims explains some of the early plot points but would make the later extended fight and chase scenes impossible. If you’re in a trance, there’s no way you can resist your assailant.

Albert Finney in Michael Crichton’s tribute to Poe

When I first saw Looker on TV (11 September 1990) I remember I wasn’t paying attention at first and thought during the title sequence that it was a TV movie – the photography has that smeary pastel 1980’s look, combined with a minimalist electronic score. It was only when I realised that Albert Finney was in it that I knew it couldn’t be a TV movie.

Once the titles have finished the movie kicks off with an intriguing, eerie, hallucinatory scene which grabs the attention. Crichton notes in the commentary that he had to keep slowing up the pace of these scenes so that audiences could grasp what was going on. Ironically, one of the themes of the film is that by 1980 audiences were willingly giving their attention up to adverts. Crichton compares the punishment of being forced to sit in a prison cell for most of the day as punishment, with audiences willingly shutting themselves in with a a box for entertainment. In the commentary (which seems to have been recorded in 2006) Crichton notes that audiences could use a Tivo to skip TV adverts. But of course, things have moved on in 15 years and we are subjected to a wider range of adverts and clickbait on our laptops and phones. And during lockdown in 2020 much of the population has alternated between Working From Home and being entertained on the same devices.

As noted, there is an intriguing ‘deleted scene’ on the Blu-Ray which appears to have been reinstated for the TV version of the movie. This is a welcome addition, making clear how James Coburn’s conglomerate intends to use the digital technology to put a President in the White House! But comments made in this scene about the detective played by Dorian Harewood, lead to the suspicion that there are further scenes missing. Finney says he has passed one of the light guns on to Harewood, but there is no point in the existing movie where Finney could have done that. In fact, in the existing cut Harewood seems to be aware that Finney has been set up. Could there be an expanded Looker at some time in the future? Who knows.