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Another look at Looker

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In the process of cleaning the house I’m going through and watching some movies to decide if I want to keep them or not. This evening I watched 1981’s Looker, brought to us from Michael Crichton, the same guy who brought us The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park.

Warning! Spoilers ahead.

The basic idea of the movie is plastic surgeon Larry Roberts (played by Albert Finney) does work for the starlets in Hollywood, making them beautiful so they can get more work in the looks obsessed television world. Three of his former patients die, apparently by suicide. The good doctor comes under suspicion from the police, of course, because all three girls were his patients, and the police think he did it. Especially as his pen and a button from his jacket were found at the scene of one of the crimes.

A fourth actress, Cindy (played by Susan Dey aka Laurie Partridge of the Partridge Family) comes to see him. She, and the other actresses have all been to a company called Digital Matrix, a subdivision of Reston Industries, run by John Reston (played by James Coburn).

It seems Digital Matrix is into a lot of R&D surrounding optics. They’ve developed a gun that emits light pulses that puts a person in a fugue state where they aren’t aware of time passing. So, half an hour might pass in the blink of an eye for the person affected by the gun. There is a shadowy bad guy who uses the gun to handle the dirty work of Digital Matrix, including killing the actresses.

Ultimately, Digital Matrix is trying to create computer generated images of the actresses to be used in commercials that contain subliminal light pulses (much like the gun) that put the people watching the commercial into a state where they are driven to buy whatever is being advertised. They’ll buy whether it is floor wax, or a politician running for office. Once you have computer versions of the real people, who needs actresses any more?

Dr. Roberts follows the trail, exposes the bad guys, and stops their nefarious schemes.

The movie is basically sounding a warning bell against blind consumerism, and makes a plausible argument for completely computer generated commercials and other entertainment replacing live actors.

Reston even has a little speech he gives at the unveiling ceremony for his new line of commercials about the power of media in influencing buying behavior:

Television can control public opinion more effectively than armies of secret police, because television is entirely voluntary. The American government forces our children to attend school, but nobody forces them to watch T.V. Americans of all ages submit to television. Television is the American ideal. Persuasion without coercion. Nobody makes us watch. Who could have predicted that a free people would voluntarily spend one fifth of their lives sitting in front of a box with pictures? Fifteen years sitting in prison is punishment. But 15 years sitting in front of a television set is entertainment. And the average American now spends more than one and a half years of his life just watching television commercials. Fifty minutes, every day of his life, watching commercials. Now, that’s power.

John Reston (James Coburn) in Looker – he’s not wrong

Looking at in the light of special effects blockbusters like we’ve had over the last twenty years or so, the movie seems kinda quaint today. We’ve adopted the computer generate models and elevated the practice into creating entire worlds.

And no subliminal trickery is required to get people to buy, just a little psychology. Put the right offer infront of the right audience and they’ll gladly fork over their money. Now we can create videos in seconds using AI generated materials so we can push the consumer buying buttons at an even greater pace.

I wonder if Michael Crichton knew how prescient his movie would turn out to be?

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