Brief accounts of this film give a general overview (“robots run amok in costly future amusement park”), or else they give a more precise but still incomplete picture (“robot gunslinger runs amok,” etc.).
It’s a two-part joke laid on a tripartite structure. Delos is divided in three parts: Roman World, Medieval World, and Western World. The first murder occurs when a guest playing the part of the King in, say, Camelot, is killed by a robot Black Knight. Only then do you get the black-hatted gunslinger on a rampage. Roman World, if I’m not mistaken, exists to mask the structure a little and give a background sense of decadence, even as a false scent.
So it’s a tremendous mechanism, this film, with an extremely simple key (which might be MacBird!). The economy of back-lot shooting is its own reward in this instance, though there are some desert locations (and the Roman scenes were filmed on Harold Lloyd’s estate).
The complicated maneuvers give a lot of precise images as seeming throwaways. The robot Queen and Black Knight are last seen motionless seated on thrones like Gertrude and Claudius while the gunslinger is finally dispatched, and there is an explanation for their immobility—in the crisis, the power is shut off and their batteries have run down. Images, duplex or composite images, and withal a rationale, that’s Westworld.
Crichton’s film is a beautiful high-wire act with a net, if you miss the line of thought you bounce along a satire as old as medicine. But observe the structure, which is consciously disposed along Hitchcockian models very sagely. An affair between surgeons at Boston Memorial ends because of professional difficulties, “you don’t want a relationship, you want a wife,” he tells her.
Two young, healthy patients are lost to brain death on the operating table during minor surgery, first a married woman covering up an affair, then a man hurt playing touch football. There is a scheme to preserve the bodies for lucrative harvesting on the international market by telephone auction.
The image is of harpies devouring the flesh of this young couple, and by the end of the film they unite against this threat.
Not only Hitchcock is cited (Foreign Correspondent all but directly), also both of Donen’s studies, Charade and Arabesque, making for a comprehensive view of the elements in play, and every bit of this, along with a fine study of medical practice then and now, was unobserved by the critics.
The First Great Train Robbery
The specific gravity of this film is somewhere between Our Hospitality and The General. The director’s madness ekes out the folly to create a Crystal Palace fireworks display.
A magnificent sequence from Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger lasting some minutes, later treated at even greater length by Alfred Hitchcock in Torn Curtain, is resumed here in ten seconds.
In the great finale, an unharnessed Sean Connery is set to clambering over the curved roofs of the cars as the train steams under bridges from the days of Watt.
You think you live in a modern age where such things don’t happen (and some of you think you live in a postmodern age where nothing happens), but great artists still do sometimes dwell in obscurity, and masterpieces like Looker are universally condemned even today.
It’s a venial sin when a critic says a film is bad because he can’t understand it, but if he says the film is so bad it cannot be understood, that’s a mortal sin, from a critical viewpoint. Leigh Taylor-Young’s uncanny resemblance to Alida Valli in Les Yeux sans Visage might have been done on purpose to leave a key for the critics, an open homage to the foundation of the work.
Rather than grafting one girl’s face onto another, as in Franju’s film, Crichton imagines models grafted to virtual reality as CGI’s with commercial applications and a hypnotic message in their unreal eyes. He adds the Looker gun, which stuns and immobilizes with an electronic beam of light. Only two things repel the gun’s effect: reflective glasses and smoke.
Above all, he grounds the whole thing on the framing of a plastic surgeon for the murders of models he simply improves, before they go off to shoot for Digital Matrix, Inc. (a division of Reston Industries). Their commercials have revealing slogans: “Ravish fulfills your deepest desires,” or “take Liberties wherever you go”. The Bloated Oaties of George Marshall’s Money from Home appear in a breakfast cereal commercial, streamlined to just plain Oaties.
The Looker gun is partly a spoof on the stunned immobility many people experience when staring at the electron gun of a television screen, and partly it reflects the image of Kate Reid in The Andromeda Strain prevented by an epileptic seizure from doing her work monitoring the lab analysis on a computer screen.
“It is unlawful to hypnotize a man in order to perforate him,” as René Char says. Or, as Nabokov has it in “Ode to a Model”, “Can one marry a model? / Kill your past, make you real, raise a family, / by removing you bodily / from back numbers of Sham?” One of the great satires of television, between Fahrenheit 451 and Wag the Dog. The rat behind the TV console, or the hunter in his transparent duck blind.
The conversion of a manufacturing economy to a service economy is of course a subjugation, that is a fair and necessary thing by some lights. Crichton depicts a labor force of unfuturistic robots, not anthropoid but commercially applicable, they fill every job in restaurants and construction and even hand-pick caterpillars off vegetables, here is the true economic base. The machines go haywire every so often, a police unit deals with these mishaps.
A domestic unit raises children and tends the house. A criminal has a computer chip for sale to any outlandish brigand, it can be mass-produced and easily converts the harmless home or business implement into a murderous weapon.
Crichton’s themes come to a visual stretto toward the end, out of Looker and The Andromeda Strain. A secondary theme directly taken from Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a complicated resource.
There is a question, to put it bluntly, if Henry Mancini failed to perceive this, subtlety being a strong point of his as a rule. It is underplayed, almost like a chamber opera, and the intimate style Crichton brings to it is unexpected.
The joke is very simple, and at that completely eluded the Washington Post reviewer. Burt Reynolds is a very tough and smart policeman (or one neither too bright nor very effectual, depending on your point of view) who wakes from a drunken stupor to find himself framed for murder. Theresa Russell is a public defender who’s assigned to his case. That’s really all there is to it, this “fortuitous rencounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” except the working out of the business, and the great shots Crichton has of Boston.
One stunning image puts the murderer’s car in a forest of geometric night exterior downtown. It’s the sort of thing that makes you patient with Roger Ebert, who not only didn’t get the opening gag, he actually gave a wrong explanation of the static formula governing such structural devices.
But, as the critics no doubt say, so many films, so little time.