“You may think I’m beautiful Dr Roberts, but I’m not. I have lots of defects to fix.”
A stunning model details her supposed flaws to a bemused plastic surgeon, listing the minute adjustments necessary to make her perfect. “My nose is .2 millimetres too narrow and my cheekbones are .4 millimetres too high.”
Even the most beautiful among us have problems with their features, as modern society’s norms are increasingly governed by advertising, creating a false image of perfection simply unattainable by regular humans. Back in 1981, the seeds of this modern malaise were being planted – plastic surgery was a booming industry, but yet to become normalised as lifestyle staple.
Step forward Michael Crichton, king of zeitgeist techno-prophecy, with a warning that binds our burgeoning obsession with perfection to media manipulation in a sly, witty thriller that subverted audience expectations and satirised 80’s mores so well that many simply didn’t get the joke at the time.
Beginning with a spoof ad for Ravish perfume (“it fulfills your deepest desire”) so pitch perfect it would have sold buckets, the tone is set for a ride into shifting perceptions. The above interview with prospective client Lisa introduces top Beverly Hills slicer-to-the-stars Larry Roberts (Albert Finney), who decides to ignore his reservations and perform the unnecessary surgery in lieu of someone worse doing a bad job.
Lisa is the third such patient to appear with specified requirements for TV commercial work. Larry presumes it’s a fad, not part of a sinister conspiracy to manipulate the populace. The opening credits take the young beauty from the operation to preparing for a date in her high-rise apartment. Answering the door in her underwear, she’s greeted by a flash of light and an empty corridor.
Finding her dog in the wardrobe and a gun case on her bed suggests an invisible stalker. More flashes paralyse her and she revolves in a net curtain before plunging off the balcony. It’s a mind-bendingly original murder which still conforms to slasher morality – in this case, don’t answer the door in your underwear no matter how perfect you are.
With his patients dying and their files missing, Larry finds himself fast becoming the prime suspect in a murder investigation (“women fall in love with their doctors, especially doctors who give them a new face”).
Enter bubblegum-blowing Cindy (Susan Dey), the latest model/actress/whatever following her friends to Larry’s waiting room with a list of plastic adjustments provided by Digital Matrix – a shadowy media research company owned by billionaire mogul John Reston (James Coburn in obvious villain mode).
When she can’t exactly match specific computer instructions while shooting a volleyball commercial, Cindy is sent to the Matrix hub to have herself scanned into the system. Prophetically for 1981, a digital actor can be created for use in future advertising (“hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type”). With the flawless doppelganger complete, Cindy is thus lined up as the next potential victim to be excised from reality…