Despite formidable competition, "Looker" makes a persuasive case for Stinker of the Year among suspense thrillers.

After a modestly intriguing buildup, "Looker" collapses with a prolonged splat. The shambles that remains could become a greater source of unintentional amusement than "Sphinx" or "Eye of the Needle" or "Wolfen," uniting moviegoers of all levels in intimate disillusion.

Opening today at area theaters, "Looker" also confirms Michael Crichton's reputation as an exasperating filmmaker, alert to the novel photogenic and sinister possibilities of technology but dependent on trite plot manipulations. In fact, "Looker" is less skillful in every respect than Crichton's three previous directing efforts -- "Westworld," "Coma" and "The Great Train Robbery."

Albert Finney, slightly more conscious than he was in "Wolfen" but still a dumpy, unattractive shadow of his once impressive self, has been miscast as the leading man, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon implicated in the suspicious deaths of three patients. The victims had too much in common: They were beautiful young women who had undergone cosmetic touch-ups designed to enhance their modeling careers in TV commercials. Finney is first given cause for alarm when one of the patients returns in a panic, pleading to be "changed back" because "they're killing all the girls who are too perfect."

The audience is at the scene of the most elaborately depicted "killing." An eye-popping shape called Lisa (Teri Welles, a Playboy pinup) answers the door expectantly in her undies, appears transfixed by several mysterious flashes of light (which turn the image briefly negative) and plunges off the balcony after winding herself into a shroud of drapery. This death scene is also witnessed, and presumably provoked, by a shadowy intruder who carries a bizarre weapon and leaves two objects -- a pen and a jacket button -- soon identified as the lost property of the surgeon.

After being questioned by a police detective (Dorian Harewood, wasted in an embarrassing token role) and finding the files of his late patients missing, Finney decides to play amateur sleuth to protect himself and a fourth patient, Susan Dey as a model-actress named Cindy, from probable victimization. He learns that Cindy and her three unfortunate colleagues had been urged to refine their already fetching features by an employer called Digital Matrix, active in perceptual research, computer animation and advertising.

The villains promptly enter and betray themselves to the audience. The ominous Digital is owned by a sleek tycoon, James Coburn, and operated by his picturesque associate, Leigh Taylor-Young. Introduced to the hero at a medical fund-raiser, they exchange incriminating glances, followed by incriminating confidences, taking a considerable amount of mystery out of the proceedings on very short acquaintance.

The mystery is further deflated when Taylor-Young volunteers to show Finney around the plant and explains the rationale behind the plastic surgery: "We intended to create a group of actors with the exact specifications for maximum visual impact, but it didn't work . . . We've tried a whole new approach -- we can now make commercials entirely by computer, with no live models at all." Upon sneaking into Digital's secret "Looker Lab," the hero and heroine discover evidence of precisely this approach, along with a manual conveniently describing the mystery weapon. When Cindy looks at her own computer-animated image on a monitor and remarks, "It's just as dumb as a regular commercial," she also destroys the movie's credibility as a murder mystery.

Why bother murdering anyone in the first place? As far as we can see, Digital has been up to something that might be unethical and detrimental to unionized labor, but any other form of injury is out of the question. There's no compelling reason for serious harm to come to any of the models after Digital has scanned and computerized their features. One can't even be certain that they were murdered. Their deaths might have been accidental after all, caused by staggering about in a flash-induced stupor.

If a sexual psychopath were lurking in the background, the plot might make some sense and Crichton might be able to cash in on the erotic creepiness implicit in the idea of beautiful young women being lured to their doom. Since no such figure emerges, the movie is doomed to degenerate into a ludicrous runaround.