Joseph Gordon-Levitt must literally fight the future and beat the clock in the mind-bending, finely-crafted Looper.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS! OR MAYBE IT USED TO…OR IT WILL OR…OH, NEVER MIND.
In the year 2072, time travel is invented and immediately outlawed, used only by criminal organizations to eliminate people by having them sent back in time and killed. The assassins who do the dirty work in the year 2044 are called “loopers,” who get paid on the condition that no targets ever escape. One of the best loopers is Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). When Joe recognizes his next target as his future self (Bruce Willis), he hesitates and Old Joe escapes. As Young Joe hunts his older self, Joe himself is hunted by his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and Joe’s vengeful rival Kid Blue (Noah Segan). Joe eventually seeks shelter with a farmer named Sara (Emily Blunt), where he discovers something that could change his present and his future all at once.
The description above is the best way to explain the premise of Looper without giving away major spoilers. In fact, the film is difficult to discuss without giving away too much, since so much of it is tied up in writer/director Rian Johnson‘s depiction of the future. It’s one of the few modern films whose trailer gives almost nothing of the story or setting away. I’m going to try very hard not to give away major plot points, but just the same, you may want to skip to the final paragraph where I talk about what a refreshing, well-crafted and compelling film Looper is.
In his previous films, Johnson found his strengths in recontextualizing and recombining disparate genres and tropes into hybrid settings that seamlessly incorporates everything into a fully functional whole. Brick was a classic hard-boiled detective story set in a modern California suburb and populated almost entirely with characters in high school. The Brothers Bloom was a rollicking, Victorian-era adventure that combined telegrams on trains with cellphones on karaoke night. Similarly, Looper is a near-future science fiction film that takes place primarily on a farm in Kansas, and like those films, the setting is always secondary to the story.
Johnson includes enough information about the society of 2044 to pique interest but never more than is necessary. The characters and their motivations are the center of the film, not the sci-fi trappings. Aside from an intermittent first act voiceover from Joe, there’s no real exposition on the setting, and no in-film explanation of it between characters. When Joe begins to explain to Sara what he does, she cuts him off mid-sentence to indicate that she knows what a looper is. Johnson has obviously placed a good deal of thought and planning into the background of Joe’s story, and it shows by almost not showing at all. Everything is so well-integrated that even something like time travel or telekinesis doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary. Similarly, Nathan Johnson‘s score combines DIY and found-sound electronica with traditional orchestral arrangements to produce a compelling, unique kind of soundtrack.
Time travel is handled exceedingly well, something that seems impossible to pull off when so many sci-fi films and TV shows manage to completely botch the idea. Part of that is the fact that Johnson makes the cause-and-effect paradoxes of time travel much more visceral than intellectual. Loopers are foot soldiers, not intellectuals. Abe is a mob boss, not a scientist. When one of Joe’s fellow loopers fails to end his own contract by “closing the loop” by killing his own future self, the consequences of time travel become exceedingly clear in one of the film’s most disturbing (but innovative) sequences. Old Joe’s trip back to the past may leave the audience with questions on the “how” of time travel, but the answers are all there in the film, even if they’re not clearly laid out.
While sci-fi is often seen as a genre where acting is secondary to spectacle, this is hardly the case with Looper, thanks to a cast that is committed and invested in their characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves himself to be a fully capable action-hero lead despite his relatively small stature and boyish face, even if said face is altered to look more like Bruce Willis. He was a perfect teenage Sam Spade in Brick, and he’s perfect here, too. Joe is a role that could very easily have been over-boiled, but Gordon-Levitt provides the right balance of emotion and conviction. Bruce Willis also gives one of his rawest performances in a long while, making the most of his surprisingly short screen time, and proving that age hasn’t slowed him down one bit. Old Joe and Young Joe are equally matched in almost every respect, and their extreme similarities serve to drive them apart, not bring them together.
Fighting the future.
The heart of the film is Emily Blunt’s Sara, a kick-ass capable mother reminiscent of Linda Hamilton‘s turn in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and she’s more than capable of handling Joe’s personality and baggage. Like most of the other characters, Sara comes from a highly-damaged past, but unlike most of the others, she’s claimed it and made it part of herself in a constructive, progressive way. Her past informs her future instead of dictating it. Blunt is courageous and vulnerable in equal amounts, often both at the same time, each one seemingly feeding the other. She’s the most human character in a world where amorality and apathy is everywhere and survival from day to day is never certain.
Sara illustrates one of the film’s central themes: the circular nature of fate and human life. She’s perpetually aware that what she does in the present will affect what happens in her son’s future, and she’s determined to put him on a different path. While we’re not necessarily doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, everything in the past makes itself manifest somehow in the present, and eventually it will all come back around for better or for worse. Whether we choose to bury it or acknowledge it determines if we end up repeating the same cycle again or raising ourselves to a new one.
Looper is a film of questions without easy answers and problems without easy resolutions. There are few characters who aren’t possessed of a wickedly fluid moral ambiguity, and the line between protagonist and antagonist is thin to the point that it could be crossed at any time without anyone realizing it. It finds its strength in how the characters respond to their setting, instead of the setting itself, and like the best sci-fi films, it’s based in a grounded, frighteningly realistic “what if.” The film’s most amazing loop may be how it plays in the audience’s heads as they try to figure out its mysteries well after the credits have rolled. Rian Johnson has made his most ambitious and complex film to date, as well as perhaps one of the most rewarding sci-fi films of the last few years.
Films like Looper are the reason spoiler tags were invented. This is a film that demands to be seen cold and discussed later. If all sci-fi films were this well-constructed and thought-out, perhaps we wouldn’t be stuck in our own unending cycle of a new Transformers film every two years.
Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-
SPOILER ALERT! JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor.