We open on a corn field in the early morning as a Bruce Willis-looking Joseph Gordon-Levitt recites French while staring at an empty piece of tarmac. Suddenly, a bag-headed man appears in front of him, screaming for half a second, only to be blown away by Gordon-Levitt’s crude blunderbuss shotgun. This is Kansas in 2044. This is Looper.
As a movie, director Rian Johnson’s Looperlooks to strike a balance between character study and science fiction thriller. All the while, it tries to keep the audience on its toes, revealing its hand slowly and with little warning. It’s a striking piece of sci-fi that pays homage to films of the past while still feeling like its own vision. Great, pure science fiction film doesn’t come along too often today, but Looper managed to be an exciting addition to the genre in 2012.
Before we go any further: the set up.
It’s 2044 and we follow Gordon-Levitt’s Joe, an assassin for the mob known as a looper. Even further into the future, time travel has been invented, but it’s illegal. In order to cope with tougher police tactics than ever, the mob sends their targets backward in time, where they are killed and disposed of without a trace. But loopers have a special clause in their contract. One day, their own future self will be sent back to be killed by their younger version. This is called “closing your loop.”
But one day, Joe’s own older self (Willis) comes back, only to escape. He has a plan to change the future, but what is it? Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt’s Joe becomes intertwined with a young mother (Emily Blunt) and her son while on the run.
Philosophical, Mental, and Emotional Curveballs
Looper’s unwillingness to telegraph where the movie is headed helps keep the movie suspenseful. And while certain developments in the second half seem to run on an inevitable course, there are still plenty of unexpected moments.
Take, for example, the scene where we cut to Joe killing his older self as was originally intended. At first, it’s disorienting, with no explanation given. But we quickly understand what we’re seeing. This is the life Older Joe lived, and the experiences that led to him desperately travelling back in time. We’re quickly sold on the emotional bond between Older Joe and his wife, with the tragedy he experiences giving real reason behind his motives and the willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent the future.
The film only has the two Joes directly interact a few times, but they elevate the film to a higher level. The two may have many of the same characteristics, but 30 years and countless memories have set them far apart in beliefs and goals. As the story progresses, we see the courses they have been set on slowly change who they are, and our sympathies begin to shift.
Actually, much of Looper involves slowly shifting realities. This includes memories, personalities, and destinies. Even the entire setting of the film shifts drastically, with the diner scene between the Joes sparking the transition between dark, harsh, futuristic city and sun-baked farmland. In fact, Johnson revealed that he was directly influence by Witness when structuring the movie, a film that mirrored the shift between city and farm as Harrison Ford’s detective John Book tries to protect an Amish girl who witnessed a crime.
The farm is also where we meet little Pierce Gagnon’s Cid, who unexpectedly turns out to be not only one of the most important aspects of the movie, but also an amazing actor. Gagnon is at turns both adorable and frightening, without ever descending into some type of cliché. The twists involving Cid’s powers and his potential destiny turn the narrative on its ear yet again, but they have the proper setup to feel like natural developments in the story.
Older Joe hunting down and killing kids for the sake of a better future (but really for selfish reasons) is rough stuff. But Willis’ breakdown and the way Johnson keeps the content from being gratuitous helps it be a strong part of the story, rather than something that takes viewers out of the story. We recoil at what he is doing, but understand why he would take such drastic measures. It doesn’t justify it, but it adds layers to the film’s morality.
Bending Time and Minds
The cast of Looper is kept to a minimum, only focusing on the most important characters. And in the end, it really comes down to these characters. While the movie opens on large concepts (time travel, dystopia) it narrows its focus to be about character interactions and the idea of destiny. The idea of time travel isn’t really the reason behind Looper, it’s the idea of confronting yourself.
Sure, it has a few head scratchers that don’t quite add up. Changes to the present affect the bodies and memories of future selves. So if their lives are retroactively changed, how come everything that just happened hasn’t been erased? It might be a plot hole, or it may be part of the larger ideas at play in the movie. At some point in all time travel movies, you just have to go with the logic being used. As long as the movie doesn’t violate its own rules, there isn’t much to complain about.
The concept of cycles is all over this movie. Characters are trapped in both literal and figurative loops, some of their own making, others that have been forced upon them. Everyone seems to be caught in his or her own loop. Not just the two Joes, but everyone from Sara and Cid (a lack of understanding that leads to violence) to Kid Blue (never learning from his mistakes, yet desperate to prove himself). And the question remains, can you break your own cycles, or will you be destined to repeat them forever? At the end, nearly every loop has been closed, but one may still be open. It’s up to those that survive to break it themselves.
Hitting All the Right Sci-Fi Notes
There are a lot of great elements that make Looper such a strong piece of sci-fi. It sticks to only a few science fiction concepts (time travel and telekinesis) so the ideas aren’t spread too thin. And there is enough explanation given that the audience understands the mechanics behind the concepts. But it also doesn’t focus too heavily on how these things work. They are quite thought provoking, but are also a means to an end.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt feels like a younger Bruce Willis without looking like he’s doing an impersonation. Although it takes a little while to get used to his prosthetic-altered looks (those eyebrows are a bit distracting), he really inhabits the character makes you forget how he acts in other films. Willis also puts on a great performance. His heartbreak and desperation are evident, and he sells the difficulty of his mission well. He has a very strong presence throughout, often looking like he is about to bulldozer his younger self out of sheer frustration. Everyone else makes a strong impression, no matter what amount of time they are given.
Rian Johnson not only created a strong narrative (he had been trying to get this movie made for 10 years) but also fills it with memorable lines. Young Joe’s narration is the right kind of hard boiled dialogue for the setting and lengthy scenes of one-on-one dialogue are captivating, no matter how long they run. Combine it with kinetic cinematography and a convincing portrait of a broken-down future, and Looper has the stuff it takes to become a classic of the genre.