In recent years, there’s been a tendency to whitewash cinematic science fiction stories. We live in an age where the powers that be tend to push for more visual effects to dazzle an audience. Nevermind if the story suffers, so long as the box office numbers go up, right? Thankfully, now and then, we do get some really smart science fiction movies, even from the big studios – the most recent being Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Yes, those films have polarized audiences, but at least they got people talking because of the fact that they were about ideas. Those types of films usually come from smaller independent productions, like the recent Dredd, a sci-fi thriller disguised as a comic book movie when in fact it pushes technological boundaries as well as social ones. The same can be said for Looper, indie darling Rian Johnson’s new film, which is not only one of the smartest sci-fi pieces in recent memory, but one of the most intelligent films of the year.
Time travel is a tricky premise for any film, one that’s rarely been successfully executed. One of the reasons that the Back to the Future series worked so well, was that those three films were comedies that poked fun at the concept and consequences of time travel. Because truth be told, time travel is rather ridiculous. Midway through Looper, two characters in a diner engage in a conversation that turns towards the subject, but quickly ends because one of them declares it’s not worth wrapping their brains around. It may feel like a bit of a cop out to some science geeks out there, but it demonstrates how intelligent Johnson’s screenplay is and that he’s smart enough to focus more on character and story.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a so-called “Looper”, working as a hired gun for the mob. Only his victims aren’t from the year 2044 like him. Thirty years hence, time travel will be possible and Joe’s occupation is to patiently wait with a shotgun in a deserted area for a hooded and handcuffed target to suddenly appear out of thin air. From whatever future his victim comes from, if there’s no body, there’s no evidence. The evidence is in the past, Joe’s present, which he quickly disposes of upon shooting his victims.
The mob in Joe’s future pays handsomely as well: silver bars strapped to the back of each victim, many of which he has been saving up for a trip to France when he’s finally released from his contract. No one walks away from the mob, you say? Well, that’s true, especially for Joe. The reason Joe and so many others are called “Loopers”, is that to tie up loose ends, the mob of the future sends back your younger self for you to kill. This is called “closing the loop”, and with a final payment of gold bars instead of silver, a Looper is released from their contact with thirty years of wealth and freedom to enjoy until the mob finds them again.
Joe’s been seeing quite a number of his friends close their loops, and though he’s eager to finally take that trip to ol’ Paris, he’s not sure if he’s prepared to end his contract. Though his occupation is financially rewarding, Joe currently attempts to fill his inner emptiness by partying, taking recreational drugs or having sex with a local stripper (Piper Perabo). One afternoon when Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) does finally turn up, he hesitates and it costs him dearly. Letting your future self run is a fatal mistake, one that the mob quickly catches onto and they’re prepared to eliminate both of you if necessary. With gangsters now chasing them both, young Joe desperately wants to find and kill old Joe to get his life back, but its not as easy as that. Every moment that old Joe spends in the past, endangers the future and his very presence has already altered the timeline in unforeseeable ways. But that may be just what old Joe wants.
Looper sets up an intriguing premise, with Gordon-Levitt out to find his future self played by Bruce Willis. Fairly simple, except over the course of the story Johnson starts to weave in additional ideas that are more intriguing and in time, more powerful. Old Joe’s deadliest weapon isn’t a gun, but his knowledge of the future. He’s not only killed his older self only to become him, but managed to turn his life around, unlike young Joe who is still a naive, hothead junkie. The second act of the picture introduces Sara (Emily Blunt) a single mother raising her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) on a farm just next to the cane field where Joe usually shoots his victims. Initially, it appears that Sara is nothing more than a potential love interest for Joe while he plans his next move in finding his older self. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sara becomes a third side of the triangle that is at the heart of the story, opening up the possibility of Joe and old Joe switching roles as both antagonist and protagonist. It not only creates dramatic developments within the story, but gives both Gordon-Levitt and Willis a broader range with their performances.
Looper is filled with surprises like that, some big, some small. It owes a great deal to James Cameron’s original Terminator, another one of the smartest time travel films ever made that had its own share of twists. Looper features a fairly big twist late in the film, one that’s hinted at early on, but becomes a WTF moment when you realize its magnitude. It not only introduces new ideas, but sets up new possibilities, new realities.
The film continues Johnson’s working relationship with Gordon-Levitt with whom he collaborated on his debut feature, the noirish High School thriller, Brick. Looper was initially set up as a vehicle for the actor, but when Willis came aboard as old Joe, there became a bit of a problem. The two leads hardly resembled each other. Some rather noticeable prosthetic make-up has been applied to Gordon-Levitt’s nose and brow, but it enhances his performance, rather than hinder it. Both actors have slightly adopted each other’s mannerisms, meeting almost “halfway” you could say.
Still, a nice thirty year montage where young Joe ages into old Joe can’t cover the fact that neither actor really resembles the other. Yet it’s their respective performances as two versions of the same character that make the story work. Johnson’s material was no doubt rewarding for both of them since their characters evolve over the course of the story, for better and for worse. Blunt’s Sara isn’t suddenly thrust into the plot, unlike many other female love interests in these types of pictures. Her presence is like a slow burn, measured and controlled as she slowly becomes a crucial component of the story. The same can be said for Gagnon’s Cid, who shares a number of nice scenes with Gordon-Levitt as Joe discovers this young boy is more intuitive than even his mother realizes. There’s some additional strong, yet brief supportive work from Paul Dano, as a fellow looper who early on finds himself in a similar situation, and Garret Dillahunt as a hired gun with an attitude that he’s just doing a job. But another standout in the picture is Jeff Daniels as “Abe”, a gangster sent from the future to run the loopers. Daniels shares a great scene with Gordon-Levitt where the mobster shows the young man that his experience and knowledge of the future give him an edge he’ll never have.
Looper is set a little over thirty years from now and the fact that Johnson didn’t have a budget like those big tentpole picture has made him more creative. Automobiles, save for a flying motorbike that’s a tad hokey, look the same, but are covered in solar panels. Society and law enforcement have deteriorated to the point where a person can walk up to just about anyone and shotgun them to death in the street. It’s not a nightmarish future, but one that may be possible should there ever been a disastrous economic and social collapse. Johnson is slowly reaching that point in his career where a successful big budget project could put him in a similar position as James Cameron or Christopher Nolan, who like him, were once indie filmmakers. I’m hoping his progression up the ladder is a slow and measured one, allowing him the maintain focus on character and story, rather than spectacle. Unlike many other rising talents today, he thankfully doesn’t appear to be in any hurry.