There’s a lot to be said about Looper, but perhaps the most important thing speaks less to the successes of the film than to the dreary state of the pseudo-genre “time travel” movie and the larger science fiction genre as a whole. Simply put, time travel in film is usually a gimmick, an attempt to superficially make movies with otherwise little box office potential seem more falsely intellectual to audiences. Most science fiction movies that rely on the trope, along with a bevy of other themes such as cloning and space travel, are not interested in exploring the intellectual, emotional, or ethical quandaries presented by these subjects, but instead pay lip service to complicated themes so that they can move on to blowing up stuff and hoping the 30 year old white male budding action hero lead actor will land a role as the lead in a superhero movie next and boost DVD sales of the film. Thus is life.
In place of such films, Looper genuinely attempts to use time travel to tell a compelling, emotionally invested, and ethically ambiguous story. The film isn’t above an explosion or two, but Looper has a lot more on its mind than simply audience pleasing. In fact, with its grimy sensibilities, hard-R filmmaking, somber tone, and easy-to-understand but difficult-to-like main character, it’s not exactly rousing cinema even taken solely as an action film. Beyond this though, the film posits a number of disturbing ethical quandaries about personal agency and the morality behind committing wrongs for an ultimate good, and it creates two conflicted, agonized characters (or two versions of the same character) and grants them effective arcs throughout the film.
In other words, Looper has a lot on its mind, and if it doesn’t succeed masterfully at any one aspect of its production, it accomplishes a number of things well enough and blends them together in a compelling enough manner to succeed as a whole. And if it ends a little too easily, writer-director Rian Johnson (next to helm Star Wars Ep. 8, assumedly on the goodwill generated by this film) succeeds as both a thoughtful, reflective mind and a brash young cinematic force of nature (nothing matches his earler Brick for sheer visual aplomb, but Looper dances between hard-edged noir and a more impressionist cornfed rural sunlight with surprising effectiveness). Too many science fiction films are all concept, no execution. Looper manages to follow through on its ideas while constructing a look that is just lived-in enough and just empty enough to sell the depressing dejection of a future world without seeming ostentatious about it. The film never gets lost in artificial philosophizing at the expense of good old-fashioned cinematic entertainment, and the fact that it is a sturdy, tight cinematic vision tethering a mind, and not just the mind floating around aimlessly, is its greatest achievement.
In 2044, time travel still doesn’t exist. In 2074 it does, albeit not legally. Instead, crime bosses use it to send people they want disposed of to the past, where they are killed by hit men called Loopers. With murders being too risky in the future due to improved tracking, Loopers are an integreal part of the equation for organized crime, and one of the best is Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Unfortunately for him, at some point every Looper’s Loop is closed when they are sent back in time to be killed by their younger self, at which point they have 30 years left to live. This is exacerbated for Joe when he fails to kill his elder self (Bruce Willis) and must chase him down before he is killed. However, he soon begins to learn about his future self’s personal reasons for having gone back in time, involving a plan to kill a few innocents for a potentially greater social good in the future. As the elder Joe nears his goal, younger Joe becomes increasingly conflicted as to his own motivations, finding himself protecting someone who could potentially cause him great harm in the future.
Looper’s characters aren’t conflicted and pained enough to be the backbone of a modern classic, and the younger Joe never truly feels the moment of desperation that could have really driven home his pangs of anxiety. Distancing Looper from what it could have been, though, still leaves the strong piece of work it is, and the fact that the script works circles around most of what is considered “intelligent” sci-fi these days in its textured interpretation of existential woe. Looper’s intelligence extends beyond high-brow philosophy in this regard, and it hits home in immediate, tangible, character-driven ways. These are men of action, and their characters are defined by those actions, and the film follows suit. It is interested not only in the meta-level implications of their actions, but in the hurt the two men feel in their stomachs when they confront each other.
Technically, Looper gets top marks almost across the board. Excepting the questionable make-up on JGL to make him look more like Willis, the film looks great, with a realistic, grimy future aesthetic and fantastic sound design that really excels during the action scenes, where the sound of the bullets is downright painful. In fact, the whole world feels painful in the best way, less like a reality than a sedated urban nightmare version of reality. Like many films dealing in subjects this abstract, Looper struggles to maintain its weight during the final act, but thankfully Johnson the director doesn’t drop the ball even when Johnson the writer rushes things to a conclusion that feels rushed, bordering on neat, with an ending that feels like a minor cop-out. Still, the trust that Johnson the writer places in Johnson the director is a welcome find; very little of the film is left to exposition or openly stated, and we find ourselves searching the corners of the screen for implications about the world that are left ambiguous in the screenplay. Johnson accomplishes a double success here, allowing his visual craft a workout and holding true to the “show not tell” school of cinema, all the while trusting his audience enough to pick up nuance in the way his actors emote (or, pointedly, do not emote) and the way his camera gracefully slides from location to location.
Which doesn’t even to speak to the acting, which is without a weak link. Willis bucks his trend of sleepwalking through parts to provide a complex, emotionally tormented figure trying to in-part condone for his past mistakes and save the one person who reminds him of his humanity. Gordon-Levitt meanwhile continues to prove he’s one of the finest up and coming actors, essaying a similarly tormented figure and astonishingly recreating many of Willis’s physical and vocal inflections. Ultimately, it isn’t the make-up which allows us to buy that these two are the same person; it’s Gordon-Levitt’s performance.
Thankfully, Johnson also cuts out the fat and produces a lean, mostly mean, slice of cinematic bombast; sub-plots are excised, and the characters move with a sense of purpose and single-minded forward propulsion to sell how this world has turned them into efficient robot killing machines more than fully-fledged people. The lack of exposition allows his world to feel tired, like it’s seen so much desperation and melancholy it can’t be bothered to explain itself anymore, and that is the gift of a natural visual storyteller right there for you.
The whole affair is kind of just a glorified B-movie (it’s much less satisfying to think about the time travel of the film than to kind-of just accept that it’s mostly just being made up for shits and giggles, and have a fun time while the movie is lightly clipping along and giving us some refreshingly weighty action-thriller material). But it’s a B movie made with more skill and edge than it has any right to (and with a none-too-small modicum of dry humor, my favorite being how it gives us a future-Kansas that is neither an immaculate, artificially-white urban sprawl nor a neo-noirish sub-Blade Runner affair, but is instead basically the rural cornfield utopia we know today). Other great B-movie smarts abound too. Case in point: a gnarly scene early on where we watch a man slowly, physically disintegrate and grow increasingly exasperated as his younger self is being chopped apart. It’s hard to sell this. It shouldn’t work. With a dogged conviction, though, Johnson does, and that’s worth something.