‘Looper’, the mind bending and smart new time-travel film by Rian Johnson is one of the most effective and balanced science fiction films to be released in the last few years. Its mix of realism and sci-fi elements bring a level of emotion and heart to its own unique and complex universe in a way that reminded me of classics such as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’.
The film takes place in a futuristic, though familiar, 2044 city where the buildings are bigger, poverty is more prevalent and organized crime seems to hold much of the power. The focus of the story is Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who is a “Looper”, a specialized assassin hired and trained to kill individuals from the future.
We are told early on through narration that time travel has not yet been invented in the story’s present but it will be in thirty years. In that time it will be outlawed; but criminal organizations who have to deal with increased technological advances in solving murders use “black market” time travel devices to send their living victims back to the present. There they are killed by assassins like Joe, who dispose of the bodies. This leaves no trace of the person’s death in the future, and the Looper is killing and disposing of a body that technically should not exist in his present.
Joe, like other Loopers, is paid well and lives a fairly extravagant lifestyle that includes lots of drinking, drugs, women and nice cars. The only down side of being a Looper is that a provision in their contract states that in the future their older selves will be sent back in time, to be disposed of, by their younger self. This is to “close the loop” as the film explains, a way of disposing of those individuals still around who are no longer needed but have knowledge of these criminal acts.
The main narrative of the story kicks off when Joe’s older self, played by Bruce Willis, is sent back in time to be killed. Joe hesitates when the time comes and ‘Old Joe’ escapes, causing Joe to be hunted by his bosses for this mistake. At the same time Joe tries to track down his older self in an attempt to “make things right”. The situation is made all the more complicated because Old Joe has plans of his own, turning what most going in expecting to simply be an action thriller into a much more complex and emotional story.
The thing that I loved most about Johnson’s “Looper” is how grounded it managed to feel while also still containing some very interesting fictional elements. There is a level of detail in the story to support a whole series of films; but Johnson smartly decided to focus more on the human element. Much of this comes in the second half, and some people will certainly begin to lose interest as the pace slows and the story takes a turn most wouldn’t expect. But for me, this is where the film really comes into its own. This is where they take all the exposition and style that came early in the film and use it to support that much more relatable, and honestly much more interesting, human element. Yes, Johnson could have easily copped-out and turned this into nothing more than a straight forward action thriller but instead he slows down enough to contemplate the themes of regret, sacrifice and loss that most time-travel films tend to ignore.
Of course, whenever anyone makes this sort of film there are continuity and logic issues that tend to pop up. With “Looper”, although one could try to nit-pick and question the logic of this FICTIONAL time-travel film (a rather pointless endeavor if you ask me), most of what occurs works within the narrative. Films such as this, no matter how absurd their stories may at times be, only need to work within the universe created by the writer and luckily it works brilliantly here. Johnson plays around with the ideas of paradoxes and time lines, but the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Smartly even its own characters acknowledge the “over-complicatedness” of time travel logic.
What it does establish is that things are not fixed. Time, and life in general, is much more ‘cloudy’ and unclear than we might think. And yet, it also hints at the idea that changes in the present don’t have as big of an effect on the future as long as other timelines continue down the path they initially started. In this sense Johnson could make major changes to his character’s present and still promise them that their futures could still be the same. For some this prospect drives them to do unspeakable things. For others this loop that we are caught in, always heading towards the same future, might not be worth the effects it has on those they come in contact with. These questions and ideas, and how the characters choose to approach them, lead to what I felt was a very powerful ending.
Besides the intelligence and heart of the script, the other big surprise here is the wonderful acting across the board. Joseph Gordon Levitt, with the help of prosthesis, truly becomes his character and at times I forgot it was even him. Emily Blunt managed to help anchor much of the story’s heart and her performance truly sold the more emotional moments of the story, which was key to the film’s success.
The true stand out, in my opinion, was Bruce Willis. He brought so many layers to his character, something I haven’t seen him do this well in this sort of film in many years. (He did give another great performance this year in the much different ‘Moonrise Kingdom’). Willis managed to make it so you can not forgive but could at least empathize with his character’s terrible actions. He not only expressed the pains of what he has done, but also sells the ‘necessity’, at least from his perspective, of what is to come. Credit again must also be given to Johnson for providing just enough develop of these characters to support their emotion, motivations and decisions.
I could not end without mentioning the score by Nathan Johnson. A perfect mood setter and at times quite beautiful. I don’t think it gets nearly enough recognition and so I had to mention it. Other than that I’d have to say that ‘Looper’ not only lived up to my expectations, but surpassed them. It did it in a way that reminded me of ‘Drive’ last year. I had a lot of anticipation going in for both but really didn’t know what to expect. What I got from each was a lot of style, great performances, smart scripts and stories that deviated away from the norm; stories that took the risk of focusing on character more than anything and although the end results were totally different than what I expected going in, I could not be more happy with what I got. Because of that I’d say ‘Looper’ is one of the best films of its kind, a soon to be classic, and also one of the best films so far this year. I’d highly recommend this great movie going experience to all.