Time travel movies can often be tricky. I am a big fan of films that attempt to utilize the subject, as I like to spend plenty of time thinking about the logic involved. In many cases, regardless of how much fun or how good the film is, the logic is not really sound. Some time travel flicks work because of how much time they spend detailing their own logistics (Primer is the ultimate example of this). Others work because of how little they seem to care about the logic (think Bill & Ted). But then there are time travel films that just fail on all fronts (think Timecop). Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper excels at making its time travel premise work, because it smartly sidesteps a lot of its own issues by almost using its setup as a clever misdirect. As characters bend time, the film bends its own meaning, with a smart and original script and solid performances to hold it all together.
Joe: Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been.
The film is set in a plausible-looking future, where time travel will eventually be invented. The function of time travel will be deemed illegal, which leads to gang leaders utilizing it for one purpose: assassination missions. Targets will be captured, bound, hooded, strapped with a form of payment, and sent back in time to be eliminated and disposed of. The assassins employed in the past are known as Loopers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, the best Looper in Kansas City, as it were, but he runs into a problem – one of his targets escapes. Making matters worse, the target that escapes is his own self from the future, played by Bruce Willis. The most important rule a Looper must follow is to never let a target escaped and Joe is now tasked with hunting down and killing himself. Why are things different this time though? Why has older Joe arrived unbound and seemingly with a plan? The life of a Looper may pay well, but getting caught up in a paradox can be no fun when it comes time to close your own loop.
I have been looking forward to Looper for quite some time. I have been a huge fan of Rian Johnson since the debut of his hard-boiled high school-set noir, Brick (also starring Gordon-Levitt). His follow up film, The Brothers Bloom, is incredibly enjoyable as well. I initially heard about Looper a little after the release of ‘Bloom’ in 2009 and continued to track it since. Stopping short of the learning actual plot, I continued to be excited for all that I was hearing about it, given the setup for the premise, the actors involved, and even the minor involvement of Shane Carruth, of Primer-fame, who knows a thing or two about time travel. It is fortunate that this all paid off, as I was satisfied with the results for a multitude of reasons.
I am already wrestling in my head about the logic of Johnson’s use of time travel, but at the same time, the film if clever enough to deal with its own logic by acting rather pragmatic about it. Rather than have characters draw pictures on a chalkboard, we get some of Joe’s narration and characters telling other characters some of the broad strokes. It is important to the plot and looks neat visually, but provides just enough to keep you satisfied on a base level, before realizing that re-watching the film could make it just as interesting. Looper certainly has a lot more fun in its first half, as time travel and the work done by Loopers factors in quite heavily, but there is a turnaround in the latter half of the film, which takes the film into more thought-provoking territory.
Now I mentioned fun and Looper definitely has a lot of entertaining aspects, but what surprised me most, aside from how the plot twists and turns, is how dark the film was. This could have been a safe and bloodless PG-13 film, but instead, Looper is quite bloody and not afraid to dive into the violent world that it has created for itself. There is a slight loony edge to how some of the characters interact, which keeps things from going down a too depressing route, but the film does not compromise its vision, which I admire. Fortunately, the actors are up to the task follow suit.
Joe: We both know how this has to go down, so why don’t you do what old men do and die.
Older Joe: Why don’t you take that little gun out from between your legs and do it, boy.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to be having a great year for himself by doing two things really well in this film: having me care for a guy who unquestionably commits murder for a living and playing a young Bruce Willis quite well. Playing an assassin, I enjoyed the fact that Joe is a smart guy, but also fairly stubborn in his ways, while slowly unraveling what can happen vs. what will happen. The Bruce Willis thing is notable, because Gordon-Levitt is wearing some prosthetics and makeup to achieve a certain look, which is convincing enough, but more so due to how he plays the character. Watching this performance, it felt like one that a 25-year old Willis could have easily embodied, which is a trip in itself.
Speaking of Willis, he’s already landed on two sides of a coin this year. He was fantastic in Moonrise Kingdom, which I hope is not overlooked, but was pretty terrible in Expendables 2. Here, Willis is back to doing what he can do very well, which is underplaying a character. Sure, we get a couple moments, which made me go, “Hell Yeah Bruce Willis!” but seeing him play a man who has gone through a lot and is looking to do something very specific, which puts him in a very difficult place can be tough to pull off effectively, but hey, it’s freaking Bruce Willis, and he does.
Older Joe: It’s hard staring into your eyes. It’s too strange.
Joe: Your face looks backwards.
The film is also filled with nice supporting work from other actors including Jeff Daniels as a mob boss sent back from the future, in order to keep control over the Loopers; Paul Dano as a fellow Looper; Noah Segan as a young enforcer; Piper Perabo as a dancer that Joe has a soft spot for; and Emily Blunt as a woman who may be more important than anyone knows. What helps is that none of these characters are extraneous. Even small parts for actors I have not listed become more important than one would expect. Try to throw out holes in the plot, but a uniformly solid cast that is used effectively keeps the film balanced.
Future worlds are also always of interest to me for films like this and I was happy to see that Johnson took a more subtle route in depicting where the world is at in 2044 and 30 years beyond. Very similar to something like Children of Men, the societal elements are pushed to the background, allowing the audience to focus on the characters and story, but register what this world is like through visuals. We see changes in automobiles, some little forms of advance technology, and, yes, hover bikes, but Looper is not too concerned with showing us how cool everything is. The film is slick because of its craftiness, not because of how crafty it thinks it is.
As far as how the film came together, Rian Johnson continues to evolve as a filmmaker, creating a movie that is vastly different from what he done before, but still just as competent. The film has a lot of great visuals and a lot of action that feels kinetic and unique to what it tries to achieve. Seeing alternate versions of the same scene tends to be fun in time travel flicks, but so are scenes that involve changes in characters, based on how the past (or present) is altered, which leads to some neat visual moments as well. Working with a lot of his same crew that he started with, including his cinematographer Steve Yedlin and composer Nathan Johnson, Johnson certainly has a film that feels comfortable enough to slow down towards its end, before reaching its impactful finale.
Looping back to where I began, I am happy to add Looper to the realm of time travel films that I find to be both really enjoyable and really clever. The film is full of ideas and brings a lot to the table, but serves as a very solid entry into the science fiction genre, without collapsing under its own weight. Both Gordon-Levitt and Willis are playing one role that becomes well defined due to the strength of both actors, the setup for the film makes it plenty intriguing and leaves room to grow as it goes, and I think I mentioned hover bikes…Anyway, while influenced by other strong entries, Looper is smart, bold, and original, a strong sci-fi achievement.
Abe: This time travel crap, just fries your brain like an egg.