“Looper” is a polished action sci-fi about time travel with enough stylish coolness, emotional depth and narrative elegance to be an instant classic.
Most time travel films fall flat because the rules of the sci-fi are so dense that they collapse under the weight of their own paradoxes. Rian Johnson’s (“Brick”) film makes the characters, their story and their psychology the most important parts, allowing the film’s rules to become an integral part of a well-oiled machine.
In the future, when the mob needs to dispose of a body, they use time travel to cover their tracks, sending a victim back in time to be murdered where the body can’t be traced. The hit men responsible for these killings are Loopers, people on a contract with the mob until a set time when that person is sent back in time to be killed by their past selves, thus closing the loop of responsibility.
The youngest Looper in 2046 Kansas is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and he discovers that a new mob boss in the future is terminating all the Looper contracts. When his future self (Bruce Willis) comes back in time to be killed, he hesitates, and Future Joe escapes, launching him on a mission to kill the mob boss responsible for killing his wife by stopping him before he comes to power.
There are many ways this plot could veer and become something other than the accessible, exciting genre picture it is.
It could bog people down in rules that don’t make sense and become a homework exercise like “Inception.” “Looper” has a clever trick in that Bruce Willis can sense everything his past self will do based on memory and reason, and he can see it fully when his past self finally does it. The movie shows us this once, and from then on we know Future Joe both uses and is plagued by this ability.
It could go completely surreal and be like Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” (also starring Willis). The future here is not apocalyptic but increasingly bleak. It’s plausible in the sense that a mutation to develop telekinetic powers may not be all that special or that if certain cultural problems of today are left unchecked, society will not crumble but just get progressively more violent and immoral.
Or it could even play like a cheesy buddy cop movie in which Joe and future self team up to fight crime. The film’s best scene is a delicious moment between Willis and Gordon-Levitt in a diner. The two talk about their own goals and inspire the audience to consider that we all have free will. Then the movie twists upon it self and discovers that each Joe can manipulate the other. Past Joe can change his fate and affect his future self, and Future Joe can stay one step ahead of his past self because he’s lived it (kind of).
And yet the movie works because it watches this story from both perspectives. Both Joes are two different people for all intensive purposes, each with different minds, goals and ambitions but ultimately one body. Each is imbued with their own mental turmoil, and we’re torn between their conflicting desires and truly don’t know how things will or are supposed to shake out.
Future Joe is the most obviously conflicted. “Now my memories aren’t real,” he says. “They’re just things waiting to happen.” He wants to change a certain moment in his past, but even he realizes that doing so will erase the whole life he’s lived. By entering the past, he becomes filled with self-hatred of his memories based on the choices his past self will make and the choices he’ll have to make to alter his future. “Looper” calls our choices into question by heightening these paradoxes and knowing the consequences of our actions. Without spoiling it, Future Joe makes one massive choice that is all the more devastating to know he’s wrong.
But even Past Joe has his problems. In believing he could predict the future, will he ever get back his present? Can he live the same life he was supposed to knowing what he knows now? Does he deserve it? Even his own past is dark and has led him to this grim present.
All these people are lonely, dark and complex, rarely with a snide comment or catch phrase to turn them into action stars, and yet “Looper” is a wholly awesome experience. Johnson’s visual style of lens flares and rotated cameras accentuate our dual perspectives and keep the film darkly surreal. The narrative threads are all connected in a smooth, linear way such that understanding the plot is not an exercise. And the special effects are preserved such that it can show us and wow us with its twist, not just talk it at us.
2012 will be remembered as the year Joseph Gordon-Levitt became a movie star, but with “Looper” he’s graduated from the role of the boy. He’s young and naïve but multi-dimensional and hardened by life. As for Willis, no one can hold a pair of machine guns quite like he can, but his action packed moments here lessen the truth that this is his best dramatic work since “The Sixth Sense.”
“Looper” is such an unexpectedly well-rounded film of depth, originality and style. It comes full circle in setting the stage for the action, sci-fi classic of the 21st Century and is one of the finest movies of the year.