There’s a lot to be said about “Looper,” but perhaps the most important 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, and most science fiction movies that use the trope 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.
Instead, “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. And if “Looper” ends a little too easily, Johnson succeeds in two key areas: avoiding the frequent sci-fi flaw of presenting characters that seem to bounce between too smart and too dumb depending upon the needs of the script and genuinely surprising the audience. Too many science fiction films are all concept, no execution. “Looper” manages to follow through on its ideas and present a narrative that is simultaneously surprising and completely grounded in its characters. Their motivations make sense, and this is important for a film that rests so heavily on the question of how far people are willing to go in order to ensure they complete a goal.
In 2074, time travel exists, 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, 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. In doing so, he learns about his future self’s own desire to have gone back in time, something which involves killing innocents for a potentially greater good in the future. As the elder Joe nears his goal, younger Joe becomes increasingly conflicted as to his own motivations as he finds himself protecting someone who could potentially cause him great harm in the future.
“Looper’s” chief success is its willingness to tread into dark territory. In order to save someone he loves in the future, as well as to save his own life and the lives of many others (albeit, many of those people being killers), the elder Joe has to do some disturbing things to people who are completely innocent. “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 how difficult his situation is for him. Even if you feel “Looper” could have done more philosophically, however, it’s also surprisingly successful as a drama; the complex character motivations allow us to empathize with characters we might otherwise dislike (after all, both versions of Joe are hardened killers), and the reality that at least one of them will suffer from their actions creates more tension than any action scene and a genuine emotional investment in the film’s outcome. “Looper’s” intelligence extends beyond high-brow philosophy in this regard, and it hits home in immediate, tangible ways as you watch characters do bad things for good reasons.
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 great 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 its impact. All of this helps the world of “Looper” feel real, which goes a long way in suspending disbelief. And all of this isn’t even speaks 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 reminded him of his humanity. It’s easy to dislike his character for his actions throughout the film, but Willis brings out the humanity in him. 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 tendencies. 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.
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. As it is, while it doesn’t hit with the emotional impact of a world-class drama, taken on its own terms its quite effective at inciting pangs of empathy. It’s not a masterpiece, but Looper puts most movies in any genre to shame and should be applauded as entertainment of the highest caliber. Furthermore, in Rian Johnson it signals the rise of a talent who had until now been relatively unnoticed. Despite my relative (some would say) restraint in praise for “Looper,” I for one will be watching to see where Johnson chooses to take us in the coming years. Science fiction needs people like him.