It’s always a great delight to see an original sci-fi film. We were all excited for Prometheus this past summer, but while that big-budget, mega-hyped film was a dud (click here for my review), I was positively thrilled by Rian Johnson’s new film, Looper.
The year is 2044. Time travel has not yet been invented, but it will be. The mob of the future uses the outlawed technology of time-travel to dispose of people they want out of the way. They just send them back in time, where a hit-man, called a Looper, is there waiting to shoot them as soon as they appear. The Looper then disposes of the body, and all is well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a Looper, Joe, whose careful life unravels when he fails to kill a target sent back from the future — who turns out to be himself, thirty years older (and played by Bruce Willis). Joe’s mob bosses will kill him if he doesn’t kill his older self (“closing his loop”), so Young Joe sets out after Old Joe, who meanwhile has a plan to make a key change to his history.
It’s a delicious set-up, one that is only enhanced by the fantastic casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as different-aged versions of the same character. There’s some great prosthetic work that reshapes Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s face just slightly, to make him more resemble Bruce Willis. (It’s particularly noticeable when you see him in profile.) Both men are fantastic, and I loved watching the two of them go at it. In particular, it’s great to see Bruce Willis in a bona-fide good action movie again. The man is just awesome playing a bad-ass in an action movie, and he plays everything with just enough of a twinkle in his eye to keep the audience hooked into his performance. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the way the story keeps shifting the audience’s sympathies back and forth between Young Joe and Old Joe. It’s very clever.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt and Mr. Willis are far and away the anchors of the movie, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the high-wattage of the supporting cast. Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Garret Dillahunt, Piper Perabo all do fantastic work in their roles. Jeff Daniels in particular is great fun as the man sent from the future to run the Looper organization in the present-day.
For such a relatively low-budget film ($30 million dollars, from what I have read), the film looks dynamite. From the trailers I expected the film to be set in present-day, but instead the film’s present-day is 2044, with the future era (when time-travel exists) 30 years beyond that. I was impressed by how well the film sells the 2044 setting. There are some great futuristic city-scape shots, and then lots of little touches (non-existent keyboards; transparent, collapsible TV screens, etc.) throughout the movie. The film doesn’t look like Star Trek, but it definitely feels like it’s set in the future. Very cool.
The script (which was written by Rian Johnson, who also directed the film), is very clever. I had a number of questions about the time-travel story as the film was progressing, almost all of which were answered. (There was one big question mark for me, which I will discuss below.) There were even a lot of clever touches to explain things that I didn’t need explain, but which it was cool to learn. That really helped the world of the story feel real to me. Mr. Johnson is playful with the structure of the narrative, leading to some of my favorite sequences in the film. For me the biggest sit -up-and-take-notice moment was right after we see Old Joe come back in time and get away from Young Joe. Then we see the scene play out again, only this time Young Joe shoots and kills Old Joe. Then things get really awesome. I will say no more, only that it’s a spectacularly clever way to take the audience through some of the mechanics of the time travel logic. I also have to mention the wonderful scene between Young Joe and Old Joe at their favorite diner, when Old Joe barks to his younger self that “I don’t want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” It’s a funny moment, and one that doesn’t feel condescending to the audience, because the film has already done a great job of clearly explaining the time travel mechanics. (This stands in contrast to, say, the final season of Lost, which included several references to how any attempt to answer questions would only be unsatisfying to the audience, to which I angrily proclaimed: THEN TRY HARDER, WRITERS!!!)
The whole story unfolds in a clever way, not at all how I expected things to go. I was sure that Old Joe and Young Joe would, mid-movie, realize that they’re on the same side and pool their resources to figure a way out of their seemingly-impossible situation. Thankfully, the film went in a much different direction. I will complain that there were a few too many moments in which information that would later prove critical was presented in a not-quite-casual-enough way, where I think a slightly smoother delivery would have helped. There are some awkward references early in the film to people with TK abilities that stuck out to me, in an obvious you-just-KNOW-that’s-gonna-be-important-later sort of way. Same with the way Old Joe seems to know some critical information about the character referred to as “The Rainmaker” that he spills out to Young Joe, and the audience, mid-movie. It seems weird that Old Joe would know that, and weird that he’d take that moment to say it out loud. In such a well-crafted, well thought-out movie, those moments caught my attention.
As did the one plot hole I referred to earlier. I’m not going to spoil anything major, but for anyone who hasn’t seen the film who wants to go in totally clean, maybe you should skip to the next paragraph. OK, there’s a cool sequence early in the film where you see another Looper fail to close his loop, by also letting his older self away. The mob’s solution? They capture the young dude and gradually mutilate him. Each time they hack something off of the young dude, the damage appears on his old self’s body, until gradually he collapses like Monty Python’s Black Knight and the bad guys shoot him in the head. Cool (and gruesome), no question. But how the heck does that work? Each time the bad guys, say, cut off one of the dude’s fingers, that suggests that they’ve changed the future so now he lived his whole life without that finger, until the point 30 years later when he came back in time. OK, maybe having 9 fingers instead of 10 wouldn’t have changed his next 30 years much. But what about by the time they’ve cut off his nose, legs, etc.?? It seems to me that would TOTALLY unravel the future timeline, and the film is based on the idea that nothing between 2044 and 2074 changes — all the deaths/murders happen AFTER 2074 when people are sent back in time. Nothing happens to their younger selves in the “present-day” of 2044. So that doesn’t really make sense to me… Oh well.
Looper is a terrific sci-fi film, and a terrific action-adventure film. It’s great to see original sci-fi ideas at play, and it’s great to see a film that is fun and smart. I highly recommend this one.