Is anything in Rian Johnson’s Looper a particular revelation? Not exactly. How could it be? Time travel is a familiar concept to moviegoers, in comedy (Back To The Future) and action (Terminator) and more, and while the specifics may change somewhat, the overall conceit is that what happens in the past can alter the future. Since we’ve usually seen that future, the stakes are high. People can be wiped out, the entire world could be changed by one small act. That’s true in Looper, too.
Yet, while watching it, I had the feeling that I was seeing something new. You can tell Looper wasn’t just cobbled together from pieces of other movies. It’s not following any formula. Rian Johnson clearly put a lot of thought into how looping might actually work, and what our world will be like thirty or so years in the future. And that’s golden. Most movies can be easily categorized by genre, follow a certain prototype, with recurring motifs and iconography. But there’s no part of Looper that’s there just because other time travel movies have it, too, or because the sci-fi genre required it to be. Every piece of Looper is here because it’s a part of this specific story. That’s rare. As someone who sees a hell of a lot of movies, it’s exciting to still be so surprised by one.
But I don’t want to oversell it as some bold new frontier for filmmaking, because it may not stand up to that. Looper isn’t terribly ambitious except in comparison to the standard, predictable films we tend to get in this genre (this year’s Total Recall remake, for example). There’s no shocking twist (though there are some surprises along the way); Looper is not quite as vivid or distinctly original as even Inception, probably the last science fiction auteur film that’s worth comparing it to. (Both, of course, feature Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) One film that comes to mind is Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant, underappreciated Children Of Men, because Looper, too, has a pragmatically grim vision of the future that feels only a few steps removed from exactly where we are today. That movie also didn’t follow any formulaic rules, and thus, was viscerally cinematic and breathlessly exciting. Nothing in Looper quite matches those heights, yet there’s a similar devil-may-care style to the storytelling, the same sense of freedom from tropes of the genre. It feels a bit dangerous in that way.
Looper takes place in Kansas in 2044. Kansas is not an insane cityscape filled with flying cars like most metropolises of the future. Most of it just looks like the flat farmland of Kansas 2012. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed by the crime lords of an even more distant future, one in which time travel was invented and then immediately outlawed. Joe makes a living by killing men his employers send back in time, since getting away with murder is apparently much harder in 2074. Joe doesn’t seem to have any moral qualms with this.
One of Looper‘s first surprises is that when Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Joe Plus Thirty (Bruce Willis), it isn’t a surprise to him at all. All of these assassins are eventually called upon to “close the loop” — meaning kill their future selves. This isn’t explored too deeply, but that’s a grim vision of the future — killing yourself? Knowing exactly how and when you’ll die, even being the cause of it, and living thirty more years with that burden? No wonder Joe (both old and young) is pretty extremely fucked up. He’s a drug addict; the only affection he gets, he has to pay for (via a prostitute played by Piper Perabo). A waitress named Beatrix (Tracie Thoms) is our only glimpse at a sunny disposition. Nobody else in 2044 seems particularly happy. There’s an even greater divide between the well-to-do and the destitute, with some Occupy Wall Street-esque shenanigans ongoing in the background. Life and death — even one’s own — are generally undervalued. All of this feels nihilistic and dystopian, but also chillingly similar to modern day. Is this the way we’re headed?
To say much more would be diving into spoiler territory. Yes, old Joe shows up, and no, young Joe doesn’t immediately kill him. Suffice to say, that storyline doesn’t go anywhere you expect it to. Some critics have expressed disappointment in that fact, but I find it invigorating. This isn’t a buddy movie. It’s not a sci-fi remake of Disney’s The Kid (also, coincidentally, starring Bruce Willis). You may expect that Willis and Gordon-Levitt will team up against The Man, gradually find a mutual respect for one another. That doesn’t happen. Looper is more interesting because it lets these two guys (or, one guy, technically) be their own worst enemy. Thirty years is a long time. Joe has changed over the course of it (whether it’s for better or worse is unclear). How would you feel at meeting a younger, stupider version of you? You’d probably want to throttle him for all the bad choices he made, all the consequences of his mistakes that you’re still living with thirty years later. That’s the vibe between these two, not one of warmth and friendship.The story also features prominent roles for Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, and Paul Dano, plus a child named Cid (Pierce Gagnon). An early sequence involving Dano’s fate is particularly twisted and ingenious. Midway through or so, Looper goes in a direction you couldn’t possibly predict from the first act of the movie, and ends up being about something it didn’t start with thematically. I can see why some might be left wanting more, but I prefer not to think about the Looper that could be. I’d rather concentrate on the Looper that is.
Looper presents a bleak future where people are even more cynical and guarded than they are now, with far less joy in their lives. Its twin protagonists are refreshingly immoral and not even slightly endearing. (In fact, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wearing prosthetics to make him look like Bruce Willis is damn creepy, and diminishes his natural Gordon-Levittian charms.) Looper is a bit of a throwback to the pre-Die Hard era, when action heroes weren’t relatable everymen, but badasses who weren’t necessarily killing because they had to. Usually, they were just pissed off.
Looper may fall short of being a true masterpiece, if only because it sets up one storyline and then throws audiences for, well, a loop. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it will age well and endure as a lasting piece of cinema. Depending on how things go, it might also have some Oscar potential (for its screenplay, and less likely, for Emily Blunt). It is also reminiscent of The Sixth Sense in several ways, taking a familiar genre to a more intimate and emotional place.
I had a good time. I was riveted. I was kept guessing. I rarely had any idea where the story was going, and I admire the way Johnson mostly bucks cliches. (There are still a few cliches.) Some movies are comfort food; this one is a tamale. It gave me exactly what I want from a film — a sense of surprise, and danger. A belief that truly anything could happen to these people over the course of two hours.
When was the last time you saw a movie like that?