Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels
(Tristar Pictures; US theatrical: 28 Sep 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 Sep 2012 (General release); 2012)
We don’t get a lot of serious science fiction nowadays. Mostly, the speculative genre revolves around dogfights in space and high tech tomfoolery. Gone are the days when directors would take futuristic ideas and place them within an otherwise standard setting, hoping that the message wouldn’t be lost among the laser blasts and angry automatons. In the case of Looper, Brick and Brothers Bloom auteur Rian Johnson has decided to filter his otherwise otherworldly story of time travel and hitmen through a calm, considered character study. The odd thing is, we are really only dealing with one person—junkie assassin Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in both his present and soon to be perceived self. If that fails to make sense, don’t worry. Johnson delivers in a big, big way.
Joe loves the life of a “looper”. The year is 2042 and time travel has yet to be invented, but when it is, eventually, it will instantly be made illegal. Unfortunately, a few machines wind up in the hands of the mob, and they hire men to stand by as they send contracts back to the present. There, loopers kill the mark and dispose of the body, in essence getting rid of someone who doesn’t even exist in that era. Every once in a while, these hitman have their “loop” closed. They are paid off in gold and sent on their merry way with no ramifications… that is, unless, you don’t fulfill your mission. And why wouldn’t you do so? Well, because when you close the loop, the person you are killing is your older future self.
Joe soon learns of a super-criminal known as the Rainmaker who is wrecking havoc in 2072. He is destroying everything and closing loops. When pal Seth (Paul Dano) fails to kill his older self, he seeks his friend’s aid and comfort. This makes his present boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) very unhappy. Soon, Joe is confronted with his own future self (Bruce Willis), and is outsmarted. Eventually, he learns of his years of desperation, the woman who saved his life, and the discovery that the Rainmaker may be a child currently residing on a farm outside of town. Hoping to make things right, Joe befriends Sara (Emily Blunt), the mother of a boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon). What he wants is to confront and kill his future self. What he discovers is something far more intriguing.
If the above synopsis seems a bit jumbled, that’s because Looper is a hard film to describe. It’s an easy film to experience and understand, and makes perfect sense during its often complex narrative, but that doesn’t mean it translates into a simple paragraph or two overview. Such is the high concept nature of what Johnson is going for, and yet, for all its outsized thinking, this film really boils down to a question of lives. In essence, Joe is being asked to make a very important decision: protect what you have now vs. think about what you could have in the future. When confronted with his other self, the younger version immediately wants to salvage his current career path. He wants the drugs and desperate women, the sense of power and the secret stash of silver bars under the floorboards. There really are no repercussions for doing so. As long as his blunderbuss weapon hits the mark, he’s a giant in a world awash in waste.
Future Joe promises something more, however, something his present version has yet to experience: love. Not only love, but the kind of passion that will make daily dope eye drops seem silly and any thought of killing cruel. Handled in a wonderful montage sequence, we witness Joe growing from a street thug to a settled husband… and things would stay that way if The Rainmaker hadn’t stepped in to screw things up. The identity of this mysterious character becomes pretty obvious, but again, Johnson is not in this for some kind of Terminator like reveal. Instead, the test Future Joe passes several years from now is given to the present version to contemplate (via Blunt and her boy). The results will resonate beyond the basic romance angles.
Indeed, there is probably no better genre-thwarting effort than Looper. It’s sci-fi without the real speculative splash (though there are moments of awe and wonder), an action thriller with just a few, fascinating examples of same. What Johnson does instead is something unique to the various beats involved. He finds their inner value, arguing that a possible criminal legacy doesn’t have to exist, as long as there is hope. Even better, he can take a man on a true downward spiral and position him in a way that, anything he does sans the suspected path, will lead to a kind of emotional epiphany, and then redemption. Loopers, by their very nature, are villains, and yet the film treats them like tragic figures. We sympathize with their particular plight, even as we watch them systematically blow their targets away.
That’s the beauty of a film like this. It defies expectations as it plays directly into them. Johnson, whose made a career out of trying the tenets of every genre he attempts, pulls out all the stops here, and ends up bringing in a winner. There will be some who get lost in what he is trying to do, while others will pick apart the time travel loopholes that seem to appear during Willis’ various ‘arrivals,’ but that’s just geek speak nonsense. For the most part, Looper logically lays out its various issues, addressing them in ways that should work out, in the end. Better still, it’s an engaging and intriguing ride through something that could have been handled in a ham-fisted, Hollywood manner. Once you envision how ridiculous the Tinseltown version of this tale would be, what Johnson accomplishes is all the more special. We don’t get much serious science fiction these days. Looper is just that, and it’s terrific.