I’ll admit. At first glance several months ago, I wasn’t jazzed at all to see Looper. The bad prosthetics trying to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a younger Bruce Willis didn’t inspire much confidence or interest from me.
But then I started hearing more and more about the plot and the world that was created by writer/director Rian Johnson (director of the fantastic high school crime noir Brick with JGL.)
I also read a few of the early positive reviews, which thankfully didn’t reveal too much. Plus, its got the talented and gorgeous Emily Blunt in it. So I decided to give Looper a watch.
Its been an interesting time for sci-fi fans over the past few years. A number of films have come out that are attempting to break the whole 'new trilogy' Star Wars mold. In short, they're trying not to be bloated, mind-numbingly bland CGI-fests masking an obvious attempt to sell merchandise. We have all seen too many blockbuster films with special effects and computer generated gun battles at the expense of a quality plot and the thought-provoking potential that science fiction is capable of exhibiting. Tron: Legacy and Prometheus—I’m looking straight at you two. Anyway…
But a number of these recent entries into the sci-fi genre have been well-made, original (as in not a remake or adapted from a novel) and asking the audience the type of questions that science fiction should be broaching—all while being extremely entertaining.
Looper is set in 2044, where the world is not in the best of states. Cars are powered by solar panels, but but in the slapdash way indicative of a world stricken by economic ruin. In fact, people are gunned down in the streets by everyday citizens protecting their belongings without any fear of repercussion from the authorities, who are in the pocket of the criminals in this era. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper. Loopers are hired guns for the mob in the future—30 years in the future to be exact. Time travel will have been invented but deemed illegal, which means criminal organizations like the mob use it with impunity. Also, in 30 years it will apparently be impossible to kill someone without immediately getting caught due to some tracking technology that is implanted in everyone. So, if the mob wants someone killed, they send them back blindfolded and shackled at a specific time and place to get killed by a looper. The looper blows the victim to kingdom come on arrival with a specialized gun, collects a few blocks of silver strapped to the body of their now dead victim and then disposes of the corpse.
The loopers are managed by a crime boss Abe (played by Jeff Daniels in total Big Lebowski-mode) who was sent from the future and pretty much runs the crime syndicate in Kansas City of 2044.
Joe is a young looper who is numbed to the brutality of his work, spending his off days getting high off drugs ingested via eye drops, partying with his fellow looper pals and sleeping with a regular hooker (Piper Perabo). Also, Joe is studying French, as he plans to eventually move to Paris after he closes his loop and retires.
What is closing one’s loop you ask? Basically, A looper will one day discover a vast amount of gold bars strapped to the body of their victim. This means that the victim they just killed is their future, older selves. At that point, they retire and then enjoy thirty years of wealth and freedom. Until the future mob captures them and sends them back to complete the loop. It makes sense, the less people who know about the mob's activities, the better.
But if an active looper accidentally lets his future, older self get away, as we see happen to a looper played by Paul Dano, then both of them will be hunted down like dogs.
This then happens to Joe, who was unknowingly about to close his loop…only to see an older version of himself appear in the right spot with no hood covering his face or restraints. Old Joe (played by Bruce Willis) obviously takes younger Joe by surprise and gets away, which causes all hell to break loose. So now younger Joe is trying to hunt down and kill older Joe before Abe and his goons kill them both first. But why didn’t Old Joe just kick back and honor the agreement he knew was coming? It appears that his 30 years of freedom and wealth did not turn out the way he planned. And his intentions are to go back in time to change his future. But he has to also convince his younger self to give up on closing the loop and embrace a new way of life before its too late.
Rian Johnson really created a very believable near-future world for Looper to take place in. There is much more advanced technology, like razor-thin glass phones or tablets, but given where we are already with tablets and smartphones, these gadgets are not too far out of the realm of eventuality for anyone nowadays.
We aren’t told in any detail how the world became so screwed up in 2044, but that isn’t really too important to Looper’s stories. The world is in the crapper, so let's move onto the tale of the loopers. By grounding the science fiction of this story and making it more relatable, the audience is able to invest more in the characters and their journeys. So by the time any higher concept science fiction elements are introduced into the story, the audience is easily able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story. Plus, the story is so well plotted, the higher concepts do not overwhelm said story or its characters.
In terms of location, Looper is primarily set in Kansas City and its surrounding farmlands, but there are scenes filmed in Shanghai, which is where we see more futuristic architecture and whatnot. Kansas City evokes a gritty, dirty vibe of a megapolis gone to seed, even the allegedly nicer downtown areas.
The smartest thing about this movie is that Rian Johnson never tries to fully explain the intricacies of time travel or the divergent timelines that can occur when Old Joe encounters Young Joe. There are a number of jokes made throughout the movie about how it would take all day to figure out the details of temporal hijinks and its components. However, Johnson wisely has fun with the paradox. One example is that whenever Young Joe does something that diverges from Old Joe’s original timeline, it screws with Old Joe’s memories and he remembers all the new memories young Joe is creating.
On what might have felt tacked on in other films was the montage of Old Joe’s original path, seeing him as young Joe killing his older self as well as a brief montage of how he spent those thirty years. Old Joe lost someone to whoever was running the mob in the future, which is his motivation for trying to literally rewrite history.
The problem of Old Joe coming to the past leads to a series of fun but not over the top action scenes and gun battles. Bruce Willis was at his badass best here. It also makes perfect sense as to why Young Joe doesn’t really have much of a chance in a close quarters fight with Old Joe, as the future version knows all of his younger self’s tricks along with thirty years of fighting experience under his belt.
The performances of pretty much everyone really got you invested in the characters and their arcs. Bruce Willis has seemed to be faxing in most of his recent performances. But in Looper, he finally seems awake and engaged in the rich, textured world that Rian Johnson has created. He’s a man on a mission, and God have mercy on anyone who stands in his way.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as this soulless assassin, and really channels a younger Bruce Willis in his mannerisms and speech, even if the two actors look nothing alike.
Also, in what seems like a throwaway and unnecessary subplot, 10% of the human population has developed an aptitude for low-level telekinesis. This actually becomes a much more important part of the story later on in the film. The same can be said for Emily Blunt’s Sara (with a nearly flawless American accent) and her young son Cid. What at first seems like the obligatory love interest is what truly reaches out and forces young Joe to feel something and think about other people besides himself. Blunt and the kid playing Cid both really delivered and elevated the film during its middle portion…both figuratively and literally.
On another note, this film featured small moments of well-placed humor, some of it from Jeff Daniels’ Abe character as well as a foot soldier under his employ named Kid Blue. Its nice to see that some directors remember that sci-fi films don’t have to be completely humorless, dreary affairs.
What didn’t work:
Very few things misfired in this film. The prosthetics on Joseph Gordon-Levitt were rather distracting, despite how invested you got in his character. Plus, it was never really even mentioned how humans developed telekinesis. It apparently just kind of happened between 2012 and 2044 Okay. And lastly, how is it that Joe’s boss Abe receives orders on when kills are supposed to arrive from the future? After a while, whatever intel Abe might know will become obsolete if anything changes. Either way, these are minor, minor gripes.
Looper is hands down the best sci-fi film I’ve seen in years. As the film really came together at the end of the second act and revealed something incredible in the third act, I found myself smiling from ear to ear about how amazing of a movie Rian Johnson had created. And mind you, this is only his third full-length film. When the credits came up, I was so glad that I was not the only person in the theater who gave Looper an ovation. Looper takes a mix of sci-fi subgenres (time travel, near future, dystopian) along with some really cool comic book trappings and turns it into an enjoyable post-summer ride. This film is the type of sci-fi movie that we need to see more of—the type that sci-fi fans can be overwhelmingly proud of.