Looper: No clever subtitle here, just go see it
Looper is a new sci-fi film reuniting Brick writer/director Rian Johnson and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also starring Bruce Willis, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, and Emily Blunt. To be completely honest, when I first saw Brick way back in 2005, it was like having my faith in film restored all at once. For those that never saw it, Brick was an incredibly smart neo-noir film in a hyper-real high school setting, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and crosses paths with a bunch of interesting characters including a young crime boss who still lives at home with his oblivious mother. If you haven’t already, I recommend tracking it down and watching it immediately. Then go see Looper, because it provides a similar breath of fresh air for another genre, this time science fiction. This will probably be a short review as I’ll be dodging every possible spoiler, but I”ll do my best!
The main premise of Looper revolves around time travel, which has not yet been invented when the film takes place 30 years into our future, but it has been 30 years after that. Time travel is instantly outlawed in this future and is used mainly by criminals as a means of body disposal. Gordon-Levitt stars here as Joe, one of the eponymous Loopers, whose job it is to be waiting at a preordained spot at a predetermined time with a gun, and to shoot whoever these criminals need to get rid of when they show up in the past. They arrive hooded and with payment in silver conveniently strapped to their back, and after the deed is done the body is then disposed of in a time when it technically does not exist, and therefore will not be searched for.
It seems like a straightforward, low-risk job as far as professional murder is concerned, but the catch comes when the Loopers are forcibly retired in a process called “closing the loop”. Sometimes, you see, the person a Looper shoots has gold strapped to their back instead of silver, meaning they have just terminated their future self, at which point they are expected to take the increased payday, retire, and enjoy the next 30 years. Sometimes it doesn’t go as planned, such as when Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) lets his future self go free and then goes on the run himself. The future gangsters have a contingency plan in the form of the Loopers’ boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), sent back in time permanently to oversee their operations, and the results of upsetting the status quo are fairly terrifying. Joe is excellent at his job though, and would never let such a thing happen. The only problem lies in the fact that his future self (Bruce Willis) is equally good at his job, and promptly escapes upon arriving in the past.
If it seems so far that the plot might get overly complicated, I assure you that it doesn’t. It’s a smart film that does a better job of plugging its plot holes than most things involving time travel, but it goes to great lengths to be accessible. At one point old Joe even dismisses young Joe’s questions on the intricacies of time travel, saying that if they started talking about it, they’d be talking all day. The main concept works, and that is enough. Rian Johnson is content to let the time travel serve as a functional plot device without bludgeoning the audience with the complexity of it all, and as a result the entire conceit remains solid. The near-future is equally solid, making just enough changes to seem futuristic without being unfeasible. I think at this point we’ve all accepted that we’ll never have flying cars, and so the cars in Looper are simply solar powered instead. Even better, they tend to be older model cars retrofitted with solar panels, avoiding that most unrealistic of futures where suddenly everybody can afford a new hovercar.
Knowing which details to elaborate on and which should stand on their own is key to good sci-fi, and it’s why most of the greatest contributions to the genre exist as short stories; you spend too long on any one concept, and you’re likely to screw it up. Looper excels because it feels like the shorter works of Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick, asking only a small suspension of disbelief for which the audience is rewarded with a universally relatable story. There’s also a little Terminator thrown in there for good measure, not a bad foundation to build on if you want to talk about some time travel.
The performances are as superb as you’d expect with a cast like this, and Gordon-Levitt lends an incredible authenticity to the position of Looper. He doesn’t just play the role, by the end of the film one is fully aware of what it’s like to actually have that job. The biggest casting surprise award goes to Jeff Daniels; I never would have thought of him for the role of crime boss, but it works and he’s excellent here. Special effects don’t play as much of a role here as they do in a typical sci-fi film, but what’s here is well done, and the makeup effects used on Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make him look like a young Bruce Willis are pretty outstanding.
Without a doubt, if you’re at all a sci-fi fan or just appreciate good writing, go give Looper a shot. This has been a pretty good movie year for me, and this still stands out as one of my favorites. And within its genre, it’s my favorite new entry in I don’t know how long. As far as smart sci-fi with enough substance to answer its own questions, this one definitely blows Prometheus out of the water. Yet, there were around 8 people in the theater with us when we saw it. That is unacceptable. Go out and help me correct this injustice, you won’t regret it.