Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenwriters: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Time travel is hard. Hard to even conceive of properly, much less to do. Film treatments of time travel always ultimately inspire head-scratching, and no wonder: time paradoxes are by definition intractable. Primer, the 2004 cult item adored by geeks and ignored by most everyone else, seemed to take that as its subject, unveiling a wholly different, dizzyingly complicated way of looking at the problem. Looper, Rian Johnson’s brilliant, magical time travel thriller, explicitly tells us to stop worrying and love the illogic: asked a bunch of questions along the lines of “Wha?!” a key character tells another to shut up, or else they would “be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”
Which is not to say that Looper isn’t heady, or that it doesn’t take its sci-fi conceit seriously. It is, and it does, to the point where Johnson reportedly recruited Primer’s Shane Carruth to proofread the “loops” that make up its narrative and thematic focus. It’s true, as it must be, that you get tangled if you attempt to follow each of the timelines all the way through, and the movie tells you, basically, to like it or lump it. But give the film its premise and it rewards you with a narrative that is ceaselessly clever and almost airtight.
Here’s the set-up, though if you’re smart you’ll go see the movie and then return. It’s 2044 – a sort of unremarkably dystopian 2044, grimy and dangerous, with hoverbikes and an embellished (and thematically key) divide between the rich and poor. Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but in a few decades, it will be both possible and highly illegal. Mobsters from the future have set up a clever scheme whereby hit targets are sent 30 years back in time to be immediately offed by assassins – “loopers” – wielding giant clumsy shotguns called “blunderbusses.” But there’s a catch: the criminals in the future can’t have their past-time accomplices mucking up their operation. So in 30 years, the assassins are subjected to the same treatment as their erstwhile victims: sent back to be killed by younger versions of themselves. This is called “closing the loop,” and for the younger loopers it’s accompanied by an extra-large payday and a pat on the back.
All of this goes horribly awry in the case of a looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his recalcitrant older self (Bruce Willis). Much ink has been spilled on Gordon-Levitt’s transformation into a younger version of Willis, using both elaborate make-up and subtle mimickry. (Watch for the way Willis’s trademark smirk sneaks its way into Gordon-Levitt’s performance.) But that’s basically a stunt, albeit an essential one. What really impresses here is the film’s fiendish construction, which features a crucial change of perspective followed by a left-field shift in focus that brings the story’s themes to the fore. The plot and the rules of Johnson’s universe are formidably complex, but the movie doesn’t feel complicated – you lose yourself in it, constructing and reconstructing the narrative in your mind as you go and in the hours and days afterward. And it has an urgency and excitement that builds, and builds, and builds.
Looper deserves its near-universal accolades just for the remarkably cohesive, propulsive, and elegant story Johnson builds from the ground up. It’s the most robust pure sci-fi in years – tighter and more fun than even Inception, if not as dizzyingly ambitious in its engineering. But the film is resonant, too; quietly observant and sad. The theme is obviously circles, and everything that goes around here ends up coming back around, including Joe, who spends the film trying vainly to break the cycle of his own self-absorption. The ending is a stunningly powerful culmination of all the film’s plot threads and themes, with a closing voiceover so lyrical and gorgeous that days later I remember it almost word-for-word. This is a phenomenal achievement.
— Eugene Novikov