REVIEW: ‘Looper’ (2012)

Looper Bruce Willis Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Grade: A-

Rian Johnson’s Looper has been the subject of many comparisons to another stylish, reality-bending film featuring the talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster Inception. I had similar feelings of expectation and satisfaction entering the theater for Johnson’s time travel/mobster flick as I did two years ago, pleased that I was in for something original – not a remake, a reboot, a sequel, or an adaptation. This was not the fifth iteration of a hero designed for a Burger King tie-in, or a film based on a play based on a film based on a book. If nothing else, I was going to see something new, at least in the most general sense.

Looper, Bruce WillisAs was the case with InceptionLooper turns out to be more than a clever new idea. The premise and its execution are straightforward: in the 2070s, time travel exists, but has been made illegal. Getting away with murder has also become much more difficult. So criminal organizations secretly send their victims back through time to the 2040s, where hired guns (“Loopers”) off their targets and dispose of the bodies. At some point, a Looper will discover that he’s killed the future version of himself, releasing him from his contract and earning him a big pay day with which to enjoy the next 30 years. Unlike Inception, Looper doesn’t get all that wrapped up in its own conceit – it establishes the rules of its universe, shows what happens when they get broken, and follows through on its inciting action with an easy-to-follow logic and clarity.

This is not a film primarily concerned with the complications and consequences of traveling through time. More than one character voices a kind of disgust for the whole business – Bruce Willis’s character Old Joe, in conversation with his younger self (Gordon-Levitt) says something to the effect of “I’m not going to talk about time-travel shit, because we’ll be here for hours.” This feels like a message straight from the writer/director to his audience: Don’t worry about it. Johnson seems far more interested in how time affects perspective, such as how Young Joe and Old Joe view each other as separate identities with divergent interests. Looper also subverts the time-traveling tropes of inevitability and the butterfly effect, and instead invests energy in exploring its characters’ potential for inner change, exchanging fate for choice. By the film’s stunning (if somewhat tidy) conclusion, I was struck by how thoughtful and ruminative this action movie had turned out to be under its slick, futuristic, adrenaline-injected surface. The time loops navigated by the film’s inhabitants become a symbol for the larger cycles of life and violence, and a beautiful twist on the conventional quest to “go back” in order to fix the future emerges in a final statement about sacrifice and love.

Looper, Joseph Gordon-LevittAnd Looper does all this while delivering an intensely thrilling ride through a compelling speculation. Gordon-Levitt gives another charismatic performance in his third collaboration with Johnson, issuing some Die Hard-worthy line-readings with such spectacular aping of his co-star that sometimes I couldn’t help but giggle at the imitation. Prosthetics helped complete the transformation, although at times his eyebrows and lips look drawn-on and strangely dark. Willis is solid in his role, seeming more natural and human than I’ve seen him in years, and Emily Blunt’s axe-wielding Sara is a welcome sight after the film’s obligatory Strip Club of the Future scene and Piper Perabo’s gratuitous toplessness. Blunt’s character, the mother of a child whose future might have big consequences for the protagonist, feels slightly like a shoehorn for some of the film’s thematic ambitions, and the pacing and structure are not as tight in the second half of the film in which she and her son figure. In addition to time travel, the future in Looper is also populated by people with a telekinetic mutation – a subplot that feels a little tritely underdeveloped and a convenient source of fantastic visuals to be summoned at the eleventh hour.

Some minor quibbles notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed Johnson’s contribution to a well-trod genre. The storytelling is well constructed, even if the seams show a little. One sequence in particular, where the scars and mutilations suffered offscreen by a young Looper appear in real time on his fugitive, future self is not only an awesome introduction of stakes, but a vivid establishment of “the rules” of the timeline as well as a shockingly exciting scene. Johnson’s landscape of the future is pretty dismal – an impoverished lower class occupies a kind of Hooverville as wealthy criminals zip around on flying motorbikes and live out their hollow lives dropping drugs and killing time. Yet he also seems intensely optimistic, indicating that cycles can be broken and that people can change, primarily because of the power of love. While films like 12 Monkeys and Primer might have made more imaginative use of the time travel conceit, Looper has a thrilling but thoughtful big picture in mind, and is content to dispense with the details.

Bottom Line: Rian Johnson’s time-traveling thriller is more mindful than mind-bending, featuring a capable Joseph Gordon-Levitt ready for his own action franchise.

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  • I….LOVED….this….movie.

    Like you, I have been comparing Looper a lot to Inception in the past few days, for the same reasons you have. While I enjoy Inception just fine, I have always taken issue, oddly, with how much sense it makes. The list of rules and world-building is so impermeable, so impeccable, so “perfect,” that the movie has always felt strangely hermetic to me, and whatever larger themes the movie was aiming for sort of got the wind knocked out of them as a result.

    Looper, I think, makes a lot less “sense” than Inception. There are more discernible plot holes and character motivations aren’t always clear, but I actually think that strangely serves to assist Johnson’s movie both on a dramatic and thematic level. I love that Looper is less interested in neatly laying the “straws” on the diner table than Inception was, because that amps up the movie’s stakes, its unpredictability, and its sense of danger. Plus, I feel that the movie does a wonderful job of weaving together various themes of identity, parenthood, adulthood, and the cyclical nature of the cosmos. You called the ending to the movie “tidy.” That may be the case, but I almost prefer to use the term “poetic.”

    So, um, yeah. Loved Looper, and I am so glad you did too.

    • Yeah, I totally agree about the Looper/Inception differences – for a movie about dreams and the subconscious, Inception didn’t feel all that dreamlike to me. Plus the fridged woman-who-died-so-the-hero-has-something-to-angst-about-also-she-went-crazy-isn’t-that-titillating thing.

      And I think that whereas Inception is sort of daring the audience to figure it out, to see it like a puzzle and access their intellect, Looper seems like more of a feeling movie and wants to lead the viewer along rather than lose them around a bend.

      I thought the ending was a beautiful choice, and without it this film would mean a lot less. For a Hollywood action piece it was unexpectedly thoughtful, if a little clean. It certainly exceeded my expectations. And I could watch JGL do Bruce Willis all day.

    • There certainly are some plot holes… The very end of the movie creates one so large that you could fit several tractor-trailers and most of the visible universe in it.

      Looper, I think, makes more cinematic ‘sense’ than Inception does, at least on an academic shot-by-shot basis; I hope the Academy remembers Steve Yedlin’s cinematography and Bob Ducsay’s editing when ballots are mailed.

      I’ll admit that I didn’t know Emily Blunt was in Looper, and I was worried the moment I saw her. I got exhausted watching her in The Adjustment Bureau because she acted SO HARD; I became fatigued watching her strain to the breaking point trying to emote. But she isn’t given quite that much to do here and Rian Johnson keeps her annoying habits at bay. I still could have stood a bit less of that character, though.

      And shouldn’t people who close their own loop be called “Looper Scoopers”? Or would that be too cute? They can use that for the sequel, maybe.

      • Possible subtitles for Looper 2:

        Looper Scoopers
        Loop Dreams
        Möbius Strips
        Electric Boogaloop

        Or maybe it’ll be called Louper and feature a ragtag band of time-jumping jewelers.

  • Jose

    While I love that everyone seems to be enjoying an original sci-fi movie, I just thought the movie was ok. It really didn’t do anything for me. I’m sure that with repeat viewings, I’ll probably enjoy it more, but for now, it looks like something I’ll forget within a week.

  • Kris

    This Bolger is excellent …. Everyone should be warching her!!
    Thanks for your excellent reviews!

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