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.
As was the case with Inception, Looper 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.
And 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.