Despite the current influx of "all form and no content" movies, it seems that, once or twice a year, a cerebral sci-fi film comes along, bursting with originality and innovation. "In Time" did it in 2011, and "Inception" wowed audiences the year before. This year brought us "Looper" - a brooding time-travel story that is uncommonly smart and subtle.
Letting your loop run
The story is set in the year 2044, where we learn that time travel (which won't be invented until 2074) is used by future mobsters to send victims into the present. Young hired guns called loopers than execute them on the spot in exchange for handsome fees. When the crime syndicate that hired them wants to close their contract, they send the looper's older version back in time to be killed by his younger self. This is referred to as "closing your loop." But looper Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to terminate his older self (played by Bruce Willis) - this is called "letting your loop run." What happens next sets the pace for the rest of the film.
Young Joe soon learns about the Rainmaker, a crime lord who is purposely closing everyone's loops. Young Joe is determined to kill his older self and fulfill his contract, but his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) sends a group of hit men to dispose of them both, forcing the two Joes to flee.
Young Joe learns that Old Joe wants to find and kill the Rainmaker as a child - before he can grow up to become a vicious criminal. After stealing a map from Old Joe, Young Joe follows its coordinates to a farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid - the kid Rainmaker. Though Young Joe learns what Cid is capable of, his perspective on things changes as he attempts to protect Sara and her son.
A very possible, if unpleasant, future
The U.S. depicted in "Looper" has a definite neo-noir look and feel, but it also portrays a very possible, if unpleasant, future, in which the country has experienced unprecedented economic collapse, and ghettos and strip clubs intersperse a wasted cityscape. Naturally, the rich one-percenters have all the fun toys, like futuristic flying vehicles and cannon-like guns used by loopers.
Some people have developed a mutation that allows them to use telekinesis (fear not - the story never wanders into superhero territory). Though initially a head-scratching element thrown into the story seemingly haphazardly, telekinesis goes on to become an important part of the film.
As far as the cast is concerned, Gordon-Levitt was phenomenal; he deserves more lead roles like this, but luckily, he seems to have a penchant for taking part in original, entertaining films (see "Inception" and the recent "Premium Rush"). Willis was great, giving Old Joe equal parts wistfulness and attitude. Daniels played the part of the villain immensely well - a real calculating creep with a sense of humor to boot. It's a bit sad that his screen time was limited.
Provoking deeper questions
Time travel stories are risky business. Many come off as bouncing tumbleweeds of cliché and stagnation, or else are overly complicated to the point of becoming self-contradicting, chronological nightmares. "Looper" broke stereotypes, got the theoretical science right (to a point, anyway), and even took a step back to laugh at itself ("I don't want to talk about time travel shit," says Willis at one point. "Because if we start, we're gonna be here all day, making diagrams with straws").
Speeding along as an action-packed time crisis thriller, "Looper" takes sharp left turns, where it deals surprisingly well with human emotions and metaphors for real-world issues.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to think about is that, by closing their loops, these mobsters are committing suicide by proxy, and the bottom line is money. That's an interesting way to sum up the real world problem of gangs, where youth are convinced they'll "have it all" and are slowly thrown into the proverbial gutter by a capitalist system. It's a zero-sum game, with the sacrifice being one's own life. Loopers seem to represent that in full, and provoke deeper questions about the value of human life and hope in the face of desperation.
The film, especially toward the end, also deals with inevitability, and the pragmatism that ought to be exercised for the good of the many.
As for the multi-layered ideas of "closed loops" and "repetitive time loops," don't worry if the brainy chrono-science is a little confusing. You can always diagram these things with straws after the movie.
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels
2012, 118 mins., R
Photo: "Looper" has received near-critical acclaim as one of the best sci-fi films in decades. Looper movie official site