Rian Johnson’s Looper is hotly-anticipated as a time-travel film, and yet in many ways the fact that it involves time travel is almost incidental. This is a neo-noir crime drama following Johnson’s previous features Brick and The Brothers Bloom, with multiple parties chasing after various targets. And yet the time-travel aspect can’t be completely disregarded; Johnson does as good a job as any storyteller with handling the complications it necessarily brings to the table. The result is a truly adult action film, not only in its gritty violence that leaves PG-13 cartoonishness behind, but in its truly thoughtful tone.
As the opening monologue explains, time travel has not been invented in the story’s 2044 setting, but thirty years later it will have been, and it will be illegal. Organized crime uses it as a high-tech method of body-dumping, which personal ID tagging has made somewhat problematic. They send people back to specified coordinates, where hired hit men known as “loopers” wait with high-caliber unrifled “blunderbusses” to eliminate the targets. Yes, there’s an obvious question as to why they don’t just kill the targets in the future and send the bodies back for disposal by garbagemen instead of assassins, but we’ll overlook that.
The term “looper” arises because each of them agrees that they will eventually be kidnapped and sent back themselves, along with a big payoff. After a looper kills his own future self and “closes his loop”, he is released from his contract, free to enjoy the next thirty years. Of course, if a looper lets his loop run, the present-day gang led by a representative from the future (Jeff Daniels) will make life very painful, as we see when looper Seth (Paul Dano) lets this happen.
Seth tells his friend Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that his loop told him about a new crime boss in the future — The Rainmaker — who is closing all the loops in quick succession. So Joe is understandably nervous, and when his own loop (Bruce Willis) shows up, mysteriously unbound, he is quickly overpowered.
So now Joe is searching for his loop, the mob — including Kid Blue (Noah Segan) and Jesse (Garret Dillahunt) — is searching for both of them, and Joe’s loop is searching for the Rainmaker as a child in the present. He has three possibilities, which leads Joe to hide out at the farmhouse where one of them (Pierce Gagnon) lives with his mother (Emily Blunt), waiting for his loop to show up.
Of course, Looper owes a debt to La jetée, as reviewers at highbrow periodicals love to point out every time as if they’re telling those poor, ignorant sci-fi fans something new. But as I said, this is really a noir film, told in flashback by a man who regrets his past and his seemingly-inevitable downfall and loss. What makes Johnson’s script great is the way it fuses this with the time-travel pattern so seamlessly; not only does Joe want a chance to change his past — or his future — he actually gets it, and twice over.
The execution is also good; Johnson gets some excellent performances from his entire cast, down to the minor supporting characters. The film looks gorgeous, though the anamorphic lens flares get a more than a little distracting. And the way he explains things visually without loading down the script with exposition is truly elegant.
Looper is easily one of the best science fiction movies this year, and will easily find its way into the canon. It’s films like this that remind us what a shame it is that science fiction movies are so rarely in contention for any but technical awards.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.