MOVIE REVIEW: Looper
LOOPER-- 4 STARS
Even though time travel has not been invented yet (and who says it ever will be), the pop culture science of time travel movies, whether it's the Back to the Future trilogy, the Terminator series, or dozens new and old in between, will always constitute our fake education of logic on the subject. Until the day comes where the technology exists (and who says it ever will, again), we can thank the cheesy creativity of Hollywood screenwriters and directors for making us feel wise and smart in the meantime, where we think we know the rules of time travel and how its supposed to work. Go ahead and Craiglist a Delorean and Wikipedia the "space-time continuum" while you read this review.
Time travel is not the only subject. You know what I'm talking about. Whether its zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, dragons, or some other fictional creation, if the wild chance ever came that we found ourselves encountering any of those scenarios, our behavior would reach to the "I saw this in a movie" level of decision-making reaction. If the action and that "I saw this in a movie" line is preceded by a "Dude," or a "Don't worry," just go ahead and duck early or run. It's not just the fictional realm either. We can thank countless spy movies and MacGyver TV shows for thinking that we can open doors with credit cards or destroy the world with a paperclip. It's all fun fictional logic.
Time travel movies have that level of fun fictional logic and plausible-but-not-really smarts that every new film in the genre tinkers with in their own way. The latest wild time travel tale is Looper from writer/director Rian Johnson. Our present is Kansas 2044, when time travel doesn't yet exist. America has fallen socially and economically behind China and, in another wrinkle of the future, approximately 10% of the world's population has developed a light form of telekinesis, or TK. Thirty years from 2044, newly invented time travel is immediately outlawed, but used in secret by corrupt and powerful criminal organizations that have been overtaken by a mysterious figure called the "Rainmaker."
In 2044, the simply named Joe, played by rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is one of many "loopers," contract hitmen who dispatch marks sent back through time 30 years where tracking technology makes getting rid of somebody impossible. The victims arrive shrouded and bound, ready for Joe's "blunderbuss" shotgun and furnace disposal, and strapped with silver bullion as payment. This ugly, but well-paying job makes Joe trendy enough to dress fashionable, use the hottest drugs, drive a nice vintage car, and bed showgirls at his boss Abe's (prior Gordon-Levitt co-star from The Lookout, Jeff Daniels) nightclub. Once a looper's contract ends, the bosses "close the loop." In a sick twist of fate, that means the looper's future old self is sent back to their own execution conducted by their younger self. Strapped with a gold bullion payment instead of silver, it's a looper's final exit to 30 years of a rich and free life before the end that just occurred.
That possibility is the ignition spark to Looper. When young Joe arrives for his latest job, sure enough, it's his older self (Bruce Willis) that appears. Young Joe hesitates and Old Joe gets away. That puts Bruce Willis on the run in a time he's not supposed to be in and Joseph Gordon-Levitt hunted for a blowing his job with the mob. When they meet (in a great scene), their mutual predicaments becomes more clear. Young Joe feels he needs to make things right and eliminate his older self. Old Joe wants to kill the possible "Rainmaker" before he or she can grow up to control crime, time travel, and ruin his life in the future.
The duel of the young and old Joes brings in a rural single mother Sara (Emily Blunt) and her brilliant, yet troubled son Cid (newcomer Pierce Gagnon). She takes a shine to young Joe, as does their son, complicating matters. From there, with those seeds planted, Looper becomes a bit of a different and, unfortunately, slower and more coincidental movie from its excellent, creative, and thrilling set-up. The movie loses some polish and steam, but redeems itself by the end.
Time travel movies are supposed to be a somewhat confusing clash of logic and curiosity about the future and Looper lives up to that trend. That's their fun and appeal. Looper's palette for the future, while on the bleak side, is far from preposterous and completely apocalyptic. It's driving story premise, while crazy, is far less ludicrous to accept and play along with than so many other and lesser time travel movies. I will warn that the movie has its extreme swings from soft, steady emotion to jarring, brutal violence. Some folks might not be able to ride those peaks and valleys. Nevertheless, the movie's cool factor far outweighs its question marks and flaws.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to be an immensely engaging and watchable actor with every new movie. Bruce Willis's name may be above his on the poster and he may wear the action star's face through convincing prosthetic makeup, but this is every bit his lead movie. Willis is not to be dismissed. This is an unexpectedly emotional performance from Bruce in an action setting. Coupled with his subdued turn in Moonrise Kingdom, he's adding to a nice year. In the supporting arena, Emily Blunt puts her British accent away and makes the most of her influence. Paul Dano and Piper Perabo sneak in some memorable scenes as well.
Alright, here come the inevitable time travel comparisons. You can tell already that Looper is a straight-shooter above the cheese of Bill and Ted and Austin Powers. On the other end of the spectrum, don't try to put Looper on the big budget scale with tent-poles like Back the Future, The Terminator, or even, on some level, The Matrix. It's a mid-budget success among the likes of last year's brilliant Source Code, 2004's The Butterfly Effect, and Willis's old 12 Monkeys. If you like those type of movies, then Looper is right up your alley.
LESSON #1: CAN WE ALL AGREE THAT TIME TRAVEL IS MESSY?-- Even if it's just the movies, haven't we witnessed enough drastic changes, mistakes, and ripples to not want to get to that point of time travel. When has any instance of movie time travel been mistake-free or ramification-free? I sure can't name one. Let's let the past be the past and not attempt to tinker with it.
LESSON #2: THE EXTENT OF SELF-SACRIFICE-- Many of us have a subconscious list of what we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for. For some, our sacrifice extends to our job, our family, or our livelihood and the price is usually time, risk, money, pride, and other minor inconveniences. The list becomes more ominous and price goes to a completely different level when you talk about the future, your own life, or the life of others.
LESSON #3: THE IMPACT OUR UPBRINGING HAS ON OUR FUTURE-- Speaking of the ripple effects of time travel, even without the technology, every little seemingly benign decision we make today, or have made already in our past, changes the future afterwards. For each of us, whether we knew it then as they happened or realized and learned it in hindsight, there are many turning point events that affected our upbringing into the adult men and women we have become, both good and bad. Looper definitely operates with those in mind.