Killing time: “Looper”

September 29, 2012

Looper isn’t a hugely twisty-turny movie, but the plot developments it does have are pretty important, so I’m not going to spoil anything you couldn’t see in the trailers. Plus, this is a really, really good movie, so you should go out and see it. You should see it right now. What are you doing right now that’s more important than seeing Looper? Unless you’re performing open-heart surgery or negotiating with North Korea, you can see Looper. And if you’re doing one of those two things, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this. But if you aren’t attempting to avert World War III, then, yeah, go see Looper. It’s not the best sci-fi movie ever made, but it’s up there.

So, this movie takes place in 2044, thirty years before time travel will be invented. When it is, however (as we’re told by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an unobtrusive voice-over), it is instantly banned, and only used by criminal organizations which use it to dispose of their enemies. Seems tracking technology is ubiquitous enough in 2074 to make it nearly impossible to make someone disappear, so they send them back in time to a predetermined spot where an assassin—a “looper”—kills him and disposes of the body. And that’s what our hero, Joe, does for a living.

Of course, every so often a looper kills the future version of himself, and gets paid in gold bars. This is called “closing the loop,” and loopers are well aware that one day they will have to close the loop. As JGL informs us, loopers aren’t real long-term planners. The criminal organization in 2044 is run by a guy named Abe (a very good Jeff Daniels), who came back in time to manage things. So, things are going pretty hunky-dorkey for Joe, except for two niggling things: 1) a lot of loops have been getting closed recently; work of new, super-viscous crime boss known only as The Rainmaker, and 2) Joe fails when it’s time to close his own loop. Not for lack of trying mind you, but things obviously went wrong on the 2074 end, since he came through time without being tied up like the victims usually are. Also, he’s Bruce Willis.

Sidebar: If I discovered my future self was Bruce Willis, I would be totally stoked. I’d be like, “Awesome! I get to be Bruce Willis! I’m so totally not doing Surrogates, though…)

Well, future Joe tries to explain to past-Joe that his future is going to suck for a long time. In a flash-forward we see what happens to him, and the brutality of his present is quickly eclipsed by the violence he will commit…but then he meets a woman (an ethereal Summer Qing), and like many a hardened movie killer before him, she saves his soul.

Problem is, the Syndicate is pretty tough on people who fail to close their loop (we get an object lesson on this early in the movie, and it’s pretty horrifying), and Young Joe is more scared of them than he is moved by Old-Joe’s story. But Old-Joe doesn’t waste much time on that, since he’s got his own mission to accomplish. And that’s as far as I’m gonna go, because anything else could be considered spoilers.

Looper plays around with the ideas presented by time travel without losing itself in them (Old-Joe brushes away a long explanation of the paradox when he tells Young-Joe that if they start getting into it they’ll waste their whole day “making line-drawings with straws.” Unlike, say, Primer, Looper isn’t preoccupied with the possibilities presented by time-travel—we’ve seen those—but by the intersection of time and morality.

The world Joe inhabits is a nasty one, and he’s a nasty piece of work because of it. This movie is, in part, an action-thriller, and there’s violence a-plenty, but writer-director Rian Johnson (here, establishing himself as a major talent) never lets the audience enjoy it. If you’re expecting a neo-noir Die Hard, that’s not what this movie is. Instead, it challenges Joe to recognize and break free of the violence that owns him and fuels him. Old Joe managed it, but Young Joe is still too mired in the present to recognize it.

Looper also leaves you pondering a lot of things, but to mention them would be to give up too many plot details. The one worth mentioning, though, is Johnson’s meditation on how time affects all of us. He posits the question, “what if I knew then what I know now?” and considers that maybe it wouldn’t matter. A recent Cracked column discussed that one of the reasons we’re bad at long-term planning is because we see our future self as another person. In the tension between Young-Joe and Old-Joe, Johnson makes this literal. Young-Joe is resistant to Old-Joe’s advice because hasn’t lived that life yet, and those experiences as as alien as if they’ve happened to another person.

More stuff I can talk about: the dystopic 2044 is intriguingly-rendered. The country seems gripped in another Great Depression, with homeless (called “vagrants”) littering the streets. Gasoline is seemingly at a premium, and contemporary-looking cars are sloppily-retrofitted with solar panels and other doo-dads. Gangsters dress like douchetards from A Night at the Roxbury, because the retro look is in style (this is broached in a hilarious monologue by Abe, who encourages Joe to “wear something new.”) There are some hover-bikes, and helicopters, and in Kansas they harvest sugarcane. Maybe they do that in present-day Kansas. I’ve never been there. Do they?

If there is a niggling complaint to be made it’s that JGL is hard to buy as a young Bruce Willis—even with the subtle prosthetics they give him. Of course there’s nothing Johnson can do about the fact that we know what Willis looked like in his 20s, and he can’t make this:

Look like this:

Still, that’s a minor point. In the end, Looper is a dark, fleet, thought-provoking, sci-fi thriller. Well worth seeing in the theater. You know what, you can probably skip the peace talks. That’s a road to nowhere, right?

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