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Good science fiction films are a rare treat. Hollywood pumps out plenty of movies each year which dabble in science fiction elements or action movies with a sci-fi twist but it’s much more rare to see a film that can be aptly called sci-fi, connect with critics and provide great popcorn thrills. District 9 comes to mind as a recent example of a film which balanced a high concept premise with kick ass action and used it science fiction elements as a way to bolster great characters and well drawn plot. Inception managed this to some extent but it falls in the realm of summer blockbuster and has a more commercial feel. Moon is another sci-fi gem from the near past though it is far more on the Indie spectrum than either of the two aforementioned films. Rian Johnson’s new time travel action flick, Looper, is a big bold entry into the “must see sci-fi” canon that balances big ideas, thrills, and a compelling setting with memorable, well drawn characters and fantastic plot.
Rian Johnson is one of the best young director’s working today and his previous two features pull off the feat of being very good and very different. His first film is 2005′s Brick, a neo-noir thriller set in a modern day high school that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt on a quest to uncover what happened to his ex-girlfriend. It’s an ambitious low budget picture with great acting and a great script. His follow up was 2008′s The Brothers Bloom, a quirky caper film that focuses on the world’s best con men and the billionaire heiress involved in their last con. It’s offbeat, funny, poignant and beautiful at times. Johnson also directed one of Breaking Bad’s more genius, and divisive, episodes, “Fly.” (My last mention of this prompted a comment war so suffice to say, some people hate this brilliantly written, perfectly acted episode). Johnson’s newest film is another huge leap where he explores, twists and plays with another genre and continues to find his unique filmmaking voice.
Looper is primarily set in 2044 where America has undergone a major economic collapse. Social decay is running rampant and 10% of the population has developed a mutation that allows them to lift small objects with their minds. Our main character, Joe (Gordon-Levitt), is a specialized hit man known as a looper. In 30 years time travel will be invented so when the mob need to dispose of a body (it’s notoriously hard in the future) they send it back to be murdered by a looper and his signature blunderbuss (a modified shotgun). But there’s a catch. Loopers strike a very specific deal when they take their job. They get a big pay day for each kill but they also know that one day their future self will be sent back (bearing a much bigger pay day and a 30 year retirement to do with what you please) to tie up any loose ends. This is called “closing your loop” and it’s a big no no to fail at this task. Typically your loop is sent back, like all targets, with a bag over his head and you only discover what you’ve done once you’ve done it.
Johnson does a great job getting us used to this world and its rules without slamming us with exposition. Joe’s voice over does provide some but it helps establish the noir style that Johnson establishes in the first act. One of the reason the film works so well is because the above description is more of a setting than a plot. What’s great about the trailers for this film is that they limit the explanation to what I just said above and the film is more enjoyable for it. Johnson establishes this setting and these rules before diving into a really interesting story.
We first see the consequences of failing to close your loop when Joe’s best friend, Seth (Paul Dano) fails because he hears his loop singing a song from their childhood. The scenes that follow are swift and brutal and a sequence where Old Seth’s body parts start disappearing (as Young Seth is tortured) is both a marvel of modern effects and a brutal story beat. This fate is fresh on Joe’s mind when his own loop shows up without a bag on his head and looking to escape. He knocks Young Joe out cold and makes a run for it. We’re eventually treated to the path that lead Old Joe to appear unbound and with his face exposed in another great sequence which tells a nice wordless story and plays with the idea of time travel in a fun way. It’s revealed, in a masterfully shot (and written) scene where Young and Old Joe meet at a diner, that Old Joe is hunting down a child who will go on to become the Rainmaker. In the future the Rainmaker has taken over organized crime and is closing all the loops. Old Joe intends to stop him as a child thus protecting his wife who was killed when the mob came to close his loop. After a shootout with young Joe and the Gat Men (the modern day mob who run the loopers), Old Joe escapes to hunt down three separate leads. Young Joe snags a piece of Old Joe’s map and goes to one of the children’s homes (a farm) to await his loop and finish things once and for all.
The story unfolds from there with Old Joe hunting and Young Joe getting to know the mother (Emily Blunt) and son that live on the farm. One of the movies many great time travel flourishes is that whenever something happens to Young Joe, Old Joe remembers it. It’s a nifty sci-fi trick and it also serves a great plot device. This is actually a great example of what makes the film so enjoyable. Johnson’s crafted this deeply compelling world and then puts it in the back seat and lets his great story and characters drive the film. We get to explore the setting but through smart plotting and character beats rather than self-indulgent explorations of causality and time travel rules. As a result the film moves along at a great pace creating tension, and stopping for some great set pieces. The action in the film is superb and Johnson’s unique aesthetic (a looper’s blunderbuss is quite cool to look at) gives the scenes a memorable look.
The performances all deserve mentions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the best actors working today and he shows it here. He is able to express a lot with body language and his eyes. Joe is in a cycle of partying and murdering and little else but he aspires for more. He wants real connections and real future and when all that falls apart around him his blend of stoicism and genuine fear rings true. It’s also impressive how much he is able to channel a young Bruce Willis. He models his performance after John McClane and it works because it never descends into an outright impression. This is enhanced by the decision to use light makeup to increase the resemblance between the two actors. I’ve heard some complain but I found it to be very natural and Levitt disappears into the role. Willis brings his A game here conveying the deep sadness of Old Joe and the determination to make some very tough choices (he shoots a child a you can tell the toll it takes on him). Emily Blunt brings a lot to her role as the fiercely protective mother who knows her son has a deadly secret but means no harm. And even her son, played by Pierce Gagnon does a great job with a really tough child’s part. Their parts are key in Joe’s arc because his experiences bonding with them lend the film an emotional core while raising the stakes for the audience.
The film, of course, has a few flaws. Like any time travel movie there are going to be some paradoxes and unanswered questions. You’re going to have to suspend disbelief and accept some unanswered questions because there are some potential holes in the time travel logic and future rules but if you know what you’re getting into that’s part of the fun. I had a great time discussing some of these issues, as well as the inventive uses of time travel in the film, with friends after the movie. The movie also makes a bit of leap having a Seth fail to close his loop happen right before Joe does the same. The argument could be made that it’s because the Rainmaker has changed things but it still feels like a story move that could have been structured a bit better. These blemishes are minor and I had to dig for flaws.
Looper is a must for fans of sci-fi and time travel and also for people who enjoy a smart action film. The ending is deeply satisfying and there was a point in the middle of the film when I had no clue what the ending could be. Even when you start to figure out the role of Cid, the farm kid, in all of this, you’re not sure what would make for a satisfying conclusion and who you should be rooting for. Johnson manages to bring things to a cathartic and thought provoking close and, even better, follows through on a lot of the big ideas he presents early on. This movie has performances, action and brains. What more can you ask for?