Who knew H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” would spark such a unique subgenre of science fiction, from lighthearted adventures with Doc in “Back to the Future” to the T-800’s sadistic plot to terminate the mother of a future military leader in “The Terminator”.
“Looper” doesn’t disappoint as it enters a long tradition of refreshingly original time travel sagas that merge past, present and future, while ensuring the audience will leave the box office wondering what just happened.
Much of the internal logic of “Looper” caves in, especially since Rian Johnson — a neo-indie, arthouse director and screenwriter responsible for the Sundance Film Festival masterpiece, “Brick” — even stated he ignored those metaphysical flaws. But it still succeeds for its performances by a stellar cast, depiction of a dystopian future and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fantastic makeup that makes him look like a younger Bruce Willis (it’s quite uncanny).
By 2044, the recession leads to almost complete economic despair, and 10 percent of the world population, referred to rather unoriginally as TKs, develops a special telekinetic ability (I guess we didn’t go green soon enough). Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but organized crime figures learn how to dispose of all their human waste from the future of this future. Hit men who perform these unique tasks are referred to rather cheesily as “Loopers”. They’re given a time and a place, and the target appears bound and gagged with silver taped to his or her back as payment. The kill is quick and indiscriminate, and the Looper disposes of the body of this not-yet-born individual. Even if they’re found, no public record reveals their identity. If only the mafia waited 100 years.
Looper Joe (Gordon-Levitt) loves his job. He spends the day learning French, offs the occasional target and gets wasted on a special drug in eye drop form at night with his favorite companion, Suzie (Piper Perabo). Eventually, every Looper closes his loop, meaning one of his hit targets is himself from the future. But when Joe’s closed loop arrives (played by Willis), he isn’t bound and gagged, and he escapes. Young Joe needs to find old Joe quick before underworld boss Abe (Jeff Bridges), the Looper leader sent from the future to set this whole thing up, decides to erase them both.
The initial premise appears to establish a fast-paced thriller, but this director doesn’t really do action films. Sure, we enjoy a few fun chase scenes, but surrealist cinematography and some magnificent visuals eclipse most action sequences. “Looper” is more focused on the complexity of time travel than Gordon-Levitt or Willis’ machine-gun abilities.
The looping aspect of the storyline is only one part, next to the TKs, some of whom are incredibly powerful, and why farmer Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) are so important to old Joe (cue thought-provoking music here).
While the unexpected depth of “Looper” is a welcome treat amidst most time travel films that concern themselves more with big explosives — in short, using time travel as a cipher for the business-as-usual action film — I must say that my inner geek went on full alert because of the film’s many internal flaws. It’s a thinker, but much of it feels like a copout, cheaply winking at the audience without putting in the appropriate legwork. It spends so much time explaining time travel and establishing the rules of its world (i.e., loopers, TKs and other related lingo), at several key moments, characters like old Joe just admit defeat when explaining the paradox of going back in time. Sadly, “The Butterfly Effect”, the oddly enjoyable but worth viewing once Ashton Kutcher film about how one change in a timeline can have a butterfly, or domino effect, was more consistent than “Looper”–– especially considering the film’s rather lazy and very predictable conclusion.
“Back to the Future” made the time travel concept fun. “The Terminator” introduced a paradoxical twist at the end, adding a “hmmm” moment to its visceral pleasures. “Looper” is equally intriguing, even intellectually transcending most of its kin. It’s just too bad Johnson didn’t have the narrative conviction to follow through on his idea. Luckily, he’s a solid filmmaker in many other ways, though “Brick” remains his real Mona Lisa. It’s all fun, but it could’ve been so much more.