The rules of time travel in fiction can make your head spin. As a writer, you have to be so meticulous in your vision that all the rules of your universe don’t collapse upon each other and bring your entire concept crumbling to the ground. Or, like Rian Johnson does in “Looper,” you can be so confident in your story and tell it in such compelling fashion that it doesn’t matter if the concept is bulletproof or not.
“Looper” envisions a future in which time travel has not been invented, but in 30 years it will be, only it’s used exclusively by the mob to erase any trace of a hit. Young, impressionable guys in need of work like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) have been recruited as Loopers to do this dirty work, but even the Loopers must be kept silent in the future, and so they’re sent back in time to be killed by their younger selves, which is called “closing your loop.” You earn a ton of gold and your freedom for closing your loop, but eventually you’ll be sent back in time to be killed by your younger self, hence the loop analogy.
Joe keeps his life pretty straight for a Looper. He’s stashed part of his earnings so that when he closes his loop he can head to France. At night he goes to the club, drops some eye-drop drug and rendezvouses with a high-end prostitute (Piper Perabo).
Suddenly, a lot of the guys are closing their loops, and Joe’s confidence is a bit shaken. When he does ultimately see his older self arrive from the future (Bruce Willis), he flinches and lets him get away. He must quickly rectify the situation, or else he’ll be killed in order to erase the problem altogether.
Time travel, however, is just the tip of the sci-fi iceberg as far as the future world Johnson has built in this film. Genre fans will find themselves highly stimulated by what they see, but at the same time, Johnson elects to slightly upgrade our world instead of give it some futuristic makeover.
But more than all that, looking beyond just the vivid context, “Looper” runs on strong characters and an organic sense of urgency. It doesn’t get lost in sci-fi dialogue explaining how things work or become so driven by its concept that it detracts from creating believable people.
The scene in which both Joes confront each other in a diner captures what Johnson does so well, wrapping what would otherwise be heavy-handed sci-fi exposition into a scene with incredible tension. Although Old Joe gives us a lot of important information, the dominant feeling in the scene has more to do with wondering what it would be like to see yourself either older or younger (depending) staring back at you and knowing that you either need to kill yourself or yourself wants to kill you.
In that scene, Old Joe makes clear that he has a specific objective while back in time, so young Joe has to figure out how to stop him with his boss (Jeff Daniels) already on his tail. From there, “Looper” doesn’t let up, and not from an action perspective, but in terms of a compelling narrative. Sci fi doesn’t get any better when the characters and the story capture as much of your attention as the shiny environment they’re placed, especially when you don’t even realize it.
What’s so unique about the way “Looper” uses the time travel device is in two portrayals of the same character. Both versions of Joe feel like completely different people, almost to the point where you have trouble believing they’re the same guy, but it just goes to show how much of a difference life experience (years upon years) can make in a person’s beliefs and motivations.
With proper material, Gordon-Levitt and Willis excel in their roles. JGL nails Willis’ speech patterns, but more impressively he gets at the essence of the veteran’s famed talent: bringing a sense of vulnerability to a hardened exterior — the sensitive tough guy. Willis too, thanks to the way his character is written, performs better here than in most of his recent films.
The outstanding Emily Blunt also deserves credit for her performance, though to explain her would spoil too much of the story’s novelty. Gone is the elegant, hilarious Blunt we’ve mostly seen to this point; Sara is a bold, resilient and headstrong woman who also happens to be extremely lonely, which adds needed complexity. Regrettably, she’s the only character outside of the Joes to get proper depth.
The only weaker point of the script that can’t be contributed to either nitpicking the details of the sci-fi framework or how people get conveniently gun-shy, is how Joe completely changes as a person over the course of just a couple short days. At first jaded and completely self-interested, he develops incredible empathy for someone enduring the chaotic life trauma of being both wanted dead and needing to kill your older self.
Even though the film’s pacing is terrific and Johnson makes the most of every scene, something’s missing in the second half that prevents us from staying on the same page with Joe beat for beat. Perhaps, however, it’s not what the film doesn’t provide, but rather that we’re too overstimulated by all the excitement going on to follow along with the film at the more personal, emotional level — until the end, that is.
So much of the original science fiction we get today relies so heavily on its gimmick, but “Looper” feels like an action crime thriller that instead uses time travel as a device to add complexity. Johnson has crafted a story in which humans would respond to things as humans do, and he uses the sci-fi elements to enhance this, not drive it. It’s why “Looper” will be looked at as a sci-fi gem for a long time to come.
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels