By Nico Salvatori
October 11, 2012
The plot mechanics of director Rian Johnson’s new time-travel thriller, “Looper,” are highly implausible, but, due to the film’s attention to detail, strong performances, and clever conceit, its overall gestalt is remarkably believable, making “Looper” the smartest and most inventive genre film since “Inception.”
The primary events of the movie take place in the year 2044 in which “time travel has not yet been invented, but thirty years from now, it will have been.” This is key, for an organized crime syndicate from the year 2074 sends people back to the past/present to be killed and disposed of by contract assassins—a clever way of, quite literally, tying up loose ends.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of these assassins, and the movie’s protagonist. The main tension of the film starts when the older version of Joe (Bruce Willis) is sent back to be killed by his younger self. After a comical physical exchange, Old Joe manages to escape, getting the plot moving.
As with most time travel movies, this one is particularly confounding, but not because of its inherently paradoxical premise, but because it asks tantalizing moral questions about fate, chance, and the harrowing lengths to which one would go in order to prevent terrible events from happening. These terrible events, and the way the filmmaker has handled them, assist “Looper” in appropriately earning its R-rating. The film is never excessively graphic or vulgar; it takes its action and dialogue seriously, creating a realism and a maturity not often depicted in films about something as fanciful as time travel. Realism, though, in a movie about time travel, can only go so far.
The approach “Looper” uses for time travel is both subtle and mesmerizing. It eschews genre conventions with a biting wit by openly acknowledging them, then embracing them altogether in the end. The film is mature in the way it never insults its audience, but respects and trusts it instead, by assuming that moviegoers understand the absurdity of time travel, that they are jaded by the trope just as much as the movie’s characters. At one point, a character remarks, “This time-travel crap just fries your brain like an egg,” as if he himself is sick of pondering the logic of botched time-travel movies.
While “Looper” plays with our expectations of time-travel mechanics, it also plays with our expectations of the future. Throughout the years, moviegoers have seen countless interpretations of the future on the big screen, but “Looper” gets it just right, by making the future exciting, yet eerily recognizable. The future is a bleak, gritty place for some, and for others, it’s a thing of fancy, a place of hovering vehicles and sleek technology. In one scene, a man pulls out of his coat some futuristic communication device. The device, initially the size of a cell phone and as thin as a credit card, folds out into something larger, but, despite its aesthetic ingenuity, still struggles to find a strong signal in the countryside. This honest depiction of the obstacle-laden transition to the future is just another mark of “Looper”’s believability.
“Looper” is a very good movie. Its action is blunt and comprehensible, its characters multidimensional, its plot intriguing, its moral implications weighty and troubling. There is always something new happening in “Looper,” something unexpected—particularly its climax, which may or may not have real consequences. “Looper” is full of wonderful, strange things, except answers.