By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2012)
My dinner with me: Willis and Gordon-Levitt talking to themselves.
If there’s a cardinal rule of time-travel I’ve gleaned from watching sci-fi movies over the years, it’s this: make sure that you never, ever “meet” yourself. Why? Dunno, really, just that you’re not supposed to. I imagine it could be quite unnerving, in either direction. I mean, it’s traumatic enough looking at that dorky version of my younger self in that yearbook photo, and who in their right mind is chomping at the bit to get a sneak preview of themselves in drooling dotage?
In his stylish and ultra-violent sci-fi thriller Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson not only breaks the cardinal rule, but manages to violate a few that haven’t been invented yet (see what I did there?). Johnson has himself a jolly old time exploring the potential fluidity of the time-space continuum, toying with causality and paradox like a kitten batting a ball of yarn all about the room with gleeful abandon.
The year is 2044, and America is a dystopia (it took that long?). The economy has gone 2008 for good, crime is rampant and 1 out of every 10 people has a mutation that gives them the power to levitate objects at will (although for a majority of the afflicted, their abilities are limited to the occasional Uri Geller parlor trick). Jobs are scarce; the biggest “job creator” is organized crime (again…it took that long?).
And yes, they still have plenty of gigs for hit men in the future; especially for “loopers”. Loopers have a relatively easy time of it; unlike your standard assassin, who has to meticulously plan the right time and the right place to do a hit, the looper simply shows up for “work” at a designated spot, where the target-bound, hooded and festooned with a set of silver bars, is delivered to him like an overnight FedEx package…from 30 years in the future (don’t ask…just enjoy your delicious buttered popcorn and accept it).
Pretty easy job, wouldn’t you say? The hours are good, the wages are decent, and loopers party like rock stars when they go out on the town. However, there is a calculated risk every looper takes by choosing this career path. “Retirement” (at least in the traditional sense) isn’t necessarily part of the equation. Should your bosses (who can be a fickle lot) determine that for whatever reason your services will no longer be required, they send the older version of yourself back to the present so that your younger self can take you out. This is referred to by the higher-ups as “closing the loop”.
Naturally, they don’t give you a heads up; it’s just another anonymous hooded victim who appears out of thin air in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Kansas. Either way, you never see it coming. Ergo, as looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) confides with self-effacing irony in voice-over, this is not a profession that attracts “forward-thinkers”. Joe does have plans; he’s stashing all his silver bars and learning to speak French. Everything is going swimmingly for young Joe until that one fateful day in the cornfield, when his Victim du jour turns out to be… “old” Joe (Bruce Willis), who manages to flee. Uh-oh.
I’ll leave it there, and let you discover and enjoy the surprising twists and turns in your own time (in a manner of speaking). While there are some obvious touchstones here (primarily 12 Monkeys, The Terminator and Logan’s Run, with a few echoes of Groundhog Day) Johnson has fashioned a clever and original thriller that’s smarter than your average modern sci-fi action flick, yet not so self-consciously “meaningful” as to drown in its own self-importance (i.e., the director remembers to entertain the audience along the way).
Most notably, there’s an emphasis on character development (remember that?) and a palpable focus on the quality of the writing that is sorely lacking in most genre entries these days. The production design, special effects and atmospheric flourishes are “futuristic” without going over the top. It’s the little touches I especially enjoyed, like the fact that the time travel device is clearly modeled after George Pal’s design for his 1960 version of The Time Machine. Gordon-Levitt and Willis are terrific, and there are strong supporting performances from Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt. See it now. See it later. It doesn’t really matter…time being relative and all.