Directed by Rian Johnson
Screenplay by Rian Johnson
Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt
How long is Looper? 118 minutes.
What is Looper rated? R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content.
A magnificent sci-fi noir
from one of today’s most talented filmmakers.
“Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been.” That single line of dialogue embodies the brilliance at the center of writer/director Rian Johnson’s latest film, Looper. Much like the masterful films of Christopher Nolan, Looper masquerades as popcorn flick positioned to attract mass audiences, but is, in fact, working on deeper levels that only the most attentive (and intelligent) viewers will understand. Looper is a neo-noir detective story that subverts many of the most identifiable tropes (stark lighting, rain-soaked streets, etc.) while still upholding the heart of the genre. The film also toys with the most time-honored tradition of time travel stories, namely that the technology exists in present day. The idea that time travel “will have been” invented is not only wonderfully original, but can hurt your brain if you focus too hard on the myriad implications to which it alludes.
Kansas, 2044. Though it is the near-future, much has changed. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, a hit man who dispatches individuals sent back in time from the future. When time travel is invented 30 years from the present day, it will immediately be outlawed and co-opted by the most powerful and dangerous criminal organizations. These organizations are Joe’s employers. Their interlocutor, Abe (Jeff Daniels), was sent back to 2044 to make sure everything goes smoothly. For Joe, things couldn’t be going any smoother. He’s saving up his silver, learning French and waiting for the day he can leave this life behind.
Joe’s plans are shattered when his new assignment is to close his own loop, meaning his future self is sent back and Joe must kill him…himself…who he will become. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) manages to escape, leaving Joe in a very uncomfortable position. The only rule Loopers have is to never let your target escape…even if the target is you. While Joe tries to track down his future self and avoid Abe’s gat men who are looking to kill him, Old Joe is busy with plans of his own in hopes of correcting a mistake he made in the future.
Much in the same manner as Nolan’s Inception, to reveal more about the plot would insult the filmmaker and ruin an otherwise wholly unique experience for the audience. As a writer and director, Johnson has proven himself to be a brilliant student of genre filmmaking. His two previous films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, were hyper-realistic excercises that flexed the muscles of each genre (film noir and the con man, respectively). With Looper, Johnson takes on science-fiction, but in his own signature approach that comes at the genre from an obtuse angle. He doesn’t waste time explaining the time travel technology (Who cares? It works.) or the inherent paradoxes that are unavoidable. (At one point, Abe says, “This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.” Johnson is telling audiences not to worry about the details, just enjoy the ride.)
In what has become a common occurrence in recent sci-fi films, the future (2044, anyway) may appear to be similar to our own world, but there are striking differences. Within “the city” (Kansas City, perhaps), hover-bikes and generically futuristic-looking cars swarm the streets that are overrun with vagrants and criminals. Once outside the city limits though, where Joe goes to carry out his assignments, the world looks the same: corn stalks, farm houses, pick-up trucks and roadside diners. The stark differences emphasize the battle between old vs. new, future vs. past. Joe and Old Joe seem to only have one thing in common: the 30 years that separate them, at once already written and yet to be written.
In what almost amounts to a Tarantino-level orgy of movie references, Looper pays great homage to some of its predecessors, without which Johnson’s film couldn’t so easily convince the audience that time travel is possible. From the Joes’ ubiquitous pocket watch (a reference to Somewhere in Time) to the actual hardware that makes time travel possible (clearly borrowed from The Time Machine) to Terminator (this future doesn’t look too good, either), Johnson fills the film with countless tributes to other works. (In an interesting bit of trivia, Willis also appeared opposite a younger version of his own character in Twelve Monkeys and The Kid.)
Gordon-Levitt has become one of the most reliably impressive and mutable actors working today, consistently turning in fearlessly bold performances. In Looper, Gordon-Levitt plays not just a reluctant antihero (a staple of the noir genre), but also a younger version of one the most iconic screen stars in history. Instead of trying to do an impression of Bruce Willis, Gordon-Levitt cuts right to the core of Willis’ persona: the wry smirk; the gruff, whispered voice; the squint in his stare that can show either anger or amusement. The facial prosthetics that were necessary to make Gordon-Levitt physically resemble Willis are only fleetingly distracting. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is so good you will barely notice them.
With Looper, Johnson proves he is one of the most groundbreaking and intelligent filmmakers working today. Not only does he create beautiful images on screen (his use of close-ups and long takes adds a disturbing layer of reality to the film), he is a natural storyteller who knows how to anticipate audience expectations and how to play off of them. Looper is by far one of the best films to be released this year and an excellent addition to the sci-fi genre. It will undoubtedly inspire future generations of directors.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”