[WARNING – This Article Contains Looper SPOILERS]
Rian Johnson created quite the sci-fi story with Looper (read our review), and like a lot of good sci-fi stories, there’s plenty left to chew on after the end credits roll. Some people may be confused about the ending of Looper, others about the general premise of the story – while more hardcore sci-fi fans are undoubtedly deep into discussing, charting or perhaps even working on infographics that explain the many time travel logistics (and paradoxes) that must be untangled.
To aid in comprehension and discussion, we’ve created a quick easy-to-read breakdown of what Looper is all about. It’s only our analysis, and film is always open to wide interpretation, but we have a feeling Looper will keep people thinking for a while (like good cinema should). Read on for our explanation of Looper‘s premise, story – and yes, those bothersome time travel paradoxes.
In Kansas of 2074, a mob syndicate utilizes a kill system whereby they send victims back in time to Kansas 2044 to be eliminated by hitmen called “loopers,” who are trained and instructed by a future mobster (Jeff Daniels). The anonymous victims pop back in time hooded and gagged, and are promptly shot by the waiting hitman, who then disposes of the body and collects bars of silver strapped to the victim’s back as payment. This goes on until the day a looper finds gold strapped to his victim’s back instead of silver, signifying that the anonymous victim is actually the looper himself – or at least who he will be in 30 years. This is known as “closing a loop”; the looper promptly retires after collecting his gold, and is free to live a life of luxury for those 30 years until he will be captured and sent back to the predetermined moment when his younger self kills him.
This is seen as a perfect kill system because:
- Law Enforcement in 2074 has no corpse to pin on the mob. No corpse, no crime.
- No one in 2044 but the looper is ever aware of the murder – and the looper doesn’t know a single detail about the victim (until it is his older self).
- The looper, whose only kernel of knowledge is that he briefly killed strangers for a future mob, ultimately offs the only person in 2074 to witness these killings (himself), leaving NO ONE who can tie the future mob to a crime (no body, no killer, no crime).
Young Joe is a Looper. He’s had a messed up past, no real parents, and had his lessons on life given to him by a man from the future who handed him a gun and taught him to kill. Needless to say, Joe has issues. He drops designer drugs in his eyes all day, frequents prostitutes, etc. But Young Joe also has heart, studies French, dreams of traveling to “better, more sophisticated” places than Kansas, and gets all vulnerable about childhood and parenting with his prostitute lady friend (Piper Perabo)… Somewhere in that stoic hitman there’s a heart – though often it gets buried beneath the selfish ambition to “get his” in life, no matter what the cost.
When Old Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives, Young Joe is confronted by a possible version of himself that understands the world much differently; Old Joe (as seen in montage) has been down the path Young Joe is fighting so fiercely to travel – Old Joe knows how empty it ultimately is until you find love. Real love. Old Joe had it for a brief stint of time until his past came back to haunt him (Loopers’ deaths are predetermined, remember?) and cost him the love of his life, as well. Old Joe is fighting for love – and he too wants to “get his,” no matter what the cost.
To Old Joe, the person responsible for taking what was his is someone named the Rainmaker, who is basically the all-powerful telekinetic Hitler of 2074, controlling everything in society from the government to the citizenry to the mobs and their operations. Old Joe’s intel (flimsy as it is) states that it was the Rainmaker who called for the retired loopers to start having their loops closed wholesale – and therefore was responsible for shattering Old Joe’s happiness. Old Joe’s plan, then, is to infiltrate the past, locate the Rainmaker (based on hospital records) when he is a young boy, kill him, spare himself (and, you know, maybe the world) a lot of darkness and heartache. Only, Old Joe has three names on a list (flimsy intel) – three children – who could be telekinetic Hitler, and therefore he must kill all three. Old Joe’s ambition for personal satisfaction is exponentially worse than Young Joe’s – as Young Joe eventually comes to see.
Young Joe lands on a farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), a low-level telekinetic who is mother to a genius-level (and frighteningly powerful) telekinetic child named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who will CLEARLY one day be the Rainmaker. Young Joe has that vulnerable side and heart opened up by the hard-luck story of Cid and Sara – especially Cid, whose story of violence and loss at a young age is so much like Young Joe’s own story. Even when Cid inadvertently blows up a gatman (Garrett Dillahunt), and Young Joe knows this kid is telekinetic Hitler, the compassion he sees Sara showing her son, and the effect it has, marks for Young Joe the difference between becoming men like him (and baby-killing future him), and possibly becoming what Young Joe secretly always wanted to be: a better kind of man.
However, murder-spree Old Joe is too far gone to turn back. When he finally tracks Young Joe to Sara’s farm, it becomes clear that Old Joe’s selfish ambition is the exact incident that ironically enough creates The Rainmaker; in Old Joe’s timeline (more on that later), rumor has it that as a boy, the Rainmaker saw his mother murdered by a looper and had part of his jaw shot off: horrific acts Old Joe nearly commits.
But Old Joe’s alteration of time means that there’s a possibility for more than one path – so when Young Joe finds himself in a moment where his violent ways can’t save the day, he makes a choice to not be like Old Joe and actually give up his all-important ambition to hold on to “what’s his.” He removes himself (and all the bad Old Joe’s done) from the equation by killing himself, thereby possibly sparing a lot more people times of pain and darkness under the Rainmaker’s reign (presuming Cid grows up to be a healthier, nicer, all-powerful guy).
Looper’s Time Travel Paradoxes
Time travel stories are tricky; there always seem to be loose ends left dangling, and/or connections that don’t quite add up. Looper, unfortunately, suffers this problem as well.
The biggest issue, as always, is the multiverse factor: if a guy from the future comes to the past and starts mucking with history, it either A) creates a separate timeline that runs parallel to the original one (allowing for two versions of history), or B) The actions in the past forever alter the flow of a single timeline, allowing for just one version of events. Looper plays fast and loose with this time travel mechanic, at times relying on both single timeline and multiverse timeline approaches to push the story forward.
For example: Old Joe still existing after he meets and affects Young Joe shows that multiple timelines are possible – but tricks like Young Joe carving messages in his arm that show up on Old Joe as scars would have us assume that there is one timeline wherein the fate of one Joe is directly tied to the other. Johnson gets by the issue via vague expositional throwaways such as Old Joe’s memory – is it being revised by his actions in the past? Or is he open to remember several versions of history? (Sorry, no clear answers – it’s too cloudy to say for sure!)
However, a few minutes of thought reveal a lot of paradoxical problems woven into this plot:
Old Joe & The Rainmaker
The biggest thing to address is the paradox involving Old Joe’s mission to stop the Rainmaker (Cid). Looper shows us a montage of Joe’s life in which Young Joe in fact unwittingly kills Old Joe out in the cornfields, and goes on to live what he thinks will be his happy, post-looper life – only to become the drug addict gun-for-hire (and eventual lover) that is Old Joe. Old Joe then jumps back to the past to change this course of events, and the movie we witness is therefore the alternate timeline where Old Joe escapes his execution.
…However, the movie hints (in the diner scene with young and old Joe) that Old Joe’s heinous actions in the past are what push young Cid to become the fearsome “Rainmaker.” As we see in the climax of the film, Old Joe’s crazed mission forces Young Joe to kill himself to save Cid – but this is a paradox.
If The Rainmaker exists in Old Joe’s future timeline, it suggests that Old Joe’s baby-killing mission in the past was predetermined to happen. So then how could there ever be a version of events where Old Joe was executed by Young Joe, and Young Joe goes on to become Old Joe?
Even if Old Joe had fulfilled his destiny (killing Sara, disfiguring Cid), Young Joe would have been aware of his older self’s actions and been changed by them – he wouldn’t become the Old Joe we saw in the montage, because the exact thing that would’ve made Cid the Rainmaker would also change Young Joe forever (the presence of Old Joe).
Bottom line: Old Joe’s timeline where both he and the Rainmaker co-exist is a paradox. A version of history wherein Old Joe kills Sara and creates the Rainmaker is also a paradox. Old Joe cannot be the origin of the Rainmaker as we are told he is.
In a climactic moment, Young Joe (via voiceover) describes seeing an unending cycle of time travel violence that creates monsters like the Rainmaker and Old Joe – and the only way to break it is suicide. A noble speech, noble idea, good plot twist and intriguing thematic arc… but it doesn’t hide the fact that there is a big gaping paradox at the center of the movie.
Young & Old Seth
This tangential subplot to the film actually raises quite a few paradoxal issues. Similar to Young Joe, Young Seth (Paul Dano) fails to kill his older self. Old Seth goes on the run until Kid Blue (Noah Segan) and the gatmen capture Young Seth and surgically amputate him as a means of incapacitating Old Seth.
Here again, we get a muddled version of timeline mechanics: If history is one timeline, then Old Seth should have instantly seen the amputated changes to his body the moment he escaped from Young Seth; the fact that limbs disappeared one at a time suggests multiverse possibility (Young Seth loses one finger, but there’s still alternate possibilities wherein he keeps the other nine, etc.). But if we’re talking multiverse theory, the Old Seth we see shouldn’t be affected by the amputations – it should be some alternate Old Seth of an alternate timeline who suffers that fate.
That’s not to mention the sheer number of future events that would have been altered when Young Seth is left incapacitated; start thinking about the Butterfly Effect and your head is liable to explode.
The Two Joes
Like the Seths, the paradoxal nature of Looper’s time travel story is seen in the two Joes. Simply put: it’s impossible for these two Joe’s to both exist and have a connection whereby Young Joe can leave scar messages in Old Joe’s skin, or Old Joe is clouded with Young Joe’s memories. Again, the movie shows us that Old Joe comes from a particular timeline, and that the Young Joe we meet is living in a now alternate timeline, where Old Joe’s actions steer him down a very different path.
In single timeline theory, Old Joe should’ve suffered a Back to the Future vanishing act the moment that Young Joe turns any one of the emotional corners he does in that second act of the film on the farm (bonding with Cid, falling for Sara, realizing he could one day become a baby-killer, etc.). Young Joe had already started down a path of emotional growth and change, meaning he could never become the Old Joe we meet – yet when Young Joe kills himself, poof! Old Joe is gone as if they are directly tied to one another. Either Old Joe should’ve reflected the emotional changes in Young Joe (which would’ve prevented him from baby killing ) – OR, Young Joe’s suicidal act shouldn’t have affected Old Joe, since Old Joe would’ve been from an alternate timeline.
We could go on and on like this, but we would inevitably find ourselves arriving back at the same conumdrum: time travel theory: you just can’t have it both ways. Looper crafts a very good story out of a wild sci-fi premise, and while it dodges a lot of its own potholes scene-to-scene, when viewed from a distance its clear that Rian Johnson has not yet cracked the time travel movie conundrum.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out the Looper episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Looper is now playing in theaters.