‘Looper’ Time Travel Explained

Published 3 years ago by , Updated October 3rd, 2012 at 1:03 am,

Looper Ending Explained Spoilers Looper Time Travel Explained

[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.


The Premise

Joseph Gordon Levitt as Young Joe in Looper1 Looper Time Travel Explained

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:

  1. Law Enforcement in 2074 has no corpse to pin on the mob. No corpse, no crime.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).

The Story

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.

Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper2 Looper Time Travel Explained

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.

Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper Looper Time Travel Explained

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.

Looper Ending Exlplanation Looper Time Travel Explained

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).

NEXT PAGE: Time Travel Paradoxes…

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  1. Clearly the skill of the film making was in creating lots of riddles and mysteries that are probably unsolvable. Intentionally. The physics doesn’t stand up to any rigorous logical analysis, but there is enough ambiguity worked in that we can fill in the blanks in a thousand different ways. We can ponder about the true significance of Kid Blue, Sara, OJs Chinese beloved and so forth, but I think Rian Johnston wanted us to make our own story up and never had a coherent plan of what was going on.

    So here’s my attempt: someone evolved the power to go back in time hundreds of years from now. They kept going back in time fi
    L they reached an era on the cusp of where time travel would be most useful, then they kept sending loops of themselves back, had a child, sent the child back, had another child, until they bred a super-powerful version of themselves. Their time travelling ability was a mutation that Eco
    Ved from telekinetic powers a mutation slowly evolving in the human race. Their breeding attempts created multiple genetic off shoots where their descendants had offspring that were not accounted for, this caused the sudden spike in tks. Having successfully bred the CID (meaning ‘lord’) they now started using Loopers to remove all traces of the other powerful branches of their genetic line, leaving one all powerful Rainmaker. Other versions of the self opposed this and attempted to engineer assassins to kill the Rainmaker, this just caused a more damaged and evil version. Eventually the power of Love finds its way into the Loops, creating a healed version of the Cid and removing the blood and horror from the Loops. The contrary nature of Seth’s mutilations and Joe’s scars being at once part of singular and multiple timelines is a manifestation of The Rain,Akers damaged psyche bending time and trying to heal his own scars.

  2. I really wish i Watched this movie earlier so I could have got in on this discussion.

    To me… When they show the YJ (young Joe) Actually kills the OJ (old Joe) that is saying the OJ’s life and timetable is new, its his own to do with what he wants. when OJ loops back 30 years and YJ sees him, that is his life and timetable, as things were happening to YJ, OJ was getting the cloudy memories, hell im 34 and i barely remember 15 years ago so i get why they were cloudy. So when he cuts BEATRIX into his arm OJ would have that memory, but it doesnt mean they have the same conscientiousness.

    I do agree that there is no way that OJ or YJ are the reason Sid becomes the Rainmaker, if OJ killed himself originally than something else made the rainmaker, the rainmaker and that story has not been told.

    I dont think YJ had to kill himself, he could have shot his hand off and YES OJ would still have his hand because that is his timeline.

    Either way the movie was way better than i thought it would be.

    Great article Kofi.

  3. Why does Old Joe remember having a baby with his wife after her kills that boy?

  4. The movie seems to elude to change in the past as having and effect on the future only in terms of the present moment.

    So, as Young Joe does things, Old Joe remembers them, but not before.

    The same goes for the amputations of Young Seth. As he loses a finger, old Seth loses a finger – the effects are not instantaneous because they haven’t happened yet, and there is still the potentiality (however remote) of them not happening. This is why Old Seth’s limbs and fingers disappear one-at-a-time.

  5. It’s too bad the meaning of paradox has been destroyed. It was useful as “apparent contradiction”. Now it is being used by everyone to mean contradiction and we already have the word contradiction for that. The film is not full of apparent contradictions, but real contradictions.

  6. I think the simplest phrase that can be used to adequately explain all the apparent paradoxes is “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey”.

  7. I think the short and easy description for all the paradoxes is “loopy”! LOL

  8. Hmmm………Why did she touch his hair in the end, like his mom used to?????

  9. The ending of the is an Oedipus Complex. Thats the “loop.” He did have sex with his moher

  10. It is probably a new version of time travel explanation which falls somewhere between multiverse and singular timeline explanation, meaning there can be only one course of events or “timeline” in the end but the fate of a future being is not altered until the events themselves actually happen. So when you go back in time only your future timeline and that of yourself in the past at the exact moment you go back to exist. i.e. Old Joe’s timeline is set until young joe alters that future explicitly. Old joe’s experiences trump Young Joe’s intentions up until young joe acts on those intentions to change old joe’s past. In other words old joe’s timeline is the one which exists and until time in the present progresses past old joe’s memories. If they are the same time is unchanged, if they are divergent then the new events are all that exist

  11. On the nature of time travel, another artefact we have that seems to suggest it’s not possible is not just ‘Where are all the time travellers?’ but where are all the time travellers from different and unusual alternate realities. There seems to me to be only a few possibilities: a)it’s not possible, b) its possible but not in parallel universes, just our universe, c) it’s still too far off in the future to manifest in this reality or any alternate universe even.

  12. ok so here’s my look on things.

    as joey says just befor he kills himself. the path is a cicle. a loop. So lets start taking it apart. Il start Where the old joe is still young. He works as a looper, and shoots the futur him. leads his life, finds love. Until it gets taken away, he kills his captors but goes back in time anyways to kill the rainmaker. moving forward to end scene. just befor OJ would shoot Sara.

    YO gets a “flashback” seeing the child (Cid) version of himself, he says himself that the child is on the dark path, as Abe said he was on dark path and gave him something that was his. from this its safe to say Cid = joe’s.

    in the circle, OJ would shoot sara ( his own mother ). creating the new JO and the circle goes on…


    The loop keeps going, eventualy JO shoots himself, for reasons unknown ( to create the “First” his mother has to be shot, so whats different now ? ) Now here the thing that boggles my mind, Cid = Joe, but JO leads his Life in the same timeline as Cid. so he must have been looped from the futur. basicly shifting their timeline in the past.
    and seen in the movie in OJ’s timeline, they say something about the rainmaker. if Cid = joe = rainmaker, then how did the rainmaker and OJ’s life get into the same timeline ?…

    any idea’s ? or am i wrong ?

    • well holy s***, in the movie there is a clear bond between kid blue and abe. is kid blue abe’s son ? or is kid blue = abe ? if OJ kills kid blue, that means abe never goes into the past ( cuz he’s dead ) and never sets Cid staight, creating the rainmaker… is this ? did i fill the hole loop !?!? nope :/

      • wait ! i got this, abe took Cid with him to the past ! recruited himself ( knowly or unknowlingly ) changing his own past and creating the rainmaker… makes sence ?

  13. Just saw Looper, can’t remember last time a movie prompted me to get online…

    While a good read, I find it amusing that the movie is picked apart due to “paradoxes”, as if the author somehow knows how time travel works and what effects it might have.

    I think the movie is good because it shows the people and their stories without getting too bogged down in the mechanics. Suspension of disbelief and all that…even conceptually it’s hard to speculate on time travel. The movie was enjoyable because of the vagueness of that whole aspect.

  14. The paradoxes are only an issue if misunderstand time. A classic problem is explained by asking what is the shortest distance between two points A and B on a sheet of paper. Many would answer a line. But in fact if you fold the paper so that A exists on top of B and punch a hole through both. You now make them exist in the same time and space. This is the only true possible time travel. Because there is no line between them the distance between them is irrelevant. Since time is never static all points are possible. Another analogy would be a stream of water. Take a cup and fill it. Then pour it earlier in the stream. To the stream it is of no consequence that it was once further down the stream and spent a lifetime being before now. Time travel fails when you think you can race faster than the stream and outside of it. We have this sticky problem called mass which grows the closer we are to passing the speed of light. Our mass becomes infinite as is energy required to move it. The alternate realities of joe and the rainmaker good or evil only exist to those who can travel to them. To move without moving. To travel a super highway where mass doesnt exist may be the only way at all.

    • I just want one thing cleared up: if old Joe’s memories get “updated” as soon as young Joe “does” them, then why doesn’t old Joe change his opinion about Cid as soon as young Joe deems him redeemable (pun intended) ?