Writer/director Rian Johnson’s new film Looper takes place in a future (the year 2044) in which specialized hitmen like young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) eliminate anonymous hooded victims sent back in time 30 years by a mob syndicate which exists in the year 2074. In the impoverished era of 2044, these hitmen (aka “loopers”) live like rich young rock stars; that is, until the day comes when a looper is tricked into ‘closing his loop’ – i.e., unwittingly killing his older self and earning thirty years of luxurious paid “retirement,” until that predetermined moment when he is sent back in time to face execution by his own (younger) hand. (Still with me?)
The wrinkle in time comes when young Joe suffers the unfortunate fate of recognizing his condemned older self (Bruce Willis) – allowing just enough hesitation for old Joe to make a brazen escape. With his ‘loop’ left unclosed and his employers now after him, young Joe tries to stay ahead of the pack long enough to eliminate older Joe – whose presence in the past is no mere coincidence, but rather the beginning of a much larger (and soul-crushing) mission to alter the future.
The first thing you should know about Looper is that it’s not quite what the trailers and advertisements have made it out to be. Yes, the driving engine of the story is the ‘young Joe vs. old Joe’ confrontation – but Johnson actually steers the chase hard left in the second act, expanding the film into a ruminative tale that uses sci-fi tropes like time travel, predetermination, and even telekinesis as methods of attacking more grounded and relatable moral/philosophical quandaries. As such, those hoping for Looper to be a nonstop run-n-gun action film are going to be disappointed with the high-style and slow-burn of Johnson’s film – while those who like their sci-fi deep and thought-provoking may be pleasantly surprised by how much substance this film actually has.
Time travel has become the bane of both sci-fi fans and storytellers alike, mainly because the plot device can quickly unravel into a distracting amount of contradiction, lingering question and gaping plot-holes. While Johnson’s script is smart in its uses of sci-fi devices (and unabashedly funny in its avoidance of explaining them in detail), even the acclaimed filmmaker behind whip-smart neo-Noir film Brick is not immune to a few missteps. The usual paradoxical questions related to time travel still rear their heads, and this film is not able to spin every one of them away with winking dialogue like, ‘that time travel stuff will fry your brain.’ Thankfully, the more grounded narrative through line makes up for the deficiencies in sci-fi logic, as Johnson finds a way to direct the more heady elements toward a steadily beating heart.
Visually, the film is crisp and stylish, with a washed-out palette (excluding vibrant club scenes early on when young Joe is drugged-out) that makes the CGI effects seem like natural and organic elements of a grungy future dystopia. Johnson’s vision of not one, but two, futures is rife with sci-fi borrowings (hover bikes, telekinesis, designer drugs, futuristic weapons, etc.) but everything is still re-shaped, grounded and gritty enough to make suspension of disbelief easy to accomplish (even when things begin to encroach upon comic book/anime territory).
As stated, Looper is less concerned with its sci-fi premise than it is with the development of its central characters – but in this area the film again falls short of perfection. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his meteoric rise as a leading man, and pulls double-duty here by carrying most of the film’s screen time and pulling off admirable mimicry of co-star Bruce Willis (even without the aid of silly facial prosthetics). Johnson carves a fascinating character out of young Joe – an unflinching killer whose stoic manner masks both great pain (born of the past) and great passion (for his finite future). Young Joe’s arc is the main thread of this convoluted narrative, and between Johnson’s clever subtext and Gordon-Levitt’s nuanced delivery, the dramatic climax to the film is well-earned and will spark the sort of endless debate about morality and personal values that Johnson was clearly shooting for (no pun).
Unfortunately, old Joe isn’t as well drawn as his younger counterpart. That’s not to speak ill of Willis – the aging leading man still delivers some quality dramatic acting and kick-ass action sequences – however, old Joe is as much a plot device as he is a fully-realized character. Fans seeking out the film because of Willis’ name on the marquee may be surprised by how limited his screen time actually is, and a lot of the bigger plot issues reside with his character (like how his presence in the past affects time, or how young Joe’s reactions to old Joe affect memory). Old Joe being a somewhat shallow character numbs the story’s final emotional punch to a degree, but Willis also does a solid job of adding depth where he can – which in turn causes further aggravation that his backstory and character are glossed over too quickly.
Aside from the two leads, Looper has a pretty wide cast of secondary characters. Emily Blunt’s character Sara and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) have been largely overlooked in the marketing materials, but the two are actually major focuses of the story, narratively and thematically. Blunt is given a precarious tightrope to walk (a mother both fiercely protective and deathly afraid of her child), but she pulls it off well with a mix of world-weariness, fierce determination and a passable Kansas accent. Gagnon is actually a breakout performer in the film, owning many scenes that call on him to oscillate between charmingly precocious and chillingly scary. The young man has definite talent.
Other famous faces show up for bit roles: Jeff Daniels is a scene-stealer as the laid-back future-mob lieutenant sent to manage the looper squad; Noah Segan is great (but unfortunately scarce) as an enforcer named “Kid Blue”; Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and Garret Dillahunt (Raising Hope) are both solid in their brief roles as hitmen, but Piper Perabo is unconvincing as a pragmatic-minded prostitue young Joe frequents.
In the end, Looper is a pleasurable trip into an interesting vision of the future, where we are treated to a thought-provoking series of questions and scenarios, set against wild sci-fi plot devices. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and even while not rock-solid in its execution, the (slightly) flawed result of Johnson’s endeavors still stands heads above as an example of quality sci-fi crafted by an artistic and creative filmmaker. Unlike its eponymous hitmen, Looper will likely enjoy long tenure in the sci-fi zeitgeist.
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. It is Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content.