Every so often, a movie catches you by surprise. You go into the theatre expecting one thing, and it turns out the film has something else to offer, a layer that was hidden from the marketing campaign and the advance buzz. Such is the case with Looper, the latest effort by writer/director Rian Johnson, behind 2005’s Brick and 2008’s The Brothers Bloom.
Instead of coming to us as a typical sci-fi thriller, Looper finds the time to speak intelligently about its time-travel premise, and to include a rather touching message about the importance of family. What makes the experience even better is that the movie accomplishes this through a unique, genre-bending approach that demands a second viewing. We may not want to live in the future imagined in Looper, but is it ever interesting to visit.
The film follows Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hitman for the mob. But Joe’s employers live 30 years in the future – when they want to get rid of someone, they zap the victim into the past for a “looper” like Joe to finish off. Joe is happy with his job – he’s well-paid and well-liked. Of course, things get complicated when Joe is ordered to “close the loop” – kill the future version of himself.
But when Joe pauses to consider what he’s about to do, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) takes the opportunity to escape. Now Joe must track Old Joe down to appease his bosses and stop Old Joe from completing his mission: killing a maniac from the future while he’s still a child. It’s a fantasy that many have thought about and even put into movies, but rarely is the idea dealt with as completely as it is in Looper – one of the film’s many strengths.
The film asks a disturbing question: when do people become evil? Are they born that way? Or do terrible events drive them to lash out? And when a time travel movie asks those questions, it’s not long before someone tries to stop the latter from happening. There is some methodical, balanced scripting to help us along, but Johnson takes the smarter route, leaving the answers to the film’s questions to us.
Johnson takes a similarly pragmatic route for the rest of the movie, as well. It must be tempting for sci-fi scribes to get carried away, exploring all the delicious existential and metaphysical problems presented by time travel. Somehow, Johnson has fought that urge. He rewards the audience with snappy scenes that simultaneously address the time travel and keep the story moving.
Looper sticks to what is important to the characters – Both Joes are wanted men, and they kind of hate each other, too. So it’s understandable when a tense discussion of their predicament explodes into a shootout. Happily, it’s over almost as quickly as it begins - proof that Johnson knows his way around an action scene.
Halfway through, we’re introduced to one of Looper’s key features, a performance by Emily Blunt as Sara. She’s the mother of one of the children targeted by Old Joe, and Young Joe ends up on her farm while running from his employers. Sara is stormy and independent, and the film doesn’t take its chances with her – she isn’t an obvious love interest for Young Joe. And once we know what kind of danger she’s been living in, even her mundane farm chores take on an extra meaning.
What Rian Johnson has given us with Looper is a movie that refuses to be categorized. It avoids being defined by what other sci-fi films have done. Big ideas are discussed, but not allowed to get out of control. The drama elements outnumber the action scenes, and the two combine to create a human story with just enough punch to keep us interested.
And while Johnson’s experiments with pacing in Looper largely deliver, a few transitions might leave you scratching your head a bit (which isn’t always a bad thing). As far as I’m concerned, the fact that we can still get smart movies about something as crazy as time travel is a victory in itself. Looper gets three and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of Looper? Were you impressed by Rian Johnson’s new approach to an age-old trope? Or did the philosophical mindbending tire you out? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! If you’d like to check out some of my other reviews, you can browse through my recent entries here:
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