Time travel and dystopia: two key tropes of the science-fiction genre. With Looper, director and sole screenwriter Rian Johnson has breathed a fresh verve of visceral life into them. After bursting onto the scene with the neo-noir Brickand falling a bit flat with the Brothers Bloom, Johnson returns to feature directing with a couple of “Breaking Bad” episodes under his belt and a sure-handed confidence.
Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also co-executive produced the film, impersonating Bruce Willis, who plays his character Joe in the future. The only misstep in Looper maybe the makeup Gordon-Levitt wears to look like Willis, which sometimes feels surreal but other times seems distracting. Gordon-Levitt has the Willis mannerisms down (that cool, half-interested reserve). That’s all many films have demanded to attach two different actors playing the same character.
The film takes place in a future where mobsters rule crowded cities, and you can shoot someone in the back in broad daylight for trying to take your stuff. The invention of time travel 30 years in the future (2072) allows for the two Joes to meet in this current past, 30 years into our future (2042). With time travel, the mafia’s hit men have become semi-skilled junkies (loopers) who just wait for their targets to be zapped back to 2042, who they take out pointblank with handheld cannons called blunderbusses. Usually, the targets arrive bound and hooded, making for easy hits. When Joe’s future self arrives hands free and staring him back in the eyes, the younger Joe chokes. Old Joe easily overtakes him because he has the experience of the future, not to mention who-knows-how-many groundhog day-like opportunities of having lived these encounters. The marvels of time travel.
The film’s gimmick may seem to rely on young Joe fulfilling his contract to kill old Joe so he might live out his future 30 years with happy abandon. But Looper has many more interesting things up its sleeve. The future seems to arrive thanks to capitalism gone awry and the loss of human rights. Technology has only advanced to make cell phones smaller, computers holographic, motorcycles wheel-less and drugs as easy to take as eye drops. Otherwise, most everyone seems to be a squatter living in decrepit buildings or on the street. The fact that some people are born with a “mutant” telekinetic ability they never seem to master beyond floating a coin an inch above their palm feels like a cute aside. However, Looper does not waste a single plot-point. When old Joe’s reason to avoid his death sentence comes to light, his mission in 2042 proves gasp-worthy.
At just under two hours long, Looper may sound long for a time travel sci-fi flick, but it earns a downshift in tone and pace by the film’s midpoint for an impressionable climax. Johnson knows what he’s doing when he seems to drag out young Joe’s respite from the chase at a farmhouse with Emily Blunt’s single mother Sara and her 10-year-old child Cid (Pierce Gagnon playing too-smart-for-his-age with creepy timing). This slower section is broken up by Old Joe’s scorched-earth rampage back in the city but also with a gradual deliberateness to allow the viewer to invest in these characters as channeled by some fine actors. Of course, not all movies need to run two hours long, but Johnson knows how to extend and earn the quiet moments with wit, and a revelation that follows will prove breath-taking.. You wonder why some films seem to pass through you like fast food? Those are the 88-minute, non-stop movies, which numb the mind via a barrage of action, horror, comedy and even dance moves, sapping any emotional investment by not pausing for a moment of reflection. A payoff does arrive in Looper beginning with a hired gun in search of Joe who appears at Sara’s door.
A well-earned series of plot twists and conflicts in morality will soon unfold that will leave the viewer wondering which characters they should sympathize with. It will surely leave some on edge. Looper built up the urgency to a sense I had not felt since I saw Drive last year. I felt as conflicted about these characters as I did for those in that ingenious identity mind-bender from Hong Kong, Infernal Affairs, which inspired Scorsese’s the Departed.
Johnson has produced a film with such confidence, you can forgive him for taking any perceived liberties with the rules of time travel and its effects on the notion there is only one continuum of existence (of course, it’s beyond that, thanks to quantum mechanics, so get over it). Looper indeed has a playful side, but Johnson turns on the dread just as quickly, making for one of the better, smarter science fiction films surely to leave all sorts of viewers satisfied.
Looper is Rated R (the violence does get gruesome) and runs 118 min. It opens in wide release today. TriStar Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.