I wish that all science fiction films were as packed with ideas as Looper (2012, directed by Rian Johnson). I wish Looper was more rigorous in its construction, but I won't fault it too much for that. Lots of filmmakers get lost in time travel plots. Looper is sloppier than most, though, maybe because it doesn't really care about it. That's fair, I guess. Looper is one of those New Wave-y science fictions that are descended from Philip K. Dick, and he didn't care too much about the mechanisms of his plots, either. It's the ideas that are important. The ideas here aren't derived specifically from the time travel premise, though I doubt they could be examined without the instrument of genre.
This is the premise: thirty years in the future (from a "present" in 2044), time travel has been invented and outlawed. The only people who use time travel are criminal gangs who use it to dispose of their victims. They send their victims back in time to be killed by "loopers," hit men recruited by a ganglord sent back in time on a one-way trip. Loopers are required to close their own loops, as the saying goes: if they're still alive in the future, they are captured and sent back to be killed by their younger selves. Some of those younger selves, understandably, balk at this. One such comes from the future with a tale of a new, utterly ruthless crime lord named "The Rainmaker," who is closing off all loops. Our "hero" is Joe, and he's none too admirable: he does his job with ruthless efficiency. He's a drug addict. He's sleeping with a stripper from the club where his superiors do business behind the scenes. He's willing to give up his friend who is balks at closing his loop. Joe is more than willing to close his own loop. Unfortunately for him, his older self, when he arrives, is less cooperative. Old Joe has lived a full life: violent, amoral, and ultimately redeemed by the woman he meets decades in the future. He doesn't want to lose all that, so he vows to kill The Rainmaker before he even exists as a force. He has some information that will lead him to The Rainmaker as a child, but it's sketchy at best. There are several children who fit the bill, so he begins to go after them one by one. Young Joe, for his part, has decided to take his stand against his older self defending one particular child and mother. Sarah, the boy's mother, has unusual gifts. She's a telekinetic, which is not unusual, but she's stronger than most. She's passed her gifts on to her boy...
If some of the plot of Looper sounds familiar, it should: this is basically a more sophisticated version of The Terminator, with an all-too human assassin rather than a killer robot and a serious desire to fuck with the minds of the audience. Unlike The Terminator, this is a film that's less hermetically predetermined. It's not a film as Möbius strip, it's not Ourouboros eating its tail. It opens up its concept by slipping sideways during its first confrontation between Joe and his older self, when, having gotten himself killed, Joe accidentally resets reality. This is a film of infinite possibilities, where regardless of the usual deterministic nature of time travel, the future remains unwritten. This is kind of liberating, and it allows the filmmakers to indulge in several clever set pieces that are contingent on the fungible nature of reality (the ghastliest of these is the fate of a looper who is mutilated by his employer while those mutilations spontaneously appear on the body of his older self).
Some of the other tropes on display here add texture. The future is convincingly grotty, in which the oil is gone and the world is spinning into chaos. I like how telekinesis is presented: a useless party trick that callow douchebags use to pick up women, mostly. I like how retro some of the design of the film is. Director Rian Johnson has an interest in classic film noir (see also his first film, Brick), and that aesthetic is on display in the anachronistic personal style of Joe, who drives a sports car and wears a suit to work. A fedora might have been to much, and the filmmakers wisely omit it. Film noir, rather than science fiction, is the proper touchstone. The sci-fi toys aren't really what this film is about, a fact elided by the matter of fact depiction of time travel itself. There's no glowing ball of electricity, no 88 miles per hour to attain. There's a jump cut. That's it. It's as if the filmmakers want to deflect an interest in the mechanisms of time travel. This film's priorities are with the nature of heroism, with the nature of redemption, and with the nature of memory, all core concerns of noir. Joe/Old Joe is a conflicted protagonist, whose role in the narrative shifts from hero to villain and back again with disturbing implications. Young Joe is a monster, but finds redemption (decades early, as it happens). Old Joe is redeemed, but becomes a monster. This is a film that doesn't care about "sympathetic" heroes so much as it wants to examine what constitutes heroism (and villainy) itself. One bad day? Is that what it takes to push someone out of the light? That seems to be the theme here, incarnated in the person of Cid, a child who could go either way. Does this boy become the all-destroying monster of the future? Well, that's the subject of this narrative's endgame.
This film has good actors, which distinguishes it from older science fiction traditions. This is an actor's film for all its cyberpunk gimmicks. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the lead, acting behind prosthetic make-up designed to make him look more like a younger Bruce Willis. He does a good job of aping Willis's mannerisms, too, which makes the notion that he's a younger version of the same person a lot more credible. It's a good piece of acting. Willis, for his part, dials down his own wiseguy cinematic anima. Somewhere along the way, he lost his trademarked smirk and replaced it with world-weariness and pathos. The short history of Joe's future life is a bravura piece of silent filmmaking that relies on its performers to express a lifetime with their body language, and it wouldn't work if either JGL or Willis weren't in complete sync. Emily Blunt plays against type as Sarah, sporting blond hair and a rustic American accent. She's convincing enough, though her part is underwritten (as almost all girlfriend/mother parts are). In spite of this, she gets a scene where she has a sexual itch that's unusual in so far as it starts with a subtle tug at the hem of her skirt, as if she's thinking about plunging her hand between her legs. This is something that usually isn't part of the girlfriend/mother part and it humanizes her. That she takes Joe to bed is less credible, but it's more credible given the way the scene starts than it might otherwise be (think: James Bond falling into bed with every woman he meets). I like the time it gives to Suzie's sexuality, too. She's played by Piper Perabo, who is also good. Suzie has an unexpected role in the film once the third act rolls around, though by then, the attention given her has wandered a bit, never to return. The other performance of note is Jeff Daniels as the mob boss from the future. He's not your typical mob boss, and his scene where he convinces Joe to give up Seth (a twitchy Paul Dano) is a study in quiet menace.
Looper manages all of this while throwing red meat to genre fans, which is a high wire act that other films have muffed. In some ways, Looper muffs things, too, because if anyone stops to think about the implications of its ending, the whole edifice becomes a house of cards. We've already seen the world reset during the course of things. Why does it not do so at the end? Ultimately, it's not important, but it nags at me, like a hangnail that keeps snagging my stockings.