REVIEW SUMMARY: Ambitious and often clever, Rian Johnson’s first foray into science fiction never quite pieces its philosophical content together with its thriller elements.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Time travel hitman Joe begins to have doubts about his chosen vocation when his next target is…himself.
PROS: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, as Joe and his older counterpoint, respectively; notable supporting cast, especially Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano; good blend of science fiction and noir in a well-rendered future; effective set pieces and intriguing use of time travel tropes.
CONS: Second act slows to a crawl to introduce philosophical elements that do not mesh well with its suspense narrative; important story details revealed late, giving the story uneven structure; unconvincing makeup to make Gordon-Levitt look like Willis; Emily Blunt’s bland Sara.
In the future, time travel exists but has been outlawed, so of course only outlaws have time travel. The Rainmaker, a mob boss headquartered in Shanghai who, based what audiences see of the year 2072, studied the methods of Pol Pot as well as Al Capone, sends those he wants taken care of thirty years into the past—the past being 2044—and into the sights of the loopers, hit men contracted specifically to eliminate said undesirables. (Though one wonders why the Rainmaker, who appears to wield enormous influence in this future overrun by gangs, would go to the trouble of using time travel to rid the world of his enemies, rather than simply eighty-sixing them in his own time period without consequence. Perhaps with absolute power comes absolute deniability.) The loopers obey only a few rules: when you’ve killed your mark and discover bars of gold on his body (based on the loopers’ Kansas City headquarters in 2044, women need not apply), it means your loop has been closed—you are, in essence, responsible for your own execution—and your contract is terminated. (Loopers never see the faces of those they kill because their targets wear hoods.) Another, and perhaps even more important condition, is that the looper must not let the target escape.
So of course Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), standing in a cornfield and blunderbuss at the ready, hesitates when his next mark not only blinks into his timestream unhooded but looks him in the eyes…with the eyes he himself possesses. (Other items, like facial features and body type, are a different matter. Makeup artists and perhaps a dollop of CGI attempt to make Gordon-Levitt resemble Willis, but, alas, despite both being very good in their twin role, at least physically, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is no Bruce Willis.) Before he can fulfill his contract his future self (Bruce Willis) delivers a right hook and escapes, leaving Joe’s contract unfulfilled and Joe himself suddenly the target of other loopers under the control of mobster Abe (Jeff Daniels). Why does his future self deem escape necessary? Joe must answer these questions before Abe’s loopers close his loop for him.
The setup for Looper sounds like a promising mashup of episodes from The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents mixed with the existential angst of Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” (the Kansas City of the future also looks like the Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, a cityscape so often referenced that down its mean streets cliché begins to go), and for its first hour appears to make good on its cross-genre pollination. Too often science fiction movies inject thriller elements at the expense of logic—not surprising, given the seemingly mutually exclusive concerns of the two genres—but Looper actually understands how to weave suspense into its science fictional premise, adding clever moments that make it stand out. When Young Joe wants to meet his future self, he carves the name of a waitress at a diner he frequents into his arm, which shows up as scar tissue on Old Joe’s arm. As they converse in a booth (guns pointed at each other, in true film noir fashion) and order the same breakfast items, Old Joe relates the next thirty years to him, but not before telling Young Joe that he could have used the shorter name of a different waitress. Other deft touches include a preponderance of hovercycles on the Kansas City streets, many of which propped on cement blocks because of some malfunction or other. (Paul Dano, as Joe’s friend Seth, expresses dismay that his brand-new bike has broken down so quickly.) When Abe learns that Joe is studying French so that he can retire in Paris, he advises Joe to study Chinese instead. Joe begins to protest, but Abe cuts him off. “I’m from the future,” he says. “Learn Chinese.” Telepaths also populate this world, though most can only float quarters and do so simply to impress the opposite sex. (Though it turns out that one character’s abilities have climbed the evolutionary ladder at an incredible pace.)
Young Joe’s search for Old Joe (and his attempts to hide from other loopers) through a cornfield leads him to Sara’s (Emily Blunt) farm, where they slowly build a relationship. Sara also has a son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), an incredibly intelligent and insightful child whom Young Joe feels compelled to protect, even as he learns secrets about the two. Although doomed relationships are a standard convention in most noir thrillers, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt generate no chemistry, making their interactions seem forced. Moreover, as Young Joe realizes that his future self wants to kill the Rainmaker before he can become the master criminal who rules the future with an iron fist, it shifts Looper into intriguing philosophical territory that, unfortunately, mesh poorly with its more diverting moments, resulting in an uneven tone and grinding the action to a complete halt. The revelation of Old Joe’s intentions also occurs much later than it should, which throws off the movie’s balance.
This is director Rian Johnson’s third movie, after the high school neo-noir Brick and the wild and wildly uneven con-artist picture The Brothers Bloom. Both proved he knew how to handle noir tropes and play with narrative. Looper, for which he also the screenplay, shows that he gets science fiction as well, and loves the blend of sf and hard-boiled crime, even if he falls into the typical trap of falling in love with his ideas. Those ideas are sound, even if their presentation is uneven.