When was the last time you went to the cinema and saw a groundbreaking, powerfully original science fiction film? For me, it was when I had the pleasure of watching “District 9,” back in 2009. And before that, “Children of Men” in 2008. Originality in science fiction films, it seems, is hard to come by. I’m looking directly at you, Total Recall.
But then Looper came along. Writer/director Rian Johnson has skillfully crafted an intelligent and surprisingly emotional thrill ride that not only works as a science fiction film, but also as a moving and sometimes very funny drama.
Looper is set 30 years into the future, in which hitmen called “loopers” are paid to execute mob targets from the future. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper. All loopers operate under one harrowing condition of employment: at some point down the line, they will unknowingly execute future versions of themselves, effectively “closing the loop” and cleanly cutting ties with the mob for good.
All loopers must follow one rule: never let your target escape. Of course, Joe unwillingly breaks this rule out of shock when his future self (Bruce Willis) appears as his next target. Old Joe escapes with a well-timed punch, leaving Young Joe to deal with his boss Abe (played by a wonderfully haggard Jeff Daniels) hunting him down until he finishes the job.
The smartest choice Johnson made was to make a time travel movie that isn’t about time travel. Mind explosion. Instead, he uses time travel merely as a means to an end, as a catalyst that forces characters to make tough decisions that ultimately expose who they really are on the inside. Bruce Willis’s character brings this point home during a particularly memorable scene at a diner, in which he refuses to talk about the intricacies and complications of time travel. That’s about as close to breaking the fourth wall that Johnson can get without Bruce Willis reaching out of the movie screen and poking your nose.
The film features a midpoint switch into rural territory when Joe finds himself on a farm belonging to tough single mom Sara (Emily Blunt) and her mysteriously brooding son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). This proves to be a welcome and unexpected change in a genre crowded with films obsessed with decaying, dystopian city sprawls. Once again, Johnson displays his dedication to storytelling priorities: even when the film’s setting simplifies, he is all the more dedicated to character development through crisscrossing and increasingly complicated character motivations.
I found myself switching allegiances with each version of Joe as the movie progressed. Johnson uses time travel not to simply pit one man against an older version of himself, but to show one man’s struggle against two completely different versions of his own moral center. Deep stuff, man.
This is what the best science fiction is made of. It doesn’t lose itself in the paradoxical rules and specifics of mumbo jumbo science. It’s all just another way of exploring humanity. Looper uses its own science fiction as a tool to draw out an emotional conclusion from its characters.
This film succeeds with each working component firing on all cylinders. The performances are fantastic across the board, the score (largely composed of various percussive gun clicks) is compelling, the direction and editing are both masterfully smooth and stylish, and the screenplay is mind-bendingly satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally. Go see it if you love movies.
P.S. If you like having your brain fried crispier than the Colonel’s chicken, I suggest you check out “Timecrimes” (2007), an excellent Spanish time travel thriller that takes place over the course of one day. (Technically.) From there, see “Primer,” (2004) the mother of all time travel films. Primer won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for melting the mind of anyone that watched it.