Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Rian Johnson’s Looper features one of the most satisfyingly inventive science-fiction stories in years.
Its structure draws on (and expands upon) time-travel tropes seen in everything from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Back to the Future to The Terminator — and it all clicks, even if the movie’s central premise doesn’t fare well under scrutiny.
By “central premise,” I’m not referring to time-travel, but the idea that the movie’s future crime syndicate would send the future versions of their killers into the past to be disposed of. The script depicted this syndicate as having vast power and resources at its disposal, so why would they even need to get rid of these guys? (For that matter, if it’s such a powerful syndicate, why would they hesitate to kill their enemies in their present? Why go to the trouble of sending them into the past?)
Also, I found it hard to believe (though slightly less so) that anyone would sign up for such a job. The script justified it by portraying the loopers as a bunch of hard-partying dead-enders, and that element fed into the hero’s arc as a killer who learns self-sacrifice, but all the same, I found it hard to swallow that someone would willingly forego their twilight years.
In addition, I found it really hard to buy that this future crime syndicate would task the loopers to kill their future selves. Yes, yes, yes — to be sure, they portrayed them as bums who couldn’t see farther than the range on their strangely task-specific weapons, but if it’s so important to dispose of these guys, why do it in a way that has such a high risk of inducing an existential crisis in the person doing the killing?
Despite my complaints, Johnson’s movie is still very strong, but I might have played it a little closer to Logan’s Run in the sense that the the appearance of the older version of the protagonist, Joe (Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), would have marked the first deviation from routine for any of the loopers in 2044. The script already establishes that the mysterious “rainmaker,” the fearsome gangster who conquers each of the worldwide mobs, has started sending all of the loopers into the past. Why not play it like this is a shocking new policy? Make it so the loopers know that when their work is finished, they need to disappear, but the appearance of the rainmaker changes that. Now they know they’re doomed.
Making that change would come at a price, of course. We’d lose the excellent scene where Paul Dano’s older incarnation goes on the run, and as the gangsters torture his younger self to death, his older self watches his body disintegrate one body part at a time. It was a wonderfully gruesome riff on the internally-consistent time-travel model seen in Bill and Ted. The tactic of using bodily injuries (scars) to send messages to a looper’s older self also smacked of Bill and Ted’s self-consistency, as well as the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter Time’s Arrow.
On that note, let’s pivot from nit-picking to praise and heap loads of it onto the shoulders of Rian Johnson, who once again finds a new path through the rust-belt crime-fiction territory he so memorably explored in his debut feature, Brick. There are lots of subgenres in crime-fiction, including the familiar gumshoe stories (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep), and the “schlub gets in over his head” stories (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Both Brick and Looper include elements from these two subgenres, but if you’re asking me, Johnson’s draws most from the “corrupt rust-belt town” tradition best seen in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. These stories usually take place in a crumbling small town run by a local mob. Crooked authority figures often find their way into the mix — Brick’s school principal, for example, stands in for the mayor of the figurative small town represented by the high school. In the same spirit, Jeff Daniels’ displaced-from-time crime lord stands in as the potentate of the anonymous Kansas metropolis seen in Looper. (Also, kudos to Johnson for casting that role against type.)
But rust-belt crime-fiction is only Johnson’s starting point. Looper’s second half focuses on a storyline that subverts the structure of James Cameron’s The Terminator by pressing Bruce Willis into duty as the assassin from the future. Like Cameron’s mute killing machine, the future-assassin has three targets he needs to take out, but unlike the terminator, Willis (and his younger counterpart) must grapple with the ethical dilemma of killing a future supervillain. (During these scenes, I flashed on Ira Levin’s lurid genetic thriller The Boys from Brazil, which examined a similar moral quandary.)
Invention abounds in Looper. Johnson’s rules for time-travel really feel right, including the explanation for how Joe’s memories shift depending on how his past course-corrects around changing events. Joe’s shifting memories also reminded me of Marty McFly’s slowly vanishing family photo and marked another instance where Johnson took an existing trope from time-travel lore and expanded upon it. If Marty’s family was slowly disappearing, then why weren’t his memories also being altered?
If we’re going to get really nerdy, we can answer this question by pointing out how Back to the Future takes place in a universe where the multiverse model for time-travel obtains. Marty isn’t actually traveling back in time; he’s simply leaping into a parallel universe that’s identical except for one feature: it’s 30 years younger.
Looper addresses this question from the perspective of a different time-travel model. In Johnson’s universe, it’s possible to change the past, but everything is still internally consistent to some degree. None of that makes sense under a microscope, but that’s OK. Over on the excellent geek blog IO9, they argued that time-travel stories by rights should be messy, and for the most part, I agree. I’m not much of a fatalist. I like imagining that we live in a universe where we can control our destinies, despite that same universe giving every appearance of being deterministic. Looper serves up a little of both, all of it on a very messy plate. (That said, there’s nothing wrong with a time-travel story that’s 100% internally consistent, like the instant-classic Twelve Monkeys. Huh. Bruce Willis was in that one, too.)
More good stuff: I admired the low-tech design of the time-travel apparatus, which looked like a cross between Darth Vader’s torture-sphere from Star Wars and a toaster oven. (I also couldn’t help but feel an uncomfortable parallel with a crematorium when Bruce Willis climbed inside its cramped, redhot innards.) In addition, I can’t overstate how much I appreciated the introduction of Emily Blunt’s character. It was so refreshing to watch an action movie that was willing to deliver a headlong first act, only to tap the brakes and take a leisurely five minutes to show Blunt’s country mom going through her daily rituals (miming a smoke, hacking away at a pesky treestump).
Johnson’s tale also works on a layer of metaphor that I found off-putting at first, even though it was very well executed. I couldn’t help but see a parallel between Joe’s struggle with his older self and the struggle that Gen-Xers and Millennials are currently locked in with the aging Baby Boomer population. There are some competing narratives here, but as a Gen-Xer, I’d point toward the reams of evidence suggesting that Boomers grabbed what they could and gave their children the shaft, all while decrying the younger generations as lazy good-for-nothings.
That parallel faded, though, as the narrative progressed toward its satisfying conclusion and we saw that the older incarnation of Joe was the one who truly lacked foresight, while his younger self was able to telescope out from the situation and make the right call.
To close, I want to stress how much I recommend this movie. To be sure, its central premise is shaky, but Johnson’s sure-footed storytelling more than makes up for it. Go out and support an original script. Hollywood needs more projects like Looper.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.