‘THIS TIME TRAVEL shit fries your brain like an egg,’ muses Abe, the cordial crime boss of Rian Johnson’s time-travelling science-fiction thriller Looper, and you get the sense this ever-so eloquently expressed opinion reflects the writer and director’s own. Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain in his third film. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks. It’s this nonchalance which makes Looper feel less like a sci-fi and more like the hardboiled fiction on which Johnson draws so much. It isn’t quite The Big Sleep, but the elements are all there.
The film opens in rural Kansas, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) checks his watch and briefly practices his French before blowing a big bloody hole in the chest of a man who appears on the ground in front of him. Joe is a specialised hitman called a “looper”, who’s hired by gangsters to execute, no questions asked, whichever sorry soul happens to appear, bound and blindfolded, on the sheet in front of him. The film takes place in 2044, which we learn is around thirty years before the invention of time-travel. In that later time, time-travel is highly illegal but available to large criminal organisations on the black market. Due to advancements in tracking technologies, disposing of a body has become a little difficult, so these organisations slip a sack over the head of anyone they wish to get rid of, send them back in time, and have loopers kill them before they were even born. Voila.
Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks.
This elegant cycle of time-travel and blasé murder is rudely interrupted by Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis), who arrives unbound and unblindfolded, and promptly escapes. A looper is expected to kill their future self when their employers finally decide to terminate their contract by sending them back in time, accept the handsome redundancy package and then sail off into the sunset to enjoy the next thirty years. Old Joe is on a mission to murder a child fated to become a fearsome underworld tyrant. But if Young Joe doesn’t stop his older self, and his employers catch up with him, they’ll chop him up into little pieces to slow his older self down so they can then take him out.
My primary problem with Looper is that it feels like two films stitched together: the first seems to be about Old Joe’s return from the future and Young Joe’s attempts to catch him while himself on the run from his former employers; the second is more about Old Joe’s own agenda, which really only gets underway about halfway through the film. The two plots are closely related but don’t fit together seamlessly. On the topic of two parts of one thing not quite fitting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, despite capturing Bruce Willis’s manner and facial expressions well, still doesn’t look a thing like the older man, and having the pair in the same frame doesn’t help matters. (The eyebrows, for instance: What were they thinking?) This isn’t so much of a problem, however, and both Gordon-Levitt and Willis serve up solid performances, as does Emily Blunt, who plays shotgun-wielding, foul-mouthed farmer Sara. Her first words are ‘Listen up, fucker! I have shot and buried three vagrants in the past year!’
Looper’s plotting is partly redeemed by its stylistically and thematically noirish elements. The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe, whose childhood ended early when Abe put a gun in his hand, and who’s desperate to redeem his failure to kill his future self. And then there’s La Belle Aurore, the loopers’ favourite nightclub, which happens to share its name with the Parisian bistro in Casablanca.
The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe.
For an hour or so, Looper is at once moody and exciting and interesting and then, all of a sudden, it gets dull. The last portion of the film is interminably slow and tedious, ending with a rushed and predictable conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends. It’s partly this quality that creates the impression that Looper is two films trying to be one. It seems as if Johnson, who for most of the film was happy to leave discussions about the philosophical implications of jumping through time to more traditional science-fiction films like Primer, suddenly felt the urge to give over twenty-five minutes to airing questions about free will and utilitarianism.
Looper represents an unlikely marriage of films like The Terminator and the detective films of the late Forties, and at this ambitious undertaking it’s largely successful. Its second act lets it down quite dramatically, which makes Looper something of a frustrating film. It could have been a science-fiction classic. As it is, it’s unsatisfying.