Timey-Wimey Versus Character Arc
(Fair warning: if you have not seen this movie yet you are advised to delay your reading of this review. Story points will be discussed that are best consumed without any prior knowledge. Bottom line - Looper is definitely a film worth seeing.)
Looper proved to be the latest InterNet OverHype experience for me. When it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, it sent the strands of the Geek/Nerd/SF/movie interweb a thrumming with praise and hype. Word on the web was Looper was the next Big Thing from Rian Johnson the writer/director of Brick(2005) and The Brothers Bloom(2008).
Got some good and bad news. On the down side, Looper is not the next big thing. The good news is that Looper is still a very solid and enjoyable flick filled with some wonderful surprises that were not leaked out in any of the promotional materials. Kudos to all those involved in the movie for preserving those elements.
Looper has many, many positives. It is well acted, directed, brings new twists to the time travel genre, and marries that subgenre to another SF subgenre - psychic powers. It looks fantastic and offers a refreshing view of a future that is a nifty blend of the new and the aged present in that future.
Another clever thing Loper does is play off of Bruce Willis’s cachet as an action hero to lead you towards a story path where you think the movie is headed. Only to turn that against you. By the time you get to the climax of the movie all bets are off and you have no sure idea of where things are headed.
Time travel movies bear the burden of laying out ground rules to address chicken/egg paradoxes. Some movies - Primer(2004) - go into lengthy scenes of expository dialogue while other movies pay scant attention to it. Either approach risks alienating an audience as they get wrapped up in their heads trying to understand the rules of the game instead of their focus being on the movie because they have either too much to process. Or not enough.
Looper’s approach to addressing audience questions falls somewhere in between. They lay out the basic premise of the movie - time travel is possible sometime in 2060 but it is illegal. Criminal elements use it in order to pull off hits in the past in order to circumvent technology of that time period. By the 2060s it is nearly impossible to commit murder without being detected and apprehended.
To pull off these hits, the mob retains hit men they call Loopers. The victims are sent 30 years back in the past - 2030s - where the Loopers are waiting to kill and dispose their bodies. In order to minimize time distortion effects, Loopers at some point are sent their future selfs to kill. Without their knowing about it beforehand of course - victims are sent back hooded and gagged and remain anonymous to the Looper pulling the trigger. A Looper realizes he has ‘closed the loop’ only when the payoff is significantly larger than normal.
There are a few bits more of time lore but that is main gist of what Looper gives to the viewer to work with. In the course of watching the movie that may be enough to keep questions at bay in your mind but they are sure to manifest themselves after the movie is over. For me, Looper did not convey enough information as to what its parameters for time travel are.
Here is the rub with time travel movies. I am willing to wave away the timey-wimey implications and contradictions if the characters are interesting and engaging. Loopers has interesting characters in abundance. So if the time travel complications do not deter from telling a story and the character's actions feel honest keeping me engaged, I am good to go. Unfortunately Looper stumbles a bit with both elements which is why it will never be the next big thing.
Levitt is wearing enough prosthetic makeup to alter his facial features to echo a younger version of Willis. One of my favorite shots in Looper, as a nice nod to those in movies or TV shows where a character has been doubled in some way, is having both versions of the character facing each other across a diner table. My mind automatically leapt to all those split screen shots done to allow the actor to appear twice in the same shot. That is not happening here but the vibe and setup of those diner scenes between the two characters is, I’m positive, deliberate.
But the full impact of Looper comes at the movie’s climax and rests on a character decision that I do not feel the movie made a strong enough case for. Rather the opposite. The first two thirds of the movie establish that both the young and old versions of Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis respectively, lack the intelligence or flexibility to support what happens in order to close the loop.
The decision young Joe makes is based upon a flash of insight that feels totally outside the capabilities of either version of the character we have journeyed with through the movie to this point. Nor is there enough evidence that young Joe’s insight is strong enough to compel him to make the decision he does.
With that potential caveat in mind, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. The child actor they found to play Cid - Pierce Gagnon - is amazing. He is worth the price of admission alone.
The movie is a lot of fun to watch especially as it plays off established tropes, Willis’s older Joe makes his own startling decision for which Looper does not flinch away from, that keep you engaged to the very end.
Looper left me feeling like I had watched a talented magician pulling off a difficult sleight of hand trick while working with wobbly mirrors.