The time-travel movie is a genre unto itself, and in order to satisfy the fan base, each one must address a very specific set of paradoxes. What happens if you meet your future self? When you change the past, how do you experience that in the present? Of course, in the end the biggest question is always: what would you do – and how far would you go – to save your present? In “Back to the Future,” the standard-bearer of the genre, Marty McFly only had to date his mother. The characters in “Looper” are faced with some far darker choices.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a professional hit man in the year 2044 who tells us in the opening voice-over that time travel does not yet exist, but it will in the future. It is tightly-controlled by a crime syndicate that hires people known as Loopers to do their dirty work in the past. Here’s how it works: the Looper drives out to the country, waits at a certain spot and certain time, and then shoots the hooded, handcuffed figure that appears out of thin air. For those in the future, it’s a clean kill, erasing even a shred of evidence, and it is an apt metaphor for the compartmentalized morality of movie violence – in our society, a filmmaker who makes a hyper-violent movie is in no way held responsible for any violence that is committed by those inspired by it. Now, science-fiction is almost always used to hold a mirror up to society. But director Rian Johnson, whose first two movies (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”) displayed a deep understanding of the relationship between a film and its audience, is using the genre to tell us something about movies, and just to be sure we get it, he fills “Looper” with intertextual cinematic references to tip us off.
Johnson includes allusions to “Casablanca” and the work of Jean-Luc Godard. He seems partial, in fact, to the French New Wave, as his lead character is obsessed with moving to France, and the cyclical nature of the plot is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s “La Jetee”. It’s no surprise – the New Wave directors were the first to play with non-linear narrative structures and really paved the way for time-travel movies. These references in “Looper” are a tip of the hat to these old masters, but also an indication that Johnson’s true subject is film itself.
The arrangement between the mob in the future and the present-day Loopers allows both parties to dissociate from their guilt. But when Joe comes face to face with his future self (Bruce Willis), he hesitates and the delicate relationship that allows both parties to abdicate responsibility is lost. Old Joe escapes, and both subsequently enter parallel cat-and-mouse games with their bosses. Joe’s boss in the present (Jeff Daniels, making the most of a thinly-drawn character) sends an army to kill him for allowing his target to escape. Old Joe goes looking for the child who will grow up to be the mob’s new kingpin – the man who will order his murder thirty years in the future.
“Looper” addresses in its denouement the cycle of destruction that is perpetuated when people see violence as a solution to life’s problems. Although one character makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop that cycle, his choice – and indeed the film’s humanity as a whole – is undercut by the stylized nature of its violence. Johnson knows how to titillate his young male audience with sex and bloodshed, but this is problematic in a film that aims to say something serious about that violence. I don’t have a problem with violence in movies when it is deeply-felt by the audience and has consequences. Here, only one death truly means anything, and most of the action sequences feel more like a video game than real life.
After the initial set-up, the plot starts to get a little complicated, and Johnson wisely keeps the esoteric details of time travel vague. “If we start talking about it,” one character says, “we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws.” It’s a wise choice because “Looper” is at its best when focusing on the emotional realities of time travel. If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you tell him? If you met an innocent child that you knew would grow up to be a mass murderer, would you be able to kill him? The film raises all the right questions, but the answers never feel earned because none of the characters are particularly well-drawn. Johnson came up with the concept first – he has acknowledged as much in interviews – and the characters were created to serve that concept. But in a film like “Looper,” which aims to engage not just the mind but also the heart, the characters must come first.
A case in point is the set of distracting prosthetics used to make Gordon-Levitt look more like a young Bruce Willis. The young actor has also admitted to studying the cadence and timbre of Willis’s voice. That’s fine as an acting exercise, but here it comes off like a parlor trick. We need more than an impersonation from our protagonist, and this emphasis on technical details is emblematic of the film’s problems. At times, “Looper” feels less like a film and more like a late-night conversation at a bar, albeit one had by some very intelligent, creative people.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue