I was always a sucker for time-travel movies. It was never the idea of traveling to another era that fascinated me, but rather the mind-bending paradoxes that materialise from baffling scenarios of crafty science fiction. I remember as a kid, the Terminator paradox kept me up many nights. Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Connor to save the life of Sarah Connor. Reese falls in love with Sarah and impregnates her with a son, John Connor. So how can future John Connor send him back if Reese dies before that happens? This stuff drove me nuts; it still does.
The subgenre of hardcore science fiction is a dying breed. Today most science fiction movies lack this type of awe-inspiring philosophical depth. We get a laser show, explosions, futuristic devices, flying cars and that’s about it. Fortunately every once in a while we’re blessed with a nostalgic return to the thoughtful genre. Duncan Jones’ vastly overlooked Moon comes to mind. Blade Runner, The Matrix, Dark City, 12 Monkeys, Minority Report and Inception made good use of the genre’s conventions by exploring the philosophical opportunities. The latest member to join the club is Rian Johnson’s Looper.
Here’s a time-travel film that focuses on complex story rather than fancy effects. The film takes place in a plausible future where security seems nonexistent. Thugs lurk within the filthy streets of an anarchic city. Not surprisingly, everyone seems to own a gun, and the masses use eyedropper drugs to escape the milieu of their dystopia.
The year is 2044. Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but thirty years later it will be accessible. Despite being declared illegal, crime syndicates use it to get rid of whomever they want. The way things work is, you have a special hitman called a ‘looper’. He waits at a specific time and place. The gangsters from the future send their victim to the past, a man materialises from thin air, gets the shotgun treatment and voilà the job is done. It’s a quick, clean and efficient system, but all hell breaks loose when Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is forced to kill his older self played by Bruce Willis.
The number one rule of being a looper is you never let your target escape, even if it’s your future self. When you finally do (not knowingly) terminate your (older) self, the loop is complete. You spend the remainder of your days blowing off money until the day comes when you’re sent back to get terminated. In other words, it’s the most creatively badass suicide depiction on film.
Anyhow, the whole system is at stake when older Joe escapes from younger Joe. We see a number of alternate timelines but Johnson’s screenplay neatly ties everything at the end. I was very impressed by the thought that went into constructing this nonlinear story line, and even more so by the frenetic original score.
Reminiscent of Josh Brolin’s uncanny performance as a younger Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black 3, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is almost unrecognizable here. It’s not all makeup though; Levitt fluently imitates the facial ticks, expressions, and voice of the iconic action star.
The only weak point I found was an unnecessary add-on of supernatural elements to a central character. This didn’t ruin the experience for me, but it makes the film fall short of greatness. In a time when it’s almost impossible to walk into a multiplex without facing the limitation of seeing a sequel, prequel or remake, Looper feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s quite literally a blast from the past.