Everything about ‘Looper’ feels big. It starts with a great premise: in the future, the mob uses illegal time travel technology to whisk their targets back to the past, where hitmen known as loopers knock them off. Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (‘Inception’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’) is one such looper, who learns that his latest target is his future-self (Bruce Willis). It’s a terrific device that allows for some fantastic brain-melting sci-fi questions to be asked, and writer/director Rian Johnson relishes every opportunity.
While the subject matter may be dark and noir-y, it doesn’t manifest itself in a grimy on-screen atmosphere, like so many post-‘Blade Runner’ sci-fi movies. It’s a refreshing change to see the majority of the action play out in broad daylight in rural Kansas; it adds a unique feel to the movie. In the same way as Johnson’s 2005 debut film, ‘Brick’ – a hardboiled detective tale in a high-school setting – Looper plays with genre elements in an unconventional way, and to great effect. Perhaps the highlight of the film’s visual appeal is that nothing is overdone; there’s no fanciful futuristic sci-fi tech that fills out the movie just to look cool in the trailer. All the elements that make this a science-fiction film serve the plot, from hover-bikes to the TK genetic mutation, which affects 10% of the population.
The film’s pacing is unconventional in a way that absolutely demands attention: the first third of the movie seems to settle into a fairly comfortable sci-fi groove, but upon the arrival of the older Joe, everything is thrown off-kilter, casting the film into totally new territory. When young Joe is forced to seek asylum with Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Paul Gagnon), the plot twists itself into a delightfully realised pretzel, all the while enhancing our understanding of the film’s characters and themes. It’s difficult to write too much about the plot without giving anything away, but suffice it to say that you’ll be trying to guess the ending the whole time. It’s intimately structured, and every detail counts – reminiscent of ‘Back To The Future’, perhaps – and absolutely nothing is lost.
The complicated story is necessarily a little cerebral at times, but the film explains the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff brilliantly, and when (if ever) it begins to feel just a little heavy on the exposition, the excellent script is written with enough self-awareness to pull it off. As old Joe says to his younger self in a standout scene taking place in an empty diner: “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, ‘cos if we do, we’ll be here all day making diagrams with straws.” It’s a quick-fix, but it leads us right back into the action. The action, by the way, is some of the best we’ve seen this year – for the most part lacking in the obvious Hollywood trappings of CGI, it’s gruesome, uncompromising, and massively satisfying.
Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s performances are both fantastic, each capturing elements of the other’s style and mannerisms. Gordon-Levitt especially gets into the nuances of Willis’ now-familiar persona with all the machismo and arrogance a young man could have towards his older self. It’s returned by Willis, who, while keeping tight-lipped about the specifics of time travel, shows nothing but disdain towards his young, immature and irrational self. Cutting through the bleakness is Emily Blunt, who plays the lonesome single mum brilliantly. Nods also go to Paul Gagnon, Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels – but the real standout performance here is from Rian Johnson, in his dual role as writer/director. The film works not only as a creative piece of genre fiction, but as an insight into its characters and their motivations – and while we might not agree with them, there’s always logic and meaning behind their actions.
There are a few sticking points in this extremely ambitious film. Some may be taken out of the experience by Gordon-Levitt’s facial prosthetics, makeup and contact lenses. Designed to enhance Gordon-Levitt’s likeness to Willis, they can be somewhat distracting, especially to someone familiar with the actor from his other work. For the most part, though, they’re convincing enough: it’s really only in a few close-ups that they stand out. What’s more, the film’s early dependence on voice-over, while atmospheric, seems to cheapen the experience a little. It’s a necessary evil with so much to explain, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the film’s tone.
Looper exploits our natural interest in the concept of time travel with finesse and precision. As a cinematic conceit, time travel has been abused for decades, which is why it’s so exciting to see a film run with the concept and take it somewhere interesting. One character in the future scoffs at Gordon-Levitt’s outfit: “The movies you’re dressing like are just copying other movies. Be new.” It’s a challenge Looper is all too aware of, and one it’s also glad to overcome. Looper has a heartbeat running through it; at times fast-paced and intense, and at other times slower, savouring emotional depth, but importantly – it never stops beating. Perhaps most telling is the fact that this film begs to be watched again.
Xavier Rubetzki Noonan