They say there are only three kinds of stories: man against man, man against nature and man against himself. Looper belongs in the third category, although not quite in the way you might expect. An inventive time-travel thriller about a man tasked with murdering his future self, writer-director Rian Johnson anchors high-concept thrills and captivating ideas in a world of challenging morality and intricate personal consequences.
Sometime towards the end of the twenty-first century, the mob uses the newly invented technology of time travel as a means of clandestine assassination, zapping victims back to the past – 2044 to be exact – where hit-men called ‘Loopers’ kill them and dispose of the bodies. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt; The Dark Knight Rises) is one such hired executioner in trouble with his employers when a target (Bruce Willis; Die Hard 4.0) gets away from; a situation made all the more complicated by the revelation that the target is himself. Psychoanalysts would have a field day with these two.
A truly imaginative storyteller, Johnson’s two previous films are 2005’s Brick, a hardboiled high-school murder mystery, and 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, a wonderfully oddball con-man caper. Looper is certainly his most high-profile film to date, although with a budget of only $30 million it pales in comparison to tent pole extravaganzas like Battleship, John Carter or The Avengers. In many ways, despite containing its fair share of action, Looper feels like the antithesis of the Hollywood blockbuster, in that it prioritises character stakes over global ones, and favours intellectual stimulation instead of simply blasting you in the face with an onslaught of digital effects.
Which is not to say the concepts are wholly unfamiliar; film buffs will certainly recognise elements from many of the time travel genres favourite staples, including The Terminator, Twelve Monkeys and Back to the Future. But Looper draws on its inspirations as a means of telling a smart, original story, employing a familiar narrative device in new and interesting ways; even as young Joe tries to evade his bosses until he can track down and take out old Joe, old Joe must ensure his young version stays alive, lest they both be erased from existence. As gangster Jeff Daniels (TVs The Newsroom) puts it, “this time travel shit just fries your brain like an egg.”
Yet even as he revels in mind-bending, paradox inducing sci-fi concepts, Johnson also employs his outlandish ideas as a means of exploring themes that are relevant to his characters. For despite the potentially world changing ramifications of meddling with history, Looper is less about altering the future as it is about altering oneself. Johnson never paints either Joe as a straight up hero or villain, but rather as dubiously motivated individuals who over the course of the film do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons, splitting audience sympathies and forcing YOU to ponder questions of selfishness versus altruism, fate versus self determination and how far you’d go to the protect the people you care about.
In his second outing with Johnson – the first being Brick – Levitt suppresses his natural charm to be uncharacteristically ruthless as young Joe, while at the same time recreating with astounding precision the smirks and mannerisms that we’ve recognised for decades in Willis. The older action star, meanwhile, although certainly within his wheelhouse, brings an emotional weariness to his role that we rarely get to see from him, reflective of a character weighed on by the regrets of his past. Rounding out the primary cast is Emily Blunt (The Five Year Engagement) as a determined young mother whose son, played with extraordinary confidence byfive year old Pierce Gagnon,will play a big part in the future of young Joe and old Joe alike.
Smart, exciting, original and cool, Looper is to 2012 what Inception was to 2010. If you see one piece of science fiction this year, you owe it to yourself to make it this one.