Film Review: LOOPER

Published On October 5, 2012 | By John Hanshaw | FILM REVIEWS
People–fans and filmmakers and writers alike–never tire of time-travel stories–and it’s not too difficult to understand this particular area of interest. With seemingly infinite stories to tell and a continually fascinating basic premise at the core of basic time travel stories–just what if you could travel to the future or to the past, and what would the consequences be

LOOPER

Starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano

Directed and Written
by Rian Johnson

Produced by Ram Bergman and James Stern

from such travel?–the possibilities for new and intriguing stories seems constantly, endlessly fresh, fun, and fascinating.

However, as with any genre, time itself–and Hollywood’s built-in tendency to over-saturate and over-do everything to the point of nausea and negative backlash–has caused even this entertaining genre to become tired and cliched and overdone through the years–along with every other genre in existence.The key to remaining fresh in any genre is to find new, original and fresh ways to tell the same old stories. That’s not easy to do, of course, and that is why, simply, with too many films being produced and too many mediocre and terrible films being produced, most films in every genre today barely rise out of the ordinary–or the sub-ordinary. This isn’t new, of course, and this has been the case throughout the history of film. But it bears repeating–often, really–because when a film in a narrow-niche genre–such as time travel science fiction films–actually breaks free of the old mold and suggests something inventive, new and original, it’s cause for some level of celebration. This achievement of actual quality occurs all the time in wider-margin genres and categories, of course, but, again, when a quality film rises out of the ordinary and gains some attention in a smaller genre within a genre, attention must be paid.

That’s the case, fortunately, with “Looper,” an entertaining and inventive take on the time-tested (bad puns intended, so brace yourself) and time-worn time travel genre, which rests amid the broader science fiction genre, as it should, since, as far as anyone knows, we simply do not possess in this time and place the actual scientific ability to travel through time. Face it, we all wish we could travel through time, and we all dream about traveling through time–it’s a constant wish-fulfillment fantasy that occupies the zeitgeist and the popular culture landscape and our dreams and nightmares all the time. “Looper,” to its credit, though, travels far from focusing just solely on such basic,, simple wish-fulfillment dreams, and instead broadens its outlook and creates a hugely-original story and backstory that, yes, plays off the often-dire and confusingly layered consequences of time travel, but also presents an entirely new look at the ways and means that time travel could be used, in the present and in the future. Among “Looper’s” several positive advantages is this basic inventive story and backstory, and how the film ultimately plays with this premise and delves into its consequences.

Add in some top-notch acting from a top-notch cast of actors all performing at their best amid a dazzling hot streak of recent success, some arresting special and visual effects, a consistently suspenseful tone that keeps you riveted, a wise and thoughtful script that keeps you wondering and thinking about a realm of what-ifs–always a mark of quality science fiction–and, also, at the same time, a well-thought-out and carefully-crafted script that tries to address the various problems associated with time travel from multiple angles, as well as a successful overall combination of science fiction, action, crime, morality and suspense elements, and you have a genre film that breaks free from the cliche pack and runs strongly on its own legs.

“Looper,” then, is indeed an original take on the time travel genre, and thus a truly original science fiction film at the same time. We simply do not see enough of these today. We see some, of course, but not enough.

The original story and backstory that instantly draws the viewer into the world of “Looper” is this: In 2044, time travel has not yet been invented yet, but 30 years past this time, time travel exists. And organized crime bosses–leave it to organized crime bosses–have found a unique, tidy and thoroughly unsettling way to use time travel to their advantage. The mob bosses of the future–as ruthless and cold-hearted and cold-blooded as ever–decide that a great method of disposing of those they wish to dispose of, for whatever reason, is to send these poor souls back in time 30 years, their heads sadly covered in a sackcloth-like hood, and with bars of silver taped to their backs. In the past, in 2044, so-called “loopers,” who have been alerted, wait for these victims and, as soon as they appear in 2044–promptly, abruptly, and quickly kill them. The loopers then take the bodies, burn them, and–presto–they’ve vanished like a dime in a coin trick. There is no trace of the victims, and the mob is satisfied, the loopers get rich with their payments of silver, and everyone’s happy–in a criminal, unethical, immoral, time-travel-teasing mob way, of course. The rules for the loopers are simple: instantly kill the victims from the future, do not ever let them go free, and by all means do not anger the mob bosses of the present or the future in any way. Jeff Daniels–a corrupt bad-guy, rough and gruff and unpleasant Jeff Daniels–plays Abe, a present-day mob boss who wearily oversees the loopers and, in a somewhat apocalyptic manner, also oversees everyone and everything in a depressingly run-down and corrupt Kansas City. If you do not follow the few rules set by the mob–yes, you pay a hefty, quite nasty price.

And there is one more thing that the loopers simply must do: If and when the future mob sends back a victim–and that victim turns out to the future version of that looper–as bizarre as it may seem, the present-day looper must kill, well, himself, the future version of himself. That is called closing the loop. And the consequences of refusing to close the loop are dire–for everyone.

That’s intriguing enough, and just watching the set-up first-act scenes, which establish this basic premise, your mind should be rolling forward and backward in a dizzying manner, trying to figure out the myriad consequences of what all of this means for the past, present and future.

However, a major glitch in the mob’s looper system occurs, and this glitch is what sets the main story in motion: Successful looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). who’s about 25 years old, handsome, popular, drives the hottest car around, gets the pretty girls (including ultra-sexy strippers at the best clubs), is a high-life junkie (of some futuristic oddball drug that’s consumed in the eyes via eyedroppers, if you can stomach that), and is in relatively good standing with Abe, one day suddenly is face to face with his latest intended victim—the actual older version of himself. Grizzled, rough and macho “old” Joe, steadily and confidently and sturdily portrayed with great gusto by a continually chiseled and barrel-chested Bruce Willis, arrives to escape his handlers from the future. He arrives ready to deal with whatever looper awaits him, and he subsequently overcomes young Joe and escapes into the present day. Young Joe must find and kill old Joe, and the mob, upset with young Joe and desperate to kill old Joe, starts chasing young and old Joe. Meanwhile, young and old Joe and an isolated farm woman who enters their lives, played with equal gusto and grittiness by a striking and buff Emily Blunt, must learn to deal with each other, the mob–and the myriad consequences of their dual existence, their continued existence in general, and what their time travel means to literally everyone on the planet in the present and the future.

And giving that basic premise away does absolutely nothing to dilute the fun of the film–the set-up and the back-story foundation are all built up in entertaining methods, and the creation of these dual futuristic worlds–the world of 2044 and of 30 years into the future–are believable and watchable. And the real fun starts when young and old Joe confront each other and embark on a chase against each other and the future. That story, and additional narrative back-story that has to do with how the Joes affect the future, prompt a continually suspenseful and intense tale that moves along at a fast pace for most of the film. Fast, but not too fast, as you have enough time to sit and ponder those ever-present questions about how everything is affected by the time travel. The story makes you constantly question what will happen next, why it will happen, and what that will mean for all of the tangled and confused time-travel storylines. What if they did this? What if they did that? What would change now? What would change in the future? Those eternal time travel questions are posed, again and again, but in ever-original ways in “Looper.”

As young Joe and old Joe chase each other across the dusty, arid, dry and depressing 2044 Kansas landscape–which suggests a dire, downer and desperate future for everyone–even successful loopers and rich mob bosses–Emily Blunt’s Sara, alone and isolated on a farm situated literally smack in the middle of nowhere miles outside of the grittier urban Kansas City, struggles to protect herself, her farm and her young son from the two Joes. Her presence turns out to be pivotal in the story, but that aspect of the tale is better left untold here. And the subsequent interactions between a shotgun-holding Sara, an injured and confused young Joe and a world-weary, wizened and unrelenting old Joe–no matter how confusing the interactions may be at times–are intense in the best ways: three people dealing with the dour consequences of unforgivable time travel, and each of them seeming to not have a chance to fight the changes and cards that each of them has been dealt.

Time has been kind to Bruce Willis, and we’ve now come to expect solid, grounded and experienced performances from this trouper, and his still-youthful presence, patented smirks and macho posturing remain truthful, real and believable–he’s not a parody of his younger self, and he remains entirely believable in action sequences. Willis has also achieved, to perfection, that rare quality of maintaining action-star presence, serious-actor chops, humor, a touch of self-parody humor, compassion and even longing, loss, sadness and loneliness–and, really, few actors can really project this odd combination regularly in screen stories. Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Viggo Mortensen and Hugh Jackman are a few contemporaries who manage this, but more actors fail to achieve all these qualities in one singular film. Willis has it down to perfection, and he remains fascinating to watch. Another good example of Willis achieving this type of grand slam was the even more lonely, cast-aside and world-weary John McClane in the excellent and hilarious and action-packed “Live Free or Die Hard,” from just five years ago, in 2007. With Old Joe, as with John McClane, Willis takes an action-oriented character and makes him likeable, sympathetic and caring.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of course, has to be riding one of the better hot streaks this year, as he is coming off an excellent performance in the equally-excellent “The Dark Knight Rises,” from the summer of 2012, and now he’s center stage in “Looper.” While to some folks, his acting chops are not as evident, say, as a more experienced Willis or Jeff Daniels, but they are there–his emotions are bottled up deeper and lower, and you have to scan that young face for subtle, quieter tics and emotions. That’s the bane of the young, sometimes–those young faces simply can’t match the world-weariness in a Willis or Daniels face, but given some time and some good scripts and good stories, those emotions can come out. Gordon-Levitt is given a good story and a good script here, and he lets his character evolve from a young, cocky up-start who seems to rule the world to someone who must deal with increasingly deeper, serious and tragic consequences of his very own actions. This insightful character development–watching young Joe change his outlook, his morals and his very approach to life–adds yet another introspective layer to “Looper.”

Some might argue that the timing and pacing–and perhaps the story–slow down a bit too much in the drawn-out third act of “Looper,” and, to a degree, the timing and pacing actually do start to slow down, but director and writer Rian Johnson (“The Brothers Bloom”) seemed to realize that he better do something with the script–and then he does just that. It’s this type of assured, self-aware direction, coupled with a conviction that takes the time-travel elements seriously enough to keep the viewer involved and interested, that keeps “Looper” intelligent and smart, and since Johnson wrote the film, you have to give him credit for assured writing as well as confident direction.

Although the list of time-travel stories in film, television, books, magazines, short stories and comic books is long and involved, of course, it is possible to just pick a few that “Looper” recalls–and to recall these films are only compliments: Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” the first three “Terminator” films (in terms of raising questions about the overall consequences of time travel), and, to a degree, Nicholas Meyer’s hugely-entertaining “Time After Time” (1979). “12 Monkeys,” the Terminator films and “Time After Time,” like “Looper,” attached highly-original stories and back-stories to their core time travel stories. They all remain above-average time travel science fiction films. And another recollection needs to be added for quality measure: one of the best hours of science fiction in all of television history, Harlan Ellison’s superb “The City on the Edge of Forever,” an episode from the original “Star Trek” television show that aired in 1967. All of these presented highly-original takes on time travel stories.

One pertinent element of any quality time travel story is the moral and ethical questions that arise due to the inherent consequences of the time traveling itself. What are we doing? How will this affect time and history? How will this affect us? What are the ultimate consequences of all of this time and space continuum traveling and altering? What, exactly, or not exactly, will happen to the past, the present and the future because of this tinkering with time and space? These difficult and troubling questions, and the answers, could be literally endless–and they could result in dire consequences for everyone. The characters in “Looper” know this, and they confront this and they fight this–and that does indeed add to the continuing suspense of the film, to its credit.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the American philosopher George Santayana once said. For anyone in a time travel story, for any of the characters in “Looper,” and for anyone considering time travel, those are wise words, indeed, to remember.

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