So, here’s the problem with movies where someone goes back in time: no matter how meticulous the writer and director have been, no matter how detailed the plot and well-tuned the post-production, and no matter how well-explained the mechanics are, the movie will be full of holes.
It just will. It’s the nature of the beast. “Back to the Future” doesn’t make any sense when you think about it for five seconds. Neither does “The Terminator” or even “Primer.” “Doctor Who” is insane, for all the love I have for it. “The Butterfly Effect”- please.
Written and Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
And for the love of God, where does the car go in “Timecop”? Why is it only available in the present?
Sometimes it’s just laziness, or poor editing, but often it’s because the logic of what would happen if we could go back in time isn’t fully-formed. There are hypotheses, and beliefs, and educated guesses, but until a person can actually press a button and see themselves as an infant, or cause a tsunami by stepping on an insect in the Jurassic Period, a hypothesis is all we’ve got.
Hypotheses are not a problem for other imaginary things, like unicorns, or planetary colonies or robot armies turned against their masters. Sci-fi and fantasy genres thrive on the educated guess. But time, and more importantly how we view time, seems immutable. It’s something invisible but still tangible. And it’s something most of us barely think about, yet it consumes our worldview, and dictates everything around us. When a film challenges that, we challenge it back, instinctively point out ways the film hasn’t followed the complex changes to cause and effect within the movie’s timeline. It makes us feel better, more secure in the linear version of time we are accustomed to.
All of this is just a really exhausting way of saying that “Looper” is a pretty good movie, with a really stupid plot.
It really is a pretty good movie, about a future world (note: things have NOT gone well) where a criminal syndicate sends people back in time to be killed by men called “loopers”. The bodies are disposed of in a place that doesn’t exist yet, the evidence is gone, and the loopers get a handsome reward for about three minutes of work. The looper we’re with is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is forced to flee when he fails to “close his loop” – i.e. kill the older version of himself (Bruce Willis).
Levitt gives a generally excellent performance. In one of the noteworthy aspects of production, director Rian Johnson had Levitt’s face digitally changed to make it seem more plausible that he and Willis are the same person in different stages of life. The effect is pretty good, but at times it makes it seem like Levitt is doing a bad impression of Willis’s hound-dog eyes and unnervingly long upper lip. But Levitt does a great job matching Willis’s mannerisms and delivery- and I was intrigued that it was Levitt imitating Willis, not the other way around. Willis is playing the guy he always plays, full of quiet dignity and haunted by memories of bad deeds past. Levitt is playing the guy that maybe Willis used to be.
The details of life in the near future of 2044 are exquisite and haunting. The loopers are armed with what are charmingly called blunderbusses- close-range, fool-proof guns that look like a cross between a sawed-off shotgun and an umbrella stand. It takes place in a viably realistic anonymous middle-American city, a place ravaged by what appears to be a second Great Depression and hideously rampant drug use. Johnson previously directed “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick”, both films demonstrating his keen eye for production design, atmosphere and striking images. This extends to his portrayal of violence- the amount and gruesomeness of which I was genuine disturbed by. Apparently, those blunderbusses do not fool around when within 15 feet of a target, and Johnson’s not above having our heroes kill women and/or children. In an awful scene I won’t forget soon, an older man loses portions of his body and grows scars as the younger version of himself is tortured and dismembered. The fact that this fever dream does not seem exploitative or manipulative is a testament to Johnson’s emotional acuity with the camera.
What he’s not so strong with is wrapping things up. There are many unanswered questions in “Looper,” many of them major plot points…and yes, most of them having to do with the time travel. The time travel plot is apparently not good enough for Johnson, so he throws in a major subplot regarding telekinetics that seems to pop out of nowhere. These two pretenses fight each other for attention until finally it resolves in an ending that I’ll admit is emotionally satisfying but kind of a cop-out.
There’s so much good in the guts of the movie, including a superb supporting cast of Jeff Daniels playing the Fagin-like leader of the loopers, and Emily Blunt as a hard-bitten sugar cane farmer who ends up involved with Joe. There’s a lot to say about the environment- a world of lost boys with too many drugs, too many guns and not enough money that looks more like our own than anyone would care to admit. But we can’t see it, or our excellent cast, clearly because Johnson is more concerned with piling on the story twists and blowing holes in his plot.
It’s not really fair- no matter what he did they were going to be there, anachronisms waiting for our traitorous brains to focus in on like laser-beams. But the test is whether we can ignore that voice in our mind, let it go and focus just on the universe of the movie, where time is malleable and the threads of cause and effect can be pulled in any direction. Johnson doesn’t quite succeed. But his failure looks a lot better than most director’s successes.