Elephant, meet room. It’s well-known by anyone with an interest in such things that Rian Johnson and I went to college together. If you read my interview with him for this site earlier in the year, you know we’re friends (though I won’t claim we’re besties or anything like that; nowadays we run into each other more often in professional than personal capacities). But if you know much about Rian, you might also know that he’s the type who would insist on my bringing the best critique I have to the table, and who at Fantastic Fest challenged the crowd to unravel his story logic if they could; he’s an affable guy I’ve never seen genuinely angry. And if any of this discounts what I’m about to say in your mind, so be it.
I’m not going to claim that Looper is the best film of the year. But I will say it is easily the best Rian Johnson feature to date (I specify “feature” because I think it’s possible some of his hilariously weird student shorts were better); so much so that I hope he sticks with sci-fi for a while. I will also say that if you’ve already decided to see it, it’s best to go in cold. The trailers, thankfully and surprisingly, have most certainly not revealed the whole plot to you, and some of the revelations will unfold best to you if you can remain unsuspecting.
Still here? Than we will proceed, possibly with some minimal hints of things to come. If there’s one thing that links all three of Johnson’s features to date (the others being Brick and The Brothers Bloom), I would say it’s world-building: he constructs the movie’s reality from scratch, which in this case is a future both 32 years hence, and also 30 years subsequent to that. There’s a good deal of attention to detail – aged furniture in the year 2044 is decorated with the kind of star shapes popular in tattoo art of our current year, for one. And when it comes to time travel rules, we may quibble with his interpretation, but it is consistent – Terminator rules apply, which means this ain’t 12 Monkeys for Bruce Willis: one-way trips back from the future only (that’s not the only common factor with Terminator, but more on that later). But a rule occasionally seen in Doctor Who applies as well – one’s own timeline is the prime one and cannot be retconned, i.e., this movie’s present may change its past or future, but the present is the prime timeline and won’t be rebooted. I’m trying to dance around giving away too much, but like Terminator 2, you can tie yourself in knots thinking that the incidents which unfolded should have undone everything if a traditional interpretation is applied.
You know the gist of the story – organized crime in the future (the 2074 future) sends victims back to 2044 into a cornfield (Twilight Zone reference probably not accidental) to be assassinated by waiting hitmen called Loopers, a group to which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe belongs. Generally after 30 years, one of their masked victims will turn out to be their own future self; a process called “closing the loop.” Yet when future Joe (Willis) zaps backward to be killed, he is unmasked and prepared, and escapes. Following as it does an incident prior in which another Looper (Paul Dano) let his future self get away, it brings the hammer down on young Joe, who is now targeted by his own people, while old Joe plays T-800 in the past, trying to eliminate those responsible for his wife-to-be’s death in the year he came from. And as incidents progress, he finds his memories changing.
Side note: for years, I had a big problem with Blade Runner. I loved the massive futuristic vistas and the large oppressive L.A. of the future, then felt disappointed when much of the subsequent action took place in dimly lit interiors. That issue has melted away for me over the years, but I couldn’t help feeling similarly in Looper, where a fantastic city of tomorrow is revealed, yet we spend most of the movie’s second half in and around a visually uninteresting farmhouse owned by Emily Blunt. It’s seeded in the story early on, in the film’s most creative and original sequence, that the mob of today has an amputation doctor on staff, yet we never really come back to him/her. And writing frequently forces character action (this is a common difficulty I have with Rian’s features, though generally less so in this one) – it has one of the more egregious “movie sex scenes” in recent memory, where the leads fall into bed simply because they’re the leads and it’s what such characters should do, not because it feels like they organically would do it.
Right. Those minor issues aside, let’s focus on what Looper does well, which is most things. The wordless montage that reveals future Joe’s life in leaps and bounds. The way Jeff Daniels menaces precisely by being deliberately anti-menacing. The bait and switch meaning of “Be at.” The almost irrelevant telekinetics, who can only levitate coins. And far from least, the way JGL effortlessly channels a young Bruce. In my geekier daydreams, I imagine this is an unofficial G.I. Joe sequel in which original Joe goes back in time to become Cobra Commander.
Best yet, for a sci-fi movie with action elements – calling it an action movie might be overstating things, despite what the trailers imply – you don’t know how things will resolve. And if you think you do, based on what you’ve seen so far, trust me: there’s a major x-factor of which you’re not aware.
Awards talk is way premature. But giving a solid, mostly original genre entry its due praise is not. Now, if you’ll excuse me – my hairless future incarnation is knocking at the door. Something about Rian Johnson wanting to kill us thirty years from now when he finally discovers this review….