Time travels are nothing too unusual in cinema. We’ve seen it in several Star Trek movies and in the Back To The Future trilogy, amongst many others. Meeting one’s own younger or older self always poses a lot of difficulties for the heroes of these movies, as even the slightest change in the past may alter the whole time-space continuum.
That much we know, thanks to crowd favorites Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown. But what happens if you pit the younger and the older version of one and the same person against each other in a deathmatch? With his first two features Brick and The Brothers Bloom, director Rian Johnson emerged as a budding star in American cinema. In his latest film Looper, he gets to the bottom of such a dog-eat-dog scenario.
Kansas City, 2044 A.D.: The derelict city is run by the mob, while China has become the global superpower. Time travel exists, but has long been outlawed and is only used by the gangsters, who exploit the genius of the invention. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ‘looper,’ a smooth-talking amoral gun for hire. As a ruthless contract killer, he eliminates the ‘scum’ of the future by putting bullets in the heads of his prey just mere milliseconds after they’ve been sent back through time by the crime cartel. The job is well-paid, of course. Life is good – until the mob one day decides to ‘close the loop.’ Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) appears in front of him as his next victim, but the older version doesn’t resign to his fate all that easily.
Looper has a lot of style, maybe a little too much for its own good occasionally. The noir-like atmosphere evokes memories of Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner here and there. The dystopian setting is similar, as is the premise of contract killers hired to get rid of anomalies. In the other movie the targets are androids, while in Rian Johnson’s film they are human beings, but ones with a history. The director’s inspiration seems to be pretty obvious in this regard, as is the case for the split between two distinct points of view – those of the younger and the older Joe, through whom we learn how Simmons’s life will unfold in the next three decades until he’s sent back for assassination. Multiple perspectives are, maybe not so incidentally, also a trademark of Quentin Tarantino. Think Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Rian Johnson’s earlier films are clearly inspired by that particular director. At the same time, some might also argue that his latest project is probably more style than substance.
In a way, Looper reminds you of Christopher Nolan’s Inception as well. Several of the movie’s ingredients do indeed ring a bell: a futuristic setting, a dreamlike defiance of space and time, and an armada of colorful characters. As a matter of fact, the acting is one of the movie’s strengths. The pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis is a stroke of genius, although there seems to be little in terms of personal development of the two Joes. Their general premise hardly ever appears to change. One – the older – desperately wants to save his life and kill the child who will later become the ‘Rainmaker,’ the feared future mob leader who will eliminate all the ‘loopers.’ The other remains a remorseless mercenary. Nothing else matters to him but his silver and returning to the good life by getting rid of his older self and pleasing his boss Abe (the always brilliant Jeff Daniels).
The actors in Looper do a really commendable job in general, be it Coyote Ugly star Piper Perabo as the young Joe’s stripper girlfriend Suzie, Paul Dano as his fellow ‘looper’ Seth, or Qing Xu as the old Joe’s Chinese wife. Emily Blunt is particularly convincing as a fierce mom who only worries about her ingenious but difficult young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). It’s good to see her in a completely different role from those in the romances and comedies she usually appears in. The Devil Wears Prada and Salmon Fishing In The Yemen come to mind. Her Sara in Looper is fairly close to Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor from James Cameron’s The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She only cares for her child no matter what the cost may be and still ends up having an affair with her son’s unlikely protector. In this sense, the younger Joe is a sort of modern version of Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese, while Cid, the ‘Rainmaker’ to be, may be a mix between John Connor and Keanu Reeves’s Neo, the ‘Chosen One’ from the Wachowskis’ The Matrix trilogy.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Rian Johnson seems to be utterly familiar with the history of cinema and tries to employ numerous references to his advantage. He definitely deserves to receive style points. For a $30 million project, his feature looks and sounds gorgeous. The problem with Looper, however, is that the director and his work drift off into different directions, unsure of what exactly the film wants to be when all is said and done. Is it a dystopian science-fiction movie in the Blade Runner vein, sans the visual fanfare? Does it intend to be an (arguably rather shallow and self-indulgent) maze similar to Christopher Nolan’s fairly overrated Inception? Is Looper supposed to be a fantasy-horror flick à la M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, both incidentally starring Bruce Willis, only flavored with bits and pieces from the old The Twilight Zone television show?
The answer is probably a definite ‘yes’ in all cases, and therein lies the problem. It simply tries to be too clever for its own sake and loses itself in the mix of all the various elements it wants to combine. Yet what’s the core of Looper, the bare essence you can break it down to? Is it a film about time travel? Again, to a certain degree, yes – but it’s just a facet. What about Looper as a survival movie? Of course Bruce Willis’s Joe doesn’t want to die. Neither does, in fact, his younger self. Yet that theme seems as shallow as the love the older of the two protagonists feels for his Chinese wife or the final sacrifice, courtesy of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character. The best bet is probably identity, with the two Joes struggling to find one that they can both live with. However, even that feels somewhat constructed.
On the whole, Looper is more or less a much cheaper, but better version of the recent Christopher Nolan blockbusters. It initially attempts to overwhelm you with its style and bravura by pretending to be a though-provoking and rather deep science-fiction movie, only to reveal itself as lacking the necessary depth in terms of story and characters once it loses momentum. That’s not to say that Looper is a bad movie as such. In fact, there’s much to like about it: the camerawork with neat angles and whip pans, the expository voiceover by rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt that directly beams us into his gloomy universe, and Rian Johnson’s use of music in the film. All in all, Looper is a brilliant exercise in style that, unfortunately, falls a bit short in the storytelling department.