Ah, time travel. That classic sci-fi staple that can instantly turn any story into a complicated mindfuck.
There are so many reasons why time travel stories can easily devolve into a hot mess. Possibly the most prominent reason is the fact that (as of right now) there’s no real-world basis for it. This isn’t like robotics, space travel, computers, biological engineering, or anything else that we’ve been actively using and developing for the past several decades.
We literally don’t know the first thing about time travel. This means — among other things — that there are no hard and fast rules about the subject. The point is that there’s no shared knowledge about time travel between storytellers and audiences. Storytellers can make up anything they want about time paradoxes, interactions between past and present selves, and other mechanics of time travel, reinventing the wheel every time they do.
To be fair, we do have hard and fast rules for things that don’t exist in any way, shape, or form. We know, for example, that vampires can be harmed by sunlight, and the only way to kill a zombie is by destroying its head. Even so, such fictional monsters still have to be redefined with every story they appear in (Can silver hurt a vampire? Can zombies use weapons?). Also, the motivation and destruction of flesh-eating creatures is a relatively simple matter next to screwing with the space-time continuum.
Exploring the various causes and effects of time travel can take a sci-fi yarn into increasingly complex and esoteric directions. And all the while, the audience is powerless to do much of anything except hope that it all makes sense. Primer is an excellent case in point.
Shane Carruth’s film offered some fascinating ideas about time travel, with mechanics that sounded alarmingly plausible. Unfortunately, these heady notions made for a story that was utterly incomprehensible. I maintain that anyone who claims to understand the plot of Primer is either a genius or a liar.
With his film, Carruth proved himself a man with brilliant notions about time travel, but a crappy storyteller. Fortunately, Carruth took his creative mind and served as a time travel consultant for Rian Johnson, who’s proven himself to be a very good storyteller indeed. Thus we have Looper.
Pay attention, because things are about to get complicated.
Tonight’s film concerns a slightly distant future when time travel has been made possible, but it’s also been made highly illegal. So naturally, this means that only criminals use time travel. They have a great need for it, too: Thanks to advances in forensic technology, it’s become borderline impossible to hide a corpse.
Thus, when the mob bosses of the future need someone dead, they strap the target with a handful of silver ingots and send him back to the year 2042 or so, roughly thirty years before the invention of time travel. Upon arrival, the target is promptly killed by a specialized assassin native to the time period, known as a “looper.” The loopers of course know precisely where and when the target is coming, so the actual hit is a quick and clean operation. After the target is dead, the looper collects his silver and disposes of the corpse. The corpse, remember, of a person who won’t actually exist for another three decades.
(Side note: It’s interesting to note that the loopers are paid in silver, as it leads to a plot point involving one friend betraying another for pieces of silver. Was the Biblical nod intentional? I’ll let you be the judge.)
However, there’s a catch that comes with being a looper. After all, the mob bosses can’t leave any witnesses to report all of this to the feds. So it is that when time travel eventually gets invented, the mob tracks down those loopers who are still alive. These loopers are then sent back to the past with a fat payday of gold ingots and killed by their own younger selves, who may then enjoy the next thirty years with their huge retirement fortune. This is called “closing the loop.”
Oh, and another thing about this future setting: About ten percent of the population is mutated in such a way that they’re telekinetic. It’s actually not that big a deal, though. TKs can levitate a coin about two inches into the air, but that’s about it. Remember this if you see the movie, it’s going to be important.
Anyway, the film concerns a looper named Joe, played by exec-producer and returning Rian Johnson colleague Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s your average looper, spending huge amounts of money and killing time-travellers like it ain’t no thang. Additionally, the guy’s a junkie, he has no aspirations aside from spending his retirement in France, and his love life consists pretty much entirely of an unrequited crush on a prostitute (Suzie, played by Piper Perabo). The guy’s got a good thing going and he’s having the time of his life, though he’s still clearly an awful excuse for a human being.
But then the time finally comes for Joe to close his loop. His older self pops up (we’ll call him Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis), and manages to avoid execution. So now both Joes are on the run, as every looper, criminal, and bounty hunter in the area is out to kill the both of them.
Naturally, Joe is out to save his own life (what’s left of it, anyway) by hunting down his older self. But Old Joe has bigger fish to fry. See, at some point in the future, an enigmatic figure known only as “the Rainmaker” will show up. Nobody knows anything about him — or her — except that Rainmaker will somehow conquer all organized crime in the country by himself. He doesn’t even need an army or anyone else, he just does it entirely by his lonesome. Of course, this regime change involves tons of people getting killed, including and especially the loopers. Yes, one of the first things on the Rainmaker’s agenda is to start closing the loops. All of them.
Who is the Rainmaker? How did he come to power? Why would he get rid of the loopers when they’re probably the best way for organized crime to get rid of bodies? All of this will be answered as the film continues.
Getting back to Old Joe, he’s now in a time before the Rainmaker came to power. Armed with some chance bits of information and whatever weapons he can find, Old Joe sets out to find and kill the young Rainmaker.
Now, take a moment to think about this. We’ve all talked or heard or thought about using a time machine to go back and kill Adolf Hitler as a child, but be honest with yourself. If you were actually looking into the eyes of a five-year-old child, blissfully unaware of the monster he’ll one day become, could you really bring yourself to pull the trigger? Moreover, what if there was only a one-in-three chance that this was actually the kid you were looking for?
This brings me to the Joe vs. Old Joe thematic conflict. It’s been said that the great advantage of age is experience. The elderly are to be respected because they’ve seen and learned so much more than those who haven’t been around as long. This notion takes on a whole new layer with time travel, and the film utilizes it to the fullest extent.
Older Joe — just like anyone else, really — has seen and done a lot in his past thirty years of life. Not only has he personally seen the terror of the Rainmaker, but he’s seen a great deal of joys and pains. This naturally means that Old Joe has a ton of advice and wisdom for his younger self, but Joe isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t know about anything that will come to pass, he just wants to get on with his life.
This might make Joe an obstinate young idiot (and remember, he was never exactly a likeable guy to begin with), except for one little thing: The future isn’t set. We know for a fact that the timeline can change. As such, it’s entirely possible that Old Joe is clinging to a future that may never come to pass. So it is that before long, Old Joe comes to symbolize the viewpoint that the future is predetermined, while Joe represents the idea that we can change our future. Which of them is right? Well, I’d argue that the film doesn’t answer that one way or another. Smart move, in my opinion.
Another character to make use of the “age is experience” theme is Abe (Jeff Daniels). He’s a mobster from the future who was sent back in time to supervise the loopers. Needless to say, Abe knows more than anyone else in this movie about future events, the mechanics of time travel, and the criminals behind this whole operation. Not only does this knowledge lend Abe an inherent air of authority, but it also leads to some humorous moments when he talks about recurring trends and the future plans of his loopers. Both look considerably different from a time-traveler’s perspective, after all.
With regards to Daniels’ performance, he’s… okay. To be sure, he gets the character’s wry sense of humor down pat, and he can even play a decent commander when the need arises. But when the time came to see Jeff Daniels try to be intimidating, I just couldn’t see it. Sorry, but I couldn’t bring myself to think of Daniels as a guy who could break a man’s fingers. He’s simply not scary enough to pull that off. Then again, the loopers are a very autonomous bunch and we’re told that supervising them is a very undemanding job, so maybe the mob sent Abe because he was the runt of the litter? Hard to say.
As long as we’re talking about the secondary cast, let’s move on to Emily Blunt. She plays Sara, the mother of a young boy who may or may not be the future Rainmaker (Sid, played by a superbly talented child actor named Pierce Gagnon). Blunt does a wonderful job with the character, effectively delivering a devoted mother and a very strong woman. Moreover, it’s obvious that a lot of her strength comes from emotional scarring, which begs the question of what secrets she may be hiding. The same could be asked of Sid as well — the kid is so intelligent and so creepy that there’s clearly more to him than meets the eye. But is he supervillain material? Hard to say.
Really, the only huge misstep with regards to Sara was in her relationship with Joe. I can’t even call it a romance arc, since it consists entirely of one scene that comes from way out of left field. Granted, JGL and Blunt have decent onscreen chemistry, but their first kiss still felt very out of place, and nothing important really comes of it. The whole thing should have been better-established, in my opinion.
Moving on, there are a few other noteworthy loopers to discuss. Garret Dillahunt plays one of the loopers chasing Joe, and goddamn is it good to see him up on a screen again. Guy doesn’t get nearly enough work for how talented he is. There’s also Kid Blue (Noah Segan), an egotistical little prick who’s one of Joe’s primary rivals. Last but not least is Seth (Paul Dano, and I was genuinely surprised to see him in this picture), one of Joe’s closest friends. Seth gets in trouble early on because he fails to close his loop long before Joe does. I initially thought this turn of events was worthless, since we could have guessed for ourselves that letting a target go is a bad thing. However, this turns out to be very useful in terms of plot. Not only does the older Seth (Frank Brennan) establish the Rainmaker very early in the proceedings, but he helpfully demonstrates how past and present versions of the same person can affect each other.
I suppose I should also give some mention to Piper Perabo. She makes it obvious that Suzie will gladly take whatever money and affection Joe gives to her, and she’s happy to give some TLC in return, but it’s all in the job for her. Joe is clearly one of her favorite customers, but a customer and nothing more all the same. It’s an interesting balance, to be sure, but the character is far more interesting in terms of plot relevance than anything else.
As for Bruce Willis, the guy’s still got it. I know he already proved as much with The Expendables 2, but Willis is still absolutely a viable action star. He played a very convincing badass in spite of his age, and it was a hell of a thing to watch him mow down a small army of armed thugs. But at the same time, Willis doesn’t make any attempt at hiding his age. After all, the crux of Old Joe’s character is the fact that he’s an older man with a long history of murder and heartbreak. Willis plays all of that wonderfully, particularly opposite JGL. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Old Joe remains a very sympathetic character from start to finish, even as he’s gunning down children. This is partly due to the inner conflict that Willis brings to the role, though it also helps that he’s genuinely trying to stop a mass murderer from coming into power.
Regarding the other Joe, it’s worth pointing out that the filmmakers had to use prosthetics to make JGL look more like a young Bruce Willis. Sometimes the effect looks wonderfully lifelike. Other times, particularly in close-ups, it doesn’t look nearly as good. Fortunately, JGL is so thoroughly committed to his Bruno impression that he makes it easy to overlook the occasional makeup flaw. It also helps that Joe has a dynamic and interesting development arc, which gives JGL a lot to work with.
Visually, this movie is wonderfully impressive. I was especially fond of the futuristic takes on old technology, particularly with regard to the older-model cars that have visibly been retrofitted with clunky yet eco-friendly attachments. Additionally, the movie largely takes place in a very worn city, overrun with poverty and vagrants. The film shows us a man stealing from a school bus and getting shot in the back for his trouble, for God’s sake. But here’s Joe and his friends, driving through all of this in an impossibly fancy car, drinking and partying with the mountain of cash that they got through committing rampant murder, with scarcely any regard to the people starving around them. It’s a powerful contrast.
Speaking of symbolism, the film makes a prominent motif out of watches and clocks. Par for the course in a time travel film, obviously, but none of the clocks or watches in this film are digital. The movie only shows close-ups of analog timepieces, which I thought was rather strange. I mean, Joe uses a pocketwatch in this film. Who on earth still uses a pocketwatch in this day and age, much less in 2040? As best I can figure it, Johnson eschewed digital clocks because they don’t make that distinctive ticking sound, which is another motif in the film.
The cinematography is also wonderful. There are a lot of creative camera movements, such as Rian Johnson’s novel choice to roll the camera upside-down when Joe takes drugs. The approach was very simple, but neatly unsettling. The VFX were also quite good, especially with regard to the TKs. I don’t know how that telekinesis trick was done, but I’m left assuming it was a simple stage illusion, it looked that damned real and tactile. Also, there are a ton of storylines in play here and not all of them take place in the same time period, so kudos to editor Bob Ducsay for keeping it all coherent and well-paced.
As for the screenplay, it’s… flawed. I’m not particularly fond of using voice-over for exposition dumps, as this film does, but the voice-over narration pays off quite nicely at the end of the film. Also, I thought that quite a few story points seemed a little too easy and convenient. The Rainmaker’s origin is one example, but I can’t go into that without discussing spoilers. So instead, I’ll point out a different example: Old Joe’s search for the Rainmaker started with a single number. How did Old Joe get that number? How did his source get the number? Why did the number go from one to the other? If any of these questions were answered, I’ve forgotten it.
Still, the screenplay’s novel execution of heady thematic content is just too good to ignore. The conflicts of young vs. old, destiny vs. free will, and how much the ends justify the means are all made wonderfully intriguing when seen through this film’s time-travel lens. It also helps that the film only tells us just enough about its time travel mechanics to help us make sense of the plot, which keeps things nice and simple.
Despite some very minor cases of fridge logic, Looper is a wonderfully entertaining film that was made with intelligence and creativity to spare. It’s always a great thing to see a science fiction movie that’s both action-packed and thought-provoking, and this film elegantly fits the bill. Additionally, JGL turns in yet another fantastic performance, Bruce Willis proves that he’s still a viable action star, and Rian Johnson proves once again that he’s a superbly talented filmmaker.
This one comes absolutely recommended.