by Thom Yee
Conventional wisdom tells us writers (one of whom I do not claim to be) that time travel stories are tricky things. That might depend on your background or what sort of stories you’ve been exposed to, but all it really takes to write one is a basic understanding of the rules you’ve set up. Whether you’ve subscribed to Back to the Future principles or something a little more complex, all it takes is some fourth-dimensional thought and a reasonable grasp of cause and effect. Keeping track of what’s going on isn’t what’s difficult; rather, it’s writing a story that should involve time travel at all that’s the trick. What does time travel as a device bring to your story? If it’s just a way of framing it, then that’s probably a wasted opportunity. If it serves an integral purpose, whether it’s central to your plot or drives the story throughout, then you might have something worth peoples’ time.
Looper is a movie that is worth your time. I’m certain it is a movie worth your time. I’m certain it is a movie that is worth your time and that I would be remiss without insisting that you see it as soon as you possibly can. I might even call it a movie so worth your time that it symbolizes the exact opposite of Runaway Bride.
Looper isn’t really a mind bender. It’s all laid out pretty clearly with an exposition-heavy opening that manages to not be too heavy in and of itself. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (JGL) Young Joe explains at the beginning and, almost humorously, again later, “Time travel has not yet been invented, but thirty years from now it will have been. It will be instantly outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations… when these criminal organizations need someone gone, they use specialized assassins in our present, called ‘loopers’… my employers nab the target, they zap them back to me, their looper, he appears… and I do the necessaries. Collect my silver.” And that’s about all you need to know. So… time travel it is.
Logically, Looper can be picked apart at the conceptual level as its paradoxical “cat-and-also-cat” story structure has Young Joe and Bruce Willis’ Old Joe variously confront and support each other. Most time travel stories demand this paradoxical structure if any of its characters are going to do anything dynamic. Sure, it’s great to have stories that wrap themselves up in nice, tight packages that effectively say, “this is how it always happened,” but even most of those can be picked apart as well (see Fringe’s “White Tulip”, arguably the best episode of that recently departed series). The vagaries of time travel can be maddening, but a little before the film’s midway point, Old Joe quite emphatically explains, for the sake of this movie, and the sake of story, that “It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter!” And you can feel the creators alongside Willis’ Old Joe yelling that at anyone who’s watching. Critics have said that the film’s conceit that changes in the present versions of characters are reflected in the future version (also in “the present”) moments after happening in “the present” (try making sense of that sentence) is clumsy storytelling. Really though, it’s no worse than Marty McFly looking at his family picture and seeing his family slowly disappear, as if there was some localized, self-contained time dilation affecting that moment within which he can still make changes. How convenient. Remember though, “It doesn’t matter!” (i.e., f*ck off).
One of the identifiably great things about Looper is how well the plot propels the film forward. As you grow comfortable with the premise(s), the characters, and the conflicting motivations, the film moves forward naturally and with enough momentum that you never quite grow at ease with the film and you never want to leave. The film eventually becomes a time travel story asking the perennial question, “Would you kill Hitler?” Not only does the film confront you with just how difficult doing so would be, even given the obvious logic in doing so, but it twists a knife in your back as it does it. Just after the halfway point of the movie, it becomes incredibly difficult, compellingly entertaining, and surprisingly moving to watch Looper‘s answer to that question.
There are a few really, really smart sequences in this movie as well. First is Seth’s (Young Joe’s associate early in the film) death which is brilliantly, brutally disturbing. I guess I called it smart, but it’s not technically that intelligent. Importantly, though, it’s the kind of scene that, if you saw it as a kid because your parents were incautious enough to let you watch movies like this a little too early in life, might give you nightmares and would definitely sear itself into your memory. It’s then followed by some pretty great explicit nudity, and that’s always welcome. The second great sequence is seeing Joe’s transition from JGL to Bruce Willis. Though not brilliantly conceived, it’s so well executed on a visceral and visual level that it’s something you’ll want to watch a few more times simply for its consummate excellence. It’s also a great example of the tricky balance in tone that Looper manages to strike throughout most of the film. Through lighting, perspective, effects, and musical score, Looper manages to feel like it takes place in the future without being futuristic. It’s edgy without falling over the edge, it’s plot-driven without being plot-heavy, it’s action-packed without being action-full — in other words, it’s just right.
That transition, of course, brings us to the topic of JGL’s makeup. There was a vocal outcry against JGL’s Willis-stylized makeup job around the time of Looper’s release, suggesting that it wasn’t necessary or convincing. All I ask is that you watch the movie and don’t let it distract you. Of course it’s distracting and, yeah, it’s still kind of hard to imagine JGL’s make-me-question-my-heterosexuality good looks turning into Willis’ slightly-unattractive-but-iconic-and-manly-cool visage, but it’s absolutely essential in creating JGL’s Young Joe. Pretty early on Young Joe says to someone, “You think it’s easy looking this good?” It’s a line that handsome-face JGL absolutely couldn’t sell, that normal-face Willis absolutely could, and it, along with the rest of JGL’s portrayal, completely brings the two together as one person.
As for the actors in the film, none of them stand out. That is to say, they all feel like they belong. Looper isn’t JGL’s, Willis’, Emily Blunt’s, or Jeff Daniels’ movie (though if I had to choose, I’d say I liked Daniels’ Abe the most). They’re all pieces in a puzzle that ultimately fit together so well partially because Looper isn’t a film for any one character to steal. I will say that Pierce Gagnon’s seven-year-old Cid (Blunt’s characters’ son and the kid in all these pictures) is, at times, ridiculously evil looking and almost always unsettling. I’ll also say that I appreciated Piper Perabo’s nudity. It almost makes up for her turn in Coyote Ugly, which I thought was supposed to be a movie about strippers or something, not body doubles. Either way, I didn’t see it (‘cause it looked dumb), but let that be a lesson to all you leading lady hopefuls: You will be naked on film eventually. You will be.
The only really questionable element of the film is the introduction and integration of telekinesis as a story element. While it serves a necessary purpose in the story, it’s pretty much just a rider throughout most of the movie. And when we’re already accepting time travel as the central premise, it’s tough to introduce other extra-normal elements without it feeling like too much. It’s just a little too weird and distracting in a movie that’s not about telekinesis or superpowers.
The funny thing about time travel stories is that most of them are inherently hopeful. No matter how bleak their endings may be, they’re usually about characters making changes in their life, sometimes for the better, and often for some greater good. They ask the question, “What would you do different?”, because in most of our lives, so little of what we cause is so micro that it ever has any real effect in the macro. Looper isn’t necessarily about hard-boiled sci-fi crime fiction, time travel, or any of its main characters — JGL’s or Willis’ Joe, Blunt’s Sara, or the morally conflicted Cid. It’s a story about choice as embodied by one child. Whether or not our choices bring us fulfillment, lead us to our salvation, or directly cause the horror that we all know to be inevitable, what Looper becomes in the end, is a movie about the chances that we all deserve, regardless of if we make the right choice. Like most good science fiction and all good stories, it’s a movie whose themes leave us with a sense of optimism without losing touch of reality. Critically, though, it’s a movie that leaves us with these themes rather than bashes us over the head with them.
Looper final score: 9.5
On the Edge
-So I saw two fairly obvious Tarantino references in Looper, beyond Bruce Willis being in Looper and Pulp Fiction, both having to do with the waitress at the diner. First, the waitress was played by Tracie Thoms, Kim in Tarantino’s Death Proof. Second, the waitress is named Beatrix, a name that, no matter what, will always belong to Uma Thurman and Kill Bill. Even though Looper isn’t fundamentally informed by Tarantino in any overt way, it’s hard to imagine that these things were totally unintentional.
-The fact that the Spanish title for Looper is Asesino del Futuro is a source of great amusement for me. So, so, so on the nose.