Looper is a silly film. Watching it is like watching your ultra-creative friend present their final project in class. They’re lobbing all kinds of things at the wall, only some of which stick, and most have nothing to do with the assignment. But they’re having fun and so is the class. And inevitably the teacher is loath to give them a bad grade because at least they’re trying to be creative.
Rian Johnson, Looper’s director, is trying very hard to be creative. Not trusting the strength of his premise, he attempts to give you two films for the price of one and sprinkles in some slapstick just for kicks. The first is a science fiction film about assassins and time travel. The second is centered around an old horror movie trope. The bad guys, well let’s just say they are Red Dwarf level bad.
The Two Joes
Looper is about a type of low-level assassin in the year 2042. Rather than stalking their targets these assassins serve more as a body disposal units for their victims who are sent back in time by the mob from 2072 to be eliminated. While well paid, these assassins know that one day their future self will be sent back for elimination and thus their “loop” will be closed. Thus the mob will have to deal with far less “one last job” clichés.
But what if a “loop” isn’t closed and the future self escapes? It’s one of many questions in the film that director Rian Johnson lobs at the audience.
The assassin caught in this dilemma is named Joe played by both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as two ends of the same time-line (pictured above in one of the best scenes in the film when they sit down at the local diner for a chat).
While both are the same person, their experience and motivations due to what end of the timeline they represent, are completely different. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the younger Joe as not the smartest cookie who has at least enough sense to understand his future prospects. Bruce Willis fills Old Joe with the desire to protect the woman he loves, it is in part why he has gone back in time to alter the future.
Both are being hunted down by their mob employer who is not interested in such temporal dilemmas.
Time Travel Hollywood Style
Primer is the only time travel film I’ve seen to truly understand the science behind the concept of time travel. Rumor has it they consulted on Looper. It must have been over coffee. Because the science behind Looper’s ideas belongs less to Primer and more to Star Trek.
In Looper, Old Joe’s plan is to go back in time and kill a few people thereby protecting the woman he loves in the future. J.J. Abrams’ used similar type of Hollywood logic when he had Eric Bana’s character Nero go back in time to avenge his destroyed home world. Rian Johnson sticks with the same play book.
More than that he includes a scene featuring Bruce Willis that can be best described as an homage to both Terminator and Die Hard.
But if killing a butterfly can irrevocably change the future, the havoc that Bruce Willis inflicts as the character of Old Joe assures mass chaos in the timeline.
Johnson’s script saves him from having to explain too much as Old Joe snarls, “You don’t want to talk about time travel. If we do we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws.”
There is one inspired flourish to the Hollywood time travel formula as the film shows what happens to an older looper’s body when their younger self is altered. It’s an nice twist on the classic mob torture scene.
The Rules of Halloween and Red Dwarf Level Bad Guys
If the first part of Looper owes some debt to many a sci-fi film, the second half owes more to the Twilight Zone. Specifically it reminded me of the episode, “It’s a Good Life.” I even found myself saying out loud, “wish him into the cornfield!”
While the script does the neat trick of making both stories fit together, the film itself loses much of its momentum during the shift. Rian Johnson has to provide a lot of back story to make the second half of the film work. But the momentum is never regained.
It would have helped if the bad guys converging on the two Joes were even the slightest bit competent. They are not. One could call them Stormtroopers but at least Stormtroopers hit something…just not the main characters. These bad guys don’t hit anything during the film, not even innocent bystanders. They are only a credible threat to the crew of Red Dwarf but just not as funny. There is even a bad guy, played by Noah Segan who has been in all of Rian Johnson’s films, who is so incompetent you half expect him to say, “I say it’s Duck season, and I say, FIRE!”
Without a competent threat the film is simply stuck waiting until the final confrontation between the two Joes. But hey the payoff is worthwhile and at least you can go get a refill of popcorn.
This is the kind of film that works if everyone is having fun. And they seem to be except for Paul Dano who for some reason is way overacting in his scenes. It is especially nice to see Bruce Willis actually acting in a role. The last time that happened was in Unbreakable.
Is Looper a good film? It is not as good as the last indie feature I saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt in, The Lookout; it is not as good as the last film Rian Johnson did featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick; and it is not even in the same league as Bruce Willis’s best time travel film 12 Monkeys.
But for the amount of creativity on display it is well deserving of your movie going dollars.