Six simple letters with devastating implications, “loopers” are time-traveling assassins who come from a future where such abilities and technology have been outlawed. The film that shares their name features the talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt, and while all of the performances are very strong, the film’s production values are rather hit-or-miss, and the story feels like a waste of its intriguing if unsettling ideas.
Time catches up to us all
A man looks at his pocket watch and receives indistinct communications through the speaker in his ear. Armed, he waits in a field at dawn or dusk, steadily watching an empty blanket. A man suddenly appears on the blanket, bound and gagged. He screams and is instantly shot dead.
Time travel has not yet been invented, the narrator reveals, but thirty years from this moment, it will have been. It quickly becomes illegal and finds a niche within the largest crime syndicates. There’s no mention of people using this power to prevent the Great Depression, the Holocaust, or the spread of AIDS, or even to commit bank robberies: this technology, as far as Looper is concerned, is used exclusively for neutralizing marked targets.
The movie exists primarily in two time frames, one of them being a strangely familiar-looking 2044 and the other taking place in a more advanced yet decrepit society in the decades that follow. Employers in the movie’s own future capture their targets, then forcibly send them back to the past where “loopers,” lying in wait, kill them. This also helps with body disposal, which eventually becomes possible due to advanced tagging procedures. These don’t exist in the first of the story’s time periods, so the bodies are cremated, thus leaving the future employers nothing to dispose.
It must be said that Looper opens with a powerful first impression, with the polish and loads of potential extending even to the DVD menu, whose quality is on the same level as those in the The Matrix trilogy. The far future looks economically downtrodden but nonetheless beautiful, with many ethnically diverse groups making a communal society for each other against a backdrop of tall buildings and helicopters. Unfortunately, not nearly enough is done with this amazing setting, and later sections of the movie tend to ignore it and its world-building possibilities entirely (did time-travel abuse widen the economic gap and concentrate power in the hands of criminal organizations? Do random in-the-past murders and other crimes change future cities’ population at a moment’s notice? What can governments do to prevent this from being exploited by anyone with power and an agenda?).
In any case, when employers want to close loopers’ contracts, since time travel seems to get more negative emphasis in this future society than simple assassination does, all evidence of the former employer-looper relationship must be erased. A looper who is still alive at this point, therefore, is sent back into the past to be killed by his own self, which is known as “closing the loop.” (Some people refuse to kill their future selves, which calls into question whether these crime organizations screen which loopers are getting what targets, to make sure this dilemma never comes up.) Main protagonist Joe is one such assassin with one such task, and he quickly discovers that fighting himself is far more difficult and consequential than he can imagine.
The unfocused story loses energy near the halfway point.
Young Joe’s days pass by in a blur. He is a reckless hedonist with no thought for his future, spending his money on drugs and his days on women. Some are seen topless, and a well-done montage alternates between Joe killing and pursuing his pleasures. The amount of gore is massive and overwhelming, but so far the narrative holds up and appears to be building toward a Prodigal Son-esque disaster. The aging Joe meets and marries a girl, and they live in a beautiful house together and dream of raising a family. In the meantime, Young Joe’s selfish ways lead to tragedy as he’s given the choice to betray a friend for money–complete with a fairly unsubtle Judas Iscariot reference–and an older version of said friend is seen in the future with fewer and fewer body parts as fingers and even feet are removed in the past. As far as violent scenes go, this is admittedly very creative.
There’s a very surreal scene where “Young Joe” and “Old Joe” meet together in a diner–Bruce Willis is intimidating when ordering coffee–and the younger tries to grill the elder for information about the effects and consequences of time travel. The elder isn’t willing to talk, regardless of whether Young Joe’s actions can alter Old Joe’s memories along with his life and health, and is much more interested in condemning his younger version’s irresponsible way of living. Some story events lend the impression that history is effectively predetermined.
The story at this point has a lot of good ideas, but its execution and handling feel poor and rushed for the rest of the film. There is an individual called the “Rainmaker,” who quickly and violently takes control of many major organizations and begins closing as many loops as he can. We are told all this, rarely if ever shown, and the film’s shouting of exposition loses its charm when it extends beyond the opening narration to form a big part of how the movie tells its story. Thus, the audience is never given a chance to form its own opinions about this character’s decisions and personality. (Even Darth Vader had charisma.)
Old Joe wants to kill this Rainmaker, in order to save his own life as well as someone he loves, but Young Joe doesn’t care about either, making his call for the elder to “give her up” both ironic and unpleasant. They start a fight and end up in a field in the middle of nowhere, right next to Emily Blunt’s house. ‘Sara’ has a young boy named Cid, who forms a sort of friendship with Young Joe despite the mother’s apprehensions. He’s extremely intelligent for his age, but other than his unusual ability to guess people’s personalities and histories, this in itself doesn’t really amount to much.
Up to around this point, the movie earns its keep by interspersing tense action with elements of a chase-and-mystery story, but the strong structure and pacing become lost as what could have been an exciting mix of 24, Blade Runner, and perhaps a find-the-clues puzzler like Angels & Demons instead relegates itself to a home invasion.
Some design decisions hurt as much as they help, at best.
Don’t bother taking notes whenever the film gives out a new set of instructions or map coordinates. The short version is that one character, early on, establishes that he wants to find the Rainmaker even if it sometimes takes literal guesswork to do so. (The camera cuts away as a child is shot, but another person of ambiguous age gets shot in the back at the beginning of the movie in what may be an unrelated event.) I can deal with stories that place children in dangerous situations–Aliens, Grave of the Fireflies (spoiler warning), and Pan’s Labyrinth were all terrific films–but this feels like a waste because of the “heroes'” basically random processes of elimination and because of the way Cid’s own story is handled.
The film takes a huge detour simply to talk about Sara’s and her child’s history, and while her motherhood plot is beautifully handled despite Cid’s sometimes extremely hostile behavior, her wonderful motivations are given little highlight thanks to the simplistic world-building. Looper’s lack of emphasis on flash brings both benefits and drawbacks, as while the practical effects look amazing, the story’s creatively rich future settings get so little screen time as to become neglected. Losing the rather forced sexual elements, harsh language, and extreme violence might have encouraged a wider audience and allowed for a bigger budget that didn’t place many of the film’s best moments at the beginning and end a la Thor, which at least had a wide array of likable characters and relationships to make up for its inconsistent action pacing.
There’s also a telekinetic element to the story where a few people have the ability to move objects or other individuals with their minds. Again, the special effects here look excellent, but they’re given far too much emphasis in a time-travel movie, to the point where some late scenes look like they belong in an X-Men film. The more standard action scenes are as excellently done as one would rightly expect from a Bruce Willis film like Die Hard or The Fifth Element, excepting one where Old Joe obtains victory because his foes don’t bother attacking him all at once, but Bruce is every bit the killer he condemns the Rainmaker for being, making the film’s morality seem like a cheap excuse for some honestly remarkable shootouts. (One scene is played for drama but could perhaps have been more easily resolved if one character’s abilities were put to better use.)
The cinematography, however, is very well done, with clean and quick transitions that continually demand viewer attention without usually being hard to follow.
Conclusion: Square one
Looper contains a thought-provoking premise, some lovely settings, and a decent variety of characters, and does almost nothing with them or their massive amount of potential. The film isn’t conspicuously bad, outside of the ill-conceived scenes where a child is monstrously screaming at his mother like they’re in a horror thriller, but so many of its aspects get either too much or too little use (with special mention of a nearly nude but kindhearted woman who is given next to no plot relevance) and end up dragging down the end result.
Time-travel plots and their action-and-consequence loops can be a tricky thing to write and master, and Looper‘s underdeveloped plot doesn’t really do wonders for its genre. The action and the character development are spaced too far apart to make the film worth watching for either alone, and while the ending does make an admirable attempt to be thoughtful, it can’t really make up for the remaining issues throughout the story. If you want a “low sci-fi” movie that makes good use of its character interactions, I recommend Inception or Moon (spoiler warning).