Monday, October 22, 2012



After months of silence and an embittered post about the quality of summer movies in 2012, along came Looper to answer all my cinephile woes. One disappointing film after the next had me positively exhausted with film criticism, but Rian Johnson's latest has me back on the wagon. Looper isn't perfect, but it's an original, intelligent, and engaging science-fiction/time travel movie that's also accessible and affective (which is more than I can say for some other flicks in the genre).

I liked Looper a lot, that's the short version of this review. What follows will be a more in-depth discussion that will include spoilers. Steer clear if you haven't seen Looper yet, as there are some legitimate surprises in store for you.


Ok, let's just get the big negative elephant in the corner out of the way: the time-travel mechanics of Looper only kinda sorta work at best. This movie is not a scientific examination of multiple timelines (ala Primer) or conversely a postulation on cyclical inevitability (ala 12 Monkeys). Rather, Looper is an adventure film about agency that uses the concept of time-travel to underpin its thematic structure. This is never so clear as in the film two weakest moments, namely the cheeky, fourth-wall-cracking "I don't want to talk about time travel" diner conversation, and the sepia-toned "I saw how it would happen" montage during the climax. These moments demonstrate that Looper puts its heart before its brain and desperately wants the audience to follow suit. Unfortunately in doing so they lead the viewer by the hand to the "point" of the film, and are the most inelegant moments in Rian Johnson's career to date.

Nevertheless, Looper is an incredible and worthwhile experience. It melds aspects of the Terminator franchise (only in reverse) with Akira of all things, and kept me guessing for most of the movie. Although it might be intellectually-light on time-travel as a whole, that torture sequence is burned in my memory as one of the most original and visceral takes on the concept that I've ever seen. It showed us everything but all the while adhered to the old horror-film adage that the scariest monster is the one we don't see.

Additionally, the film's defiant moral ambiguity in refusing to have a real villain is a convention-busting turn that we don't see very often. I know, I know, Bruce Willis kills children in cold blood, but the fact that he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are the same character complicates the matter. We literally can't just write-off Willis as the bad guy because he's the same character as Levitt. The character is a profoundly selfish one but that's not the same thing as being evil. By all traditional measures Willis is actually better than Levitt: he's reformed from the murder business, off the drugs, and has suffered a sympathetically tragic loss. We can't entirely root for one over the other because they both frustrate our moral instincts and yet are fundamentally two sides of the same coin. That's part of what makes Levitt's choice at the end so effective, both for the character and as a sci-fi conceit.

The definition of sci-fi is a contentious subject, but I subscribe to the idea that the genre presents strange worlds to encourage reflection on our own. The ways in which sci-fi settings differ from reality are precisely what create this interrogative reflex, as their strangeness forces us to consider the ways the real world is different and (more importantly) why. In the case of Looper, the qualities that set its world apart let us consider the meaning of choice and repercussions (apt for a time-travel movie).

Besides the time-travel and telekinetic powers that distinguish Looper's future from our own world, the movie's setting is generally familiar. Those two elements allow us to examine two characters in unusual ways: one at two separate points in his life, both as a youth trying to make his own way and as an old man who's lost everything; the other character is the boy with an incredible gift who doesn't yet have enough control of his life to determine what he'll become. Over the course of the film we're made increasingly aware of the pain and violence that both characters inflict on others as a result of their selfish choices. Ultimately we discover that each character's actions are precisely what inspire the other to lash out against them in an endlessly repeating pattern of revenge (in theory it's a two-timeline tiered cycle of violence, but again don't worry about the mechanics too much). The sci-fi aspects of the movie are what let us see the whole self-replicating "loop" (ugh) of selfishly-motivated choices and their repercussions. When Levitt joins us in seeing these puppet-strings he does the only thing that's needed to stop the cycle: he makes an unselfish choice.

Looper's central focus is understanding the consequences of our actions, and the time travel and telekinetic powers are simply the tools Rian Johnson uses to explore that concept. The moral ambiguity serves the same purpose as the sci-fi elements in that these narrative qualities flesh out the nature of each character's decisions. In the end there's no villain or hero, just people making choices that spiral out of their control into a self-perpetuating cycle. The fantastical differences between our world and Looper's are what allow Levitt to share the audience's perspective, to see the big picture and the role(s) he can play in it. Conceptual mechanics and plot holes aside, it's the stuff of classic sci-fi by my definition.

I had tons of nitpicky problems with Looper, ranging from the mundane (JGL's makeup may have been well done but damn was it ever distracting) to the fundamental (if they didn't make loopers close their own contracts then this whole mess could have been avoided). Overall though the film was greater than the sum of its parts, as the plot (holes and all) served to reemphasize the narrative's central theme. Looper is a fantastic sci-fi movie that showed me things I'd never seen before via a unique perspective. I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes sci-fi or any of the talented people involved with the film.


Side note: If you're intrigued by my brief discussion of the definition of sci-fi, then I highly recommend you check out the works of Darko Suvin and Adam Roberts. My own take draws very heavily from Suvin's ideas of cognitive estrangement. They're both very interesting and definitely worth a read if you're so inclined.

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