Threepenny Thursday – Looper

4 Oct

I’ve always loved imaginative science fiction. Like fantasy and action and romance and every other genre ever, however, sci-fi is rife with derivative retreading. You’ve seen one android discover “emotions” and lose control, you’ve seen ’em all, you know? But sci-fi should be – and the best examples always have been – explorations of big ideas. Plumbing the depths of what it means to be human, either here on Earth or in the vast stretches of the universe, moving through space and time to ask big questions and, if we’re lucky, find big answers.

Some of my favourite sci-fi films to have come out in the past few years were sleepers like Moon and Source Code (both by Bowie-bred wunderkind Duncan Jones), which did excellent jobs of maintaining the core appeal of science fiction: taking a simple imaginative idea or premise and exploring it through the lens of an interesting character. Looper has much the same pedigree, but with the added bonus of some A-list stars and a big-ass budget. It’s not quite as finely-tuned as those films, but it works as both a sci-fi and an action movie, and it deserves credit for that.

Plotwise, it’s a time travel movie, but it sidesteps the brain-twisting paradoxes and confusing plot holes that often bog down the genre. Writer-director Rian Johnson is smart to acknowledge this when he has Bruce Willis frustratedly advise his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to ignore the inevitable questions about their situation, lest they sit there all day “making diagrams with straws.” This attitude really helps the film mesh together – the less we worry about the intricacies of the film’s logic, the more attention we can spare for the action. And there’s plenty of that.

Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a near-future hitman (or “looper”) who goes into fields, lays out a tarp, waits for a specific moment, and when a hooded and bound figure appears from thin air in front of him, dispatches him with a future-shotgun (or as the film calls them, a “blunderbuss”). Criminals of the future, you see, use outlawed time-travel technology to send their victims back to be murdered in the past, leaving no trail and no evidence in their own present. It’s Joe’s job to dispose of these people, receive his pay, get blasted on synthetic drugs, and while away his meaningless existence. Until, that is, his next job turns out to be himself. We learn from Joe’s narration that the reason hitmen like him are called “loopers” is because at some point in the future, when their usefulness to their bosses has run its course, they are sent back in time to be killed by their younger selves. This is called “closing the loop,” and has a nasty way of severely restricting your lifespan. You don’t realize it’s your older self until you rip off the hood and see your future-face, and by then you’ve already filled it full of lead. So when Joe sees an unhooded, not-tied-up old guy materialize in front of him – and realizes he’s wearing his own face – he freezes in shock, which is all the time Bruce Willis needs to knock him the dickety out and escape. Thus does the plot hit the gas and get going.

These are the big questions I was talking about: what would you do if you met your future self? Would you trust them? They know more about you than you do, after all. What would you do if they wanted you dead? Alls I knows is, if my future self was Bruce Willis, I’d do all I goddamn could to stay alive as long as possible. Who’d wanna miss starring in The Fifth Element?

Other stuff happens, namely a shift in setting and tone to a rural farm run by Emily Blunt and her mysterious kid. Thanks to the film’s careful tiptoeing around messy time-travel details, Johnson is able to tie everything into a neat little violent bow for a very satisfying ending. The film is shot through with references to other legends of film: the first act is a Blade Runner-style future noir, which shifts to an almost Sergio Leone western feel for the stuff at the Kansas farm. I even spotted numerous scenes which reminded me powerfully of Akira, which, for those erudite few who’ve seen it, should send shivers of savage glee up your spine.

Looper‘s technical aspects are top notch, with wonderfully reserved special effects, great sound, and refreshingly sparse cinematography. Of particular note is the makeup, because Gordon-Levitt is done up the whole time to look like a young Bruce Willis – something my friends found jarring, but which I didn’t mind at all. It helped that after five minutes of watching I forgot what he normally looks like, and it must be said that his effort to move and sound like Willis paid off awesomely.

There are some other great performances, particularly Jeff Daniels as a good-humoured mob boss, Paul Dano as Joe’s fellow looper and full-time twitchy bastard Seth, and Pierce Gagnon as the creepy little kid. He looks like he’s about 5 or 6, but they establish that he’s supposed to be 10. I don’t understand how children this young can be so compelling on screen; you’d think they’d have a hard enough time interrupting takes to go potty, let alone emoting on a competitive level with these big Hollywood stars. Good on him.

Looper earns its R rating and I’m glad of that – if you know me you know I absolutely despise when censorship gets in the way of an engaging story, and that isn’t an issue here. Looper also proves the validity of this viewpoint by keeping the violence intense, but scattered and infrequent; it serves the story instead of the other way around, and that’s how it should be done. In that sense, it’s a great sci-fi film. In the other sense – the fact that the action sequences are balls-out badical – it’s a great edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, too. Apart from a slightly saggy pace towards the climax, it’s taut and exciting throughout.

Go see Looper. It’s a fantastic genre-mashing movie with a smart script and grand ideas, and that’s really all you can ask from big-budget sci-fi.

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One Response to “Threepenny Thursday – Looper”

  1. Jim CEO October 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    Jojo, did you hear about the NY movie critic who got a little confused about the chronology in her review, and had to print a clarification/correction in the paper? She found it a little confusing. That says more about her than the movie. ;).

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