“Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been.”
Perhaps you have noticed that this is the third film in a row in which time travel plays a large role, and I must admit it’s not a coincidence. This week Movie Lottery has been temporarily abandoned due to another project and, as a result, my brain has been well and truly fried. Time travel is a complicated business with a long and varied history in cinema; Looper is the most recent film to attempt to unravel the confusion that goes hand in hand with travelling through the fourth dimension and, while its inspirations are obvious, it stands out as an intelligent thriller and a welcome addition to the genre.
In 2077, time travel is invented and immediately outlawed. Because of the difficulty in disposing bodies in this time, criminal gangs exploit the illegal technology for their own benefit, sending their marks back to 2044 where young men known as “loopers” promptly dispatch them. They do so in exchange for bars of silver, knowing that one day their target will be their future self. This auto-homicide/suicide is known as “closing the loop.” Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such assassin, whose present existence is threatened by the arrival of his future self (Bruce Willis), who arrives unbound and unmasked, and manages to escape.
Time travel is always going to be problematic, and thinking logically about the theoretical, paradoxical nature of it inevitably reveals inconsistencies and problems. Writer-director Rian Johnson wisely does not go into specifics: as Old Joe says to his younger counterpart, “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” The question then becomes whether the time travel is consistent within its own logic and, for the most part, Looper is successful. Of course there is room for debate, and there are plenty of online forums still engaged in complicated discussions, but Johnson instead concentrates on the direct physical and psychological impact of the travel, and it’s here the film is most interesting.
While it would be easy to discuss, in great detail, the complexities of Looper, it would simply take too long. Suffice to say now, Old Joe’s arrival in Joe’s present raises a number of fascinating points. Old Joe is Joe, but with the benefit of hindsight, while Joe cannot accept that Old Joe is his future. “It happened to you,” he says to Old Joe. “It doesn’t have to happen to me.” Yet both mind and body are inextricably linked, as demonstrated earlier in the film through the demise of Joe’s friend and colleague Seth. Having also letting his future self escape, the brutal, horrific consequences are dire for them both. It’s one of the most uncomfortable, harrowing scenes in the film; so little is actually shown, but Seth’s systematic dismemberment and its direct affect to Old Seth is both gruesome and unsettling. What is not immediately obvious, though no less disturbing, is the mental alterations accompanying the physical, as thirty years of Old Seth’s memories are rewritten.
Visually, Looper is a triumph – like Serenity (2005), the future is still recognisable; towering, gravity-defying skyscrapers and hover-cycles share space with old buildings and rusty cars. It’s a dystopian, cynical view of the world, shared by so many other films of this sort, from Twelve Monkeys and The Terminator (both obvious influences), to the likes of Idiocracy. Humanity’s future is bleak, apparently. Yet standing in direct contrast to the harsh, violent city is a rustic, old-fashioned farmhouse, the home of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her ten-year old son Cid, and it is here that both Joes’ paths converge. After the action, violence and complicated time travel theory of the first half of the film, Looper changes pace and direction midway – a fact the marketing chose to conceal. It’s less of a twist than an unexpected turn, in which the science-fiction of time travel is side-lined, with telekinesis, a “mutation” that was previously mentioned but dismissed as a mere parlour trick, becoming central. This decision adds a new layer of intrigue onto Looper, and brings to mind the excellent Scanners; one death in Johnson’s film plays out like a macabre, slow-motion re-imagining of Cronenberg’s iconic head shot.
Having previously worked with Johnson on Brick (2005), Gordon-Levitt continues to impress, the film’s biggest point of contention is not the philosophy of time travel, but of a prosthetic nose. Attempting to make the two Joes resemble each other, the onus is placed entirely on the younger actor – Willis’ appearance is unchanged, and his performance essentially a repeat of so many he has done before, but Gordon-Levitt is almost unrecognisable. Whether such drastic alterations are really necessary is debatable (the two Seths look nothing alike, but this in no way diminishes the horror of their shared destruction), but after the initial distraction, the strength of Gordon-Levitt’s performance is such that his nose and brow can be overlooked.
In recent years there have been a number of stand-out science fiction films, proving that even an existing concept can be re-interpreted in new and interesting ways. Looper stands firmly among them; Johnson has taken a well worn idea and created something that is intelligent without being overly pretentious and, equally importantly, consistently entertaining.