A Review of Looper

Looper is the best science fiction film since Source Code, and among the best films of 2012.

Looper is a film that reveals much about humanity and their perception of fate. Would a man knowingly destroy himself for the sake of the world? Or even a few measly dollars? It’s often been said that humans are the only species that care about what will happen after we die. Looper takes this question and manages, not only to create an entertaining action film, but a film with deep philosophical implications.

In the year 2044, the economic depression in the U.S. has gotten substantially worse. Many people live on the streets, and basic items have become scarce. Time travel has not yet been invented, but it will be in about thirty years. Yet it is outlawed in the future and mostly used by organized crime syndicates as a form of glorified assassination. Whenever they want to eliminate someone, they will zap somebody back in time and that person will immediately be killed by a “looper.” Loopers are referred to as such because their last hit will always be their future selves. This way, the mob in the future can deny any knowledge that they are using time travel.

Sorry about all the background, but it’s necessary.

Anyway, one such looper is named Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt), perhaps in reference of Clint Eastwood’s character in A Fistful of Dollars. Joe dreams of traveling overseas with the money he is earning from the hits. When it comes time to close his loop by killing his future self (Bruce Willis), it goes wrong. Old Joe escapes, and Young Joe goes on the run from his mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) who is looking to undo the damage. Young Joe hides on a farm being run by Sara (Emily Blunt) who lives there with her young son Cid. But Old Joe is also looking for Cid, as he believes the child will grow up to be a dangerous mob kingpin named “The Rainmaker” that is responsible for the death of his wife.

Like Rian Johnson’s film Brick, Looper is a film with an absurd premise that seems destined to unravel. Brick, for those who don’t recall, was basically born out of the idea that “high school kids talking like Dashiell Hammet characters sure would be fun.” But it managed to an exquisitely crafted noir that holds up well to its predecessors. Looper was seemingly born of an equally simple idea: “what if we had an old star and a young star playing the same action hero?” Levitt’s make up job (that makes him look like Alec Baldwin) shows the commitment to that idea. And many lesser filmmakers would have stopped there, expecting the spectacle would lead to success.

But the filmmakers realized there was a larger discussion to be had about fate here, even in terms of the modern world. Every day, we hear endless discussions about how obesity is skyrocketing – and how people are essentially killing their future selves for current pleasure. And every single monster in the media has been analyzed by pop psychologists with a relentless determination not found in the actual field.

Both of these elements of modern life are addressed in Looper, to great success. After all, all of the great pulp science fiction writers know that no fictional work about the future is ever about “the future.” But  the larger question, one that has been plaguing humanity since the beginning of time, is the question of fate. Can humans really control what they will become? Looper manages to present the question and be rather ambiguous. Yes, it does lead to some confusing moments late in the film – how does memory work if people are changing their minds? And why don’t more people try to run, especially if they know what will happen to them? But they are minor points, and they work to address the film’s theme. With a timeline that is so flimsy, why not have the characters be confused about what happened to them? Why not have them hold two memories of the same event?

The fact that all of these moments are presented in such a glossy package makes Looper very attractive. It would work as a superior action film. Levitt’s impersonation of Bruce Willis is quite convincing, and the child actor playing Cid is phenomenally creepy; in fact, I’d label Pierce Gagnon as that standout of the film. Even the supporting characters (including one assassin who wants nothing more to do than impress Abe) are well defined and not just pieces of meat that exist to have bullets sink into them. The visual design is confident in its approach, managing to balance our vision of the future with the poor economic reality of our present. Most “brainy” filmmakers forget to address the basics, figuring they’ll attract people through their lofty ideas. Johnson knows differently. It will make the film very popular.

I wonder if people are willing to watch smart science fiction.  Source Code turned a profit in the U.S., but still only grossed about $54 million. Battleship grossed about ten million more in its domestic run. Hopefully Looper manages to prove me wrong. It is a film that is far loftier and more intelligent than it has any right to be. And, it never becomes weighed down by its ambitions. The B grade magazine writers of the fifties and sixties, who were also far smarter than they ever let on, would be proud of Looper’s accomplishments.

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