Skip to main content

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.


Looper
(2012)

(SPOILERS) Expertly structured and enthrallingly directed, Looper nevertheless comes up slightly short by failing to fully explain its internal logic. The admittedly entertaining scene between Bruce Willis and his younger self Joseph Gordon-Prosthetic in a diner half explains the realities of altering the timeline but clearly also thumbs its nose at going into any detail on the conventions adopted here. While Back to the Future Part II etched out its theory with the aid of a blackboard, Willis essentially informs us that it’s all a bit complicated and what we’re really here is for the thrill of the ride.


And it is a thrilling ride. Rian Johnson blipped a bit with the enjoyable but slight Brothers Bloom. This is back up to the level (if failing to surpass) of his debut Brick, which Gordon-Levitt also starred in. He plays with narrative in a manner entirely appropriate to the material; the repetition of the Looper’s daily routine of blowing away the victims sent back from the future, the sudden, initially disorientating pitch into the timeline experience by his Willis self. And his skill with escalating tension marks him out in a genre that is too often only interested in overblown visuals instead of storytelling. He knows the best way to tell this kind of story is to keep the audience guessing, attempting to put together the pieces of the puzzle. And even when those pieces are connected there is still the question of how events will resolve themselves.


Johnson’s low-tech, dystopian future is effectively conjured on a limited budget. With the emphasis on decayed cityscapes and dust belt countryside, it’s not a particularly appealing 30 years hence. The sparingly sprinkled future tech (including hover bikes that have functionality issues – the visualisation of these is the one area that the limited budget is obvious) works in a “necessity is the mother of invention” manner, while taking its cues from behemoths like Blade Runner and Brazil. Although the location shooting in China received a lot of press (originally planned for France, as is referenced by the plot) it remains only a tantalising glimpse of the 2070s.


The action sequences are staged with the confidence of a master, when they appear. The centrepiece sees Willis taking on that Gat HQ, and it’s a rousing moment. As mentioned, the bike scenes are less effective.


In terms of missteps of execution, I’d suggest that Johnson only goes awry with the presentation of the Rainmaker. Introducing telekinetic powers as a plot device is dubious enough in itself; with recent movies like X-Men and Push covering the subject  comprehensively, you should probably only go there if you have something new to say with the concept. To this credit, Johnson seizes on a classic SF philosophical conundrum and has the balls to run with it (if you knew a child would grow up to be Hitler, could you kill that child). But his over-emphasised choices for representing said child “hulking out” are close to derisible and certainly derivative. All starey-eyes and psycho close-ups, you’d be forgiven for thinking this had suddenly become a Stephen King adaptation, or a ‘70s De Palma film (or both). The visual effects are solid (floaty objects and people) but it feels a little like Johnson has over-egged the pudding. He was doing so well with his characters and nugget of philosophical enquiry up to the point of Damien child. What follows rather overpowers that richness that preceded it.


Then there’s the time travel. The early sequence of Paul Dano’s older self realising what has befallen his younger version is outstanding, and quite horrific. It does a good job of explaining the time travel conceit adopted here, even if that conceit doesn’t stand up to a great deal of enquiry; any change in the character’s “present” will take effect on his future self in a parallel time frame. So Dano gradually finds himself limbless, while Willis blinks out of existence instantly. Johnson takes a very direct approach; the protagonist remains at the centre of events that do not account for the butterfly effect ripples each and every action may result in. Which is understandable, as he needs to tell a coherent story. Nothing is fixed, except in terms of that which is central to Willis/Levitt in that instant; thus the directions Willis has etched onto his arm occur instantly, but whatever future that has been lived differently between Levitt as he is in the present becoming Willis is never accounted for (for example, wouldn’t the antagonists deal with the situation differently knowing the different course that Looper-Levitt took?)


And, when we reach the climax, the paradox seems accepted but never addressed. Which is a cheat for a film with this premise. Willis can blink out of existence, but shouldn’t the timeline he interfered with also change? Shouldn’t he never have come back because he never would have existed. It throws up the same kinds of questions that Terminator and Back to the Future did before it, and the journey it takes us on is engrossing, but ultimately it comes up short in never satisfyingly showing its smarts by wearing its paradoxes on its chin and addressing them. Johnson says that he decided to commit to the effects of time travel, the paradoxes and the way it alters the world. But a flawed narrative convention doesn’t become less flawed through repetition. Apparently a lot more explanation was originally included in the café scene, but it was decided that it wasn’t need. At that point, maybe not, but since Johnson admits that old Joe’s theory was that if he had succeeded he would never have been sent back (and what happens at the end essentially means Joe could never have been sent back), something further than a shrug and “What do you expect? It’s a paradox” would have been gratefully received.


Another thing I wondered about, purely from the perspective of the premise; How long does this operation run from transplanting criminals from the 2070s to the 2040s? Let’s say it began in running around 2030 (Levitt was a kid when he was first recruited); would that make the first time it was used in the future 2060? It seems like the timelines run in parallel (they don’t keep sending hits back to the same year), so would you eventually reach a point where Loopers are being employed in 2060, with hits sent back from 2090? Which would make no sense. Most of it doesn’t when you try to interrogate it. Also, surely it would be more logical not to send a Looper back to be hit by his younger self; get another Looper entirely to whack him and there’s significantly less chance of it going wrong.


The performances are all-round excellent, Gordon-Levitt in particular gets the Willis tics and makes the prosthetics, which seemed like an encumbrance in the trailers, seem very natural. Willis gets to do his hard man act, which is always fun to see, but also really sells a man pushed to the point where he will kill small children in the name of love. Strong supporting work too from Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels.


Looper’s up there as one of the most accomplished films I’ve seen this year. I can’t fault it in its exploration of the same character 30 years apart, in some respects having grown so much wiser but in others still flailing about with misplace values and principals. In that sense the resolution chosen by Johnson is both satisfying and appropriate. But the film as a whole falls short by assuming an audience will merely be satisfied with the time travel element as window dressing, and that hitting the marks as a character study and thriller excuses it from internal coherence. 

****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…