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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It’s not every day you see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents – by himself.

Gemini Man (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ang Lee seems hellbent on sloughing down a technological cul-de-sac to the point of creative obscurity, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis enmired himself in the mirage of motion capture for a decade. Lee previously experimented with higher frame rates on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, to the general aversion of those who saw it in its intended form – 48, 60 or 120 fps have generally gone down like a bag of cold sick, just ask Peter Jackson – and the complete indifference of most of the remaining audience, for whom the material held little lustre. Now he pretty much repeats that trick with Gemini Man. At best, it’s merely an “okay” film – not quite the bomb its Rotten Tomatoes score suggests – which, (as I saw it) stripped of its distracting frame rate and 3D, reveals itself as just about serviceable but afflicted by several insurmountable drawbacks.

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You’ll just have to face it, Steed. You’re completely compromised.

The Avengers Season 6 Ranked – Worst to Best
The final run, and an oft-maligned one. It’s doubtful anyone could have filled Emma Peel’s kinky boots, but it didn’t help Linda Thorson that Tara King was frequently earmarked to moon over Steed while very evidentlynot being the equal Emma and Cathy were; the generation gap was never less than unflatteringly evident. Nevertheless, despite this imbalance, and the early hiccups of the John Bryce-produced episodes, Season Six arguably offers a superior selection of episodes to its predecessor, in which everyone became perhaps a little too relaxed.