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

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .