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.
(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.