Photo: ‘Looper’/Tristar Pictures
Before ‘Star Wars The Last Jedi’ and the extremely profitable mystery film ‘Knives Out’, in Fall 2012 Rian Johnson dabbled in time travel with ‘Looper’, a sci-fi thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe; a skilled hitman for a mob that operates thirty years in Joe’s future. For its time, ‘Looper’ made enough noise to pocket a $176 million profit against its $30 million budget, while also basking in high praise and loud applause from the majority of critics who were impressed by the film’s innovation. Much like the crime organization in ‘Looper’s’ own narrative, Rian Johnson completely retooled and retrofitted the concept of time travel by giving it a much darker, more sinister twist than other movies that attempted to disobey the laws of physics.
In ‘The Terminator’ or ‘Back To The Future’, traveling to the past is often a means to correct some grave injustice done to our heroes, used to rectify mistakes while rewarding our noble, courageous protagonists a better future. In ‘Looper’, time travel is stripped of its world-saving ambitions. Johnson corrupts the philosophy behind time travel, putting it in the wrong hands, diminishing the awe and wonder of the time travel trope by reducing it to illegal contraband future criminals use to forward their agenda. These unique elements are just one of the many reasons why ‘Looper’s’ vision of time travel stands out among a tight, crowded hallway of other time travel concepts, and why it remains one of the most fascinating stories I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Here, we rewind time and pay homage to one of Rian Johnson’s most inventive Cinematic pieces to date.
‘Looper’ Reinvents Time Travel
Time travel hasn’t been invented yet in the year 2040, but thirty years later it will have been. According to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe, who cautiously escorts us into the world of ‘Looper’ with a somber voice-over monologue, time travel will be immediately outlawed around 2070, thirty years into Joe’s predetermined future. Joe tells the audience, almost as a warning, that time travel will only be used by criminal organizations as a means of assassinating targets captured by the mob, since 2070 forensics have evolved to the point where it’s virtually impossible to get away with murder.
So the mob sends their unfortunate victims back in time to be murdered by Loopers, which are hitmen employed by the mob of the future to properly execute and dispose of these targets in a more crime accommodating era. But Joe also warns us, in case there are any aspiring Loopers in the audience, that time travel is so illegal in 2070 that eventually this criminal organization will send these Loopers, retired and humbled by old age, back in time to be killed by their past selves to erase any traces of their connection to the organization. What a Looper can’t do, under any circumstances, is let their future selves get away, because doing so will only put their own futures at grave risk.
The story sets off when Joe accidentally commits this unforgivable sin when his future self, played by Bruce Willis, escapes his clutches, and Joe must hunt down his older counterpart or else suffer the wrath of his angry employers. It’s a trippy, surreal story with grand ideas that Rian Johnson is able to compact as neatly as he can within the film’s time limitations, because unlike a ‘Tenet’ or ‘Predestination’, Johnson’s ‘Looper’ is determined to avoid getting tangled up with the intricacies of its time travel. It doesn’t ignore its own rules, but it slightly dismisses them with a handwave, if only to rest the majority of its attention on the film’s emotional story arcs. “I wanted it to get to a very emotional place at the end,” Johnson said in an interview with DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood. “So it was important that the time travel did its job, and then kind of took a back seat and let these characters deal with the situation.”
A Captivating Story With A Dark Heart
What stops ‘Looper’ from being your average B-level time travel flick is its depth. The film is so much more than what it presents itself as in its synopsis and trailers, and the longer you stick with ‘Looper’ the more it lets its guard down and eventually opens up. Apart from its thrilling script, ‘Looper’ embodies many Neo-Noir qualities that contribute to its fascinating world-building. Joe is the template protagonist for most movies in the Neo-Noir genre. He’s flawed, selfish, far from a good person but not evil enough to come across as irredeemable.
The world he’s in is pure corruption, ran by criminals who wield their power openly and proudly, and you get the impression that innocence and altruism in ‘Looper’ is a long-dead and fossilized ideal. Even the city ‘Looper’ takes place in comes across as a lost cause. In the 2040s, the future looks worse than our present. The city seems eroded and malnourished, the sky is always grey, homelessness surrounds Joe’s environment like a horrible infestation that’s gotten out of control. Ironically, it’s as if your average citizen doesn’t really have a future outside of crime.
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‘Looper’ also throws its two cents in the neverending Nature vs. Nurture debate, an argument that’s been waging philosophical wars almost as much as the chicken or the egg question. There are several times throughout the movie where slight glimpses of Joe’s past are being alluded to, not through elaborate flashbacks, but through quick dialogue that paints half a portrait as to what Joe’s childhood might’ve been like, and lets the audience paint the rest. Johnson focuses on the backgrounds of other characters as well, examining the effects their pasts had on their present, and if tweaking events even slightly might result in an entirely different outcome for his characters. It’s not necessarily a morality tale, but an exploration of morality, and how much of it is already hardwired into our DNA from birth.
But what Bruce Willis’ version of older Joe reminds us is that, as mature as Levitt’s Joe is, he’s still young enough to where he hasn’t grown into who he’ll eventually become. So it’s no wonder how when old Joe confronts his younger self, old Joe comes across as more of a father chastising his son for the myriad of mistakes he’s either made or he’s about to make. The dynamic between old Joe and young Joe is where the film excels, as old Joe sees his younger self the same way the viewer might see him. Self-absorbed, stupid, these are all words old Joe uses to convey his disappointment in his earlier mishaps.
In the beginning, old Joe appears to be the wise mentor steering his combative, less rational self down a more positive path. It’s an easy trope to fall into, and a trap that Johnson expertly avoids. In ‘Looper’, just because a person grows older, or is up there in middle age, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve achieved Sainthood. Growth and old age isn’t always synonymous with maturity, and as ‘Looper’ moves forward, the movie plays around with old Joe’s own morality. You begin to wonder if old Joe is as selfless or as mature as he thinks himself to be.
It’s uncanny how much Joseph Gordon-Levitt channels Bruce Willis in ‘Looper.’ Levitt’s face is dressed up in prosthetics to help him resemble the ‘Die Hard’ superstar, but even without the prosthetics, it would’ve been difficult not to see Bruce Willis in Joseph Gordon Levitt based on Levitt’s performance. From nailing down Bruce Willis’ cadence, to his mannerisms and facial expressions, one of Levitt’s greatest feats in this film is wiping the audience’s memory of him, and fooling you into thinking that you’re truly watching a young Bruce Willis on screen. With old Joe, Bruce Willis is back in top form. He’s weary, bitter, and heartbroken, but he’s stern and conveys the unwavering conviction of a man in his twilight years. Willis doesn’t play old Joe as a typical tough guy because he’s not a typical tough guy.
When the movie calls for old Joe to show action hero bravado, Willis, who reinvented the action genre with his ‘Die Hard’ franchise, delivers. But old Joe isn’t just a gun-toting hitman in the vein of John Wick, and the sadness that follows old Joe requires a much deeper, emotionally invested performance that Willis is able to honor. Combined, Willis and Levitt are fascinating to watch playing two sides of the same Joe. Jeff Daniels is frightening as Abe, a high-ranking mob boss whose calm demeanor and suave charm make the sinister nature behind the character that much more menacing. ‘Looper’ doesn’t focus on Daniels’ Abe too much, but when he is on screen, it’s hard not to feel the mounting tension that Daniels is able to create with a simple glance. Daniels may be used sparingly, but he makes the most out of Abe every time he’s on-screen, turning what could’ve been a very by the numbers mob boss in less capable hands into one of the most memorable personalities in the movie.
Emily Blunt gives the movie its conscience as Sara, a farmer living on the outskirts of Joe’s decaying city whose only goal is to live a peaceful life. She gives the movie another angle for viewers to look at with her performance, helping the movie reach new heights that it might not have been able to touch strictly functioning as a sci-fi thriller. Her sensitive, compassionate character is a nice change of pace for ‘Looper’, who up until her introduction had been mostly shadowing Joe and his friends, hardened assassins who encompass male bravado and selfish pride. Blunt exhibits a fierce yet gentle strength as Sara, she’s cautious to the point of appearing cold, but when that coldness is out of the way she conveys a beautiful warmth that you get the feeling is sorely lacking in Joe’s world. Blunt makes the character hers, balancing Sara’s ferocity and empathy in a quiet performance that completes ‘Looper’s’ growth and enhances the story it’s trying to tell.
By now, many have seen ‘Looper’, but I can’t help but feel it’s a bit underrated or underappreciated for both its imagination and its approach to time travel. Unlike some other time travel movies like ‘Back To The Future’ which have been ingrained into American pop culture, ‘Looper’ remains one of those films that has been kept alive through strong word of mouth and a persevering reputation. Upon its release, it was one of the most original movies that came out in 2012 and has since stood tall as one of the most original movies of the 2010s decade.
Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, Emily Blunt
Written and Directed by: Rian Johnson
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