I feel I should preface my review with some articulated self-awareness, since I know my history of film and TV evaluations tends toward the extremes. Put simply, I do not post commentary on work that leaves me feeling indifferent, or even work that only mildly rouses my admiration or ire. I invest writing time in being a passionate advocate for or against a particular aesthetic and its outcomes. I have strong opinions about some films more than others, and I am quite cognizant that these opinions seem to come with greater frequency when a film makes me think about how I might write the script itself.
This is a double-edged sword, because I know very well the common wisdom asserting that writers are most critical of works they feel they might have written themselves. But I also know that this practice keeps me honest about my criticism: many a time I have watched a film and been bothered by a particular plot device or character, but after wrangling with different configurations in my head, realized I have no good “fix” and consequently shut up about it. And then there are instances when I have been so thrilled with a work I simply could not imagine improving upon it to any significant degree–and those are the works to which I give unabashedly high praise.
At the heart of these divisions is, I think, a simple premise: I believe that if I am going to criticize some element of someone else’s writing, I should be a) forthright about it, in a forum that allows for open discussion and blunt disagreement, and b) able to present a viable alternative. This is what I did with Prometheus, in the form of a one-week script-rewrite challenge, and this is what I am interested in doing with Looper. However, my reasoning is different in this case: I think Prometheus was a failed movie, but I do not believe the same of Looper. I just think Looper tangled with a lot of big ideas that were in many ways limited by the commercial necessity of its form, and I would like to test an hypothesis of mine: that the ideas in this film would be better represented as three short, connected films.
So that’s what I’m going to set about doing (although quite possibly not at the same pace as Prometheus, because I have other writing on the go and it would be really nice to get something published soon). In the meantime, a review of the film in question wouldn’t hurt, right?
Three of my favourite time-travel films, La Jetée (1962), Primer (2004), and Timecrimes (2007), focus with quiet precision on a single ethical consequence of their sci-fi plot device, and do so to intense effect. Rian Johnson’s Looper makes no such modest claims; rather, it seems to broach every possible issue arising from time travel, and adds another, X-Men-esque plot device to the fray.
The result is a film with some powerful cinematographic choices and often wry scripting, as well as a great deal of hand-waving, stiff transitions, and major plot-holes in the world-building. Another difference between this film and that other, more modestly scoped calibre of time-travel flick is that this film emphatically dismisses the importance of details relating to its central conceit. (Indeed, Bruce Willis, as “Old Joe”, explicitly drives that point home by slamming his hand down and asserting that all questions pertaining to the logistics of time travel simply do not matter.)
The titular time-travel issue is by far Looper‘s most novel: the idea that future mafia would send an intended hit back in time to a “looper” who would finish the job and dispose of the body, knowing that eventually said looper would be expected to kill his future self. (Why elaborate body dumps even need to be protected by “closing the loop” when the future is apparently run by a brutal dictator who gets away with mass executions of vagrants and the like… is something the film does not expect you to think about too much.)
The consequences of such a situation play out in a few different ways for the first third of the movie, after which our protagonist Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ends up in pursuit of his runaway future self, Old Joe. Here a different time-travel crisis emerges: the maintenance of future memories, an issue that asks what young Joe owes to his older self, and foregrounds the branching nature of life and memory in a world where time-travel is possible.
This in turn gives way to a third, very familiar time-travel crisis, around which the X-Men-esque plot device figures largely. Let’s call it the “Would You Kill Baby Hitler?” question. This issue is addressed in two very fleeting fashions: while Old Joe ends up briefly exploring the “how far would you go, how many would you kill to be sure?” side of the equation, Joe plays a rather passive role in the vicinity a mother’s extremely understated struggle to rewrite destiny. Sara (Emily Blunt) and the child in her care, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), provide engaging performances unto themselves, but there is a strong sense that this aspect of the plot-line is by and large a detour from the film’s original narrative.
There is clearly a great deal of care to much of this film: Gordon-Levitt makes a distinctly good show of adopting Willis’s mannerisms; Blunt conveys a great deal of her character in a few simple theatrical gestures; some of the scenes with Cid are chillingly constructed; the violence perpetrated on another looper, Seth (Paul Dano), as seen through his older self (Frank Brennan), is quite disturbing; and Old Joe’s briefly narrated past-future life (though no opening-scene-from-Up) is believably tender and sincere.
There are also a great deal of throwaways, perhaps the most notable being Kid Blue (Noah Segun), who starts out the film as the token putz to kingpin Abe (Jeff Daniels)… and ends the film the same way. This would be fine if so much screen-time had not been spent on him; as it is, his character is weakly defined (his motivation near the end is particularly unclear) and carelessly tossed aside.
Broad strokes also account for many plot-holes and related, motivational questions, but as this film blatantly relies on chase scenes where bad guys inexplicably hold their fire even at close range, or otherwise prove to be incredibly bad shots, such vagaries are to some extent to be expected. There is one point in the film, when Willis is engaging in a mostly off-screen bloodbath, when you can almost imagine him saying “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!” Looper is no Unbreakable in this regard; it cannot help but exploit audience expectations of Willis as a gun-toting action hero, even as Willis’ character is charged here with much more interesting and discomfiting fare.
As three loosely connected vignettes, I wonder if this film would have been able to address its central ideas more seriously; as it is, Looper delivers a whirlwind overview of time-travel mythology in a range of thematic flavours, but the entertainment value of all its sci-fi pleasantries relies too heavily on not looking closely at the nuts and bolts.