That we understand why everyone is firing their guns in the finale is impressive. That we actually care about who stands on the receiving end is a minor miracle.
Most time travel movies poke fun at the paradoxes inherent in the system, gleefully toying with the impossibilities that come standard with these stories (remember Doc Brown literally tracing the story of “Back To The Future II” on a chalk board?). Here, director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) simply embraces the paradoxes with a straight face and moves on.
That’s not to say those paradoxes don’t exist here too. But Johnson has a story to tell, knows how to tell it, and it just happens to involve time travel. He allows us to feel invested in the story itself, not bogged down by the logic.
Sporting an appropriate amount of frown line make-up, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a “looper” in 2042 Kansas. Time travel will be invented some way down the future and immediately outlawed, leaving professional crime syndicates to use it for easy murders. A person in the future is bound and gagged, sent 30 years to the past, immediately shot dead by a looper and disposed of. No body, no trace.
It seems like an easy job if you know how to report it on your income taxes. The one catch of being a looper is you will eventually have to “close your loop.” Meaning that when your boss in the future decides you’re no longer necessary, your own older self is sent back for you to do in. When this happens to Levitt in the form of Bruce Willis, Willis escapes, and Levitt must decide whether or not killing him is even necessary.
Portraying this sorta distant future, Johnson pulls off the mean feat of making it feel like an authentic, lived-in world. Easy enough (if you can imagine it) to throw flying cars and orgasm booths on screen if your goal is a cheap wow. “Looper” goes the route of Spielberg and “Minority Report” instead, starting with the world as we know it and building from there. Maybe it’s the product of a visionary. Maybe the product of a low budget with no room for special effects. Either way, it works.
What if I meet my future self? How will altering my past affect my future? Is fate on a straight line, or can it be diverted? Such are the questions raised by “Looper,” and such are par for the course with hard sci-fi. Anyone who even uses the phrase “hard sci-fi” could bang out a screenplay with the same basic concepts just as easily.
But the devil is in the details, and it’s in the details that “Looper” roasts other movies that get near it. Most sci-fi movies would be content to use these questions as the excuse for action and let its coolness remain conceptual – it sounds really wild only when you describe the idea, not the execution.
Johnson uses these questions as the CATALYST for action, not the excuse, of which there is a huge difference. Shoot-outs and chases in “Looper” don’t happen just because they’re supposed to in this kind of stuff. They happen because they evolve from the scene before, which evolved from the scene before, and so on. And in the meantime, he gives the characters room to breathe and talk to each other, and he trusts the audience to decide how we feel about this.
Key to this success are the performances of Levitt and Willis. Technically they’re the same person and indeed carry some of the same physical traits (a scene in a diner, one of the few that seems to poke fun of time travel paradoxes, highlights this). Surprising, though, that not only do we feel for them, but we do it for entirely different reasons. Both actors do exemplary jobs at playing a character at two very different points in his life, with complex emotions that make it difficult to know entirely who to root for when their guns are drawn at each other.
In a genre especially that is reliant on Big Twists to shake what we thought the movie was about, “Looper” plays its finale shockingly, almost touchingly, straightforward. It’s easy to script an ending born out of plot. That’s just things happening. Much harder to make it born out of character. That requires nuance, depth, motivation, and empathy.
When the final events of “Looper arrive exactly as expected, it’s so much more satisfying than plot twists because it feels earned.
“Looper” on the whole is charmingly old-fashioned in its approach – tell a good story, tell it well, and stay the hell out of the way. This isn’t groundbreaking sci-fi. It won’t rattle the landscapes. What it is is a still-bolder-than-usual tale that actually gives a damn about things.