Director/Screenplay – Rian Johnson, Producers – Ram Bergman & James D. Stern, Photography – Steve Yedlin, Music – Nathan Johnson, Visual Effects Supervisor – Karen Goulekas, Visual Effects – Atomic Fiction (Supervisor – Ryan Tudhope), Base FX (Supervisor – Christopher Bremble), Hy*drau*lx (Supervisor – Chris Wells), Incessant Rain Studios, Pixel Magic (Supervisor – Ray McIntyre Jr) & Scanline VFX (Supervisor – Michael Mielke), Special Effects Supervisor – David Nami, Prosthetic Makeup Effects – Kazuhiro Tsuji, Makeup Effects – Mike Elizalde, Production Design – Ed Verreaux. Production Company – Endgame Entertainment/DMG Entertainment.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Joe), Bruce Willis (Old Joe), Emily Blunt (Sara), Noah Segan (Kid Blue), Pierce Gagnon (Cid), Jeff Daniels (Abe), Paul Dano (Seth), Piper Perabo (Suzie), Garret Dillahunt (Jesse), Summer Qing (Old Joe’s Wife), Tracie Thomas (Beatrix)
It is the year 2044. Joe works as a looper for a criminal organisation. Thirty years in the future, it has become difficult to dispose of murdered bodies and so the syndicate has hit on the idea of sending the people it wants to eliminate back in time to be killed in the present. Loopers get good pay but it is excepted that one day they will be sent back to be eliminated by their younger selves and destroy all evidence of their activities, thus closing the loop. Joe is startled when one of the targets who emerges from the future is himself. The older Joe promptly turns the tables and flees. The present-day Joe is treated as an outlaw by his paymasters and sets out to hunt his older self down as a means of earning his way back into the organisation’s good graces. The older Joe explains to him that in the future he will meet an amazing woman who will cause him to sort himself out and settle down. However, she will then be killed by the hitmen of the mysterious Rainmaker who has taken command of all the crime syndicates of the future and started closing their loops. The older Joe only has clues leading to the Rainmaker’s time and place of birth. To Joe’s horror, his older self starts eliminating the children born on that date. A wounded present-day Joe takes refuge at the farmhouse of Sara who is the orphan mother of Cid, one of the children that his older self is hunting. As Joe begins bonding with Sara and Cid, he must face both his older self come to eliminate Cid, as well as his paymasters who seek to kill both of them.
Looper is a time travel film that became a modest hit due to a good deal of favourable word of mouth. It is the third film for director-writer Rian Johnson who has previously gained critical acclaim with the high school film noir pastiche Brick (2005), which also featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the conman film The Brothers Bloom (2008). On the basis of Looper, Johnson was hired as the director of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and subsequently went on to make the whodunnit Knives Out (2019).
Looper falls somewhere between two other popular time travel hits. The most obvious of these is The Terminator (1984). Looper is almost the reverse of The Terminator – where The Terminator had a present-day woman being hunted by a killing machine from the future seeking to eliminate her because of the child she will give birth to that will grow up to lead the resistance of the future, Looper turns everything on its head and has a present-day killer trying to eliminate his future self who has come back to kill a child that will come to dominate the future.
At the outset, Looper seems like another time travel film that promises to be an action film. The imagery brings to mind conscious association with Westerns and 1930s gangster films – the Loopers carrying ‘blunderbusses’ and referring to themselves as ‘gat men’, while the setting of the latter half consciously evokes the Depression dustbowl era.
On the other hand, while Looper seems set up to be an action-chase movie, this rarely materialises. It is that relative rarity in this era of a film that is not driven by massive explosions and CGI effects – the latter are there to create the portrait of the future but are largely unobtrusive – but the turnings of its plot. There are shootouts and showdowns but these are rarely what Looper is about – mostly it is a cerebral science-fiction film that hangs on good old-fashioned notions like causal paradoxes. The film it comes far closer to than The Terminator is the previous Bruce Willis vehicle Twelve Monkeys (1995), which wove a dextrous mandala of plot twists out of the problems associated with travel into the past and knowledge of the future.
Looper is not a perfect film. It is uneven at times, takes several peculiar doglegs of plot and changes of pace and tone that leave you wondering where it is going. It flaunts the rule of good conceptual science-fiction – that a work should involve one major concept and be based around the extrapolations of that – and piles other ideas on top of the basic time travel premise involving mutations and psychic superminds. The good part about this is that it is not afraid to go out on a limb and be unpredictable. It is one of the few multiplex films where you can say that you could never easily predict where it was going to go. It becomes to Rian Johnson’s credit that he does take these chances, seems to staggers off course at times but manages to recover and wind them all together with considerable ingenuity.
This is a time travel film with brains. Most time travel films require a conceptual challenge but not all manage to stand up to it. There are those that simply have fun with the culture clash – Back to the Future (1985) and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989); others that simply use it as an action scenario – a host of films that came out in the wake of The Terminator; others that dumb down or avoid the possibilities – The Final Countdown (1980), Millennium (1989). Not all of the films hold up to the challenge – some works like Timecop (1994) leave massive continuity holes.
Looper can be said to be one that does stand up well. There is a considerable excellence of writing to the scenes where Rian Johnson whips us through Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s future life as Bruce Willis in about five minutes flat or where Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis face off in a cafe where he tries to impart the wisdom of the years and how his life changes to his younger self. I also liked the conceptual cleverness of a film that manages to cast one character several years apart and have either version of himself play both the hero and the villain of the film, each operating with perfectly reasonable and rational reasons for doing what they do – Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to eliminate his older self and preserve his life, while Bruce Willis wants to eliminate The Rainmaker and preserve the life he found for himself in the future.
Looking through the IMDB comments section for Looper, there seem a lot of haters for the film. One of the things they leap on is the claim that it doesn’t follow its own logic and solve its paradoxes. These comments baffled me, for I felt for once this was a film that actually did think its continuity and causal paradoxes through.
One bit that did bug me early on – the same bit that bugged me about the slowly erasing photos in Back to the Future – was the scene where the older version of Paul Dano runs through the streets, slowly collapsing as the gangsters cut off his fingers and limbs one at a time. If in the past his limbs had been cut off then surely they would always have been cut off in the future, his memories of this would also be changed and it would seem that that is always the way he would have been. However, this is very nicely justified in the cafe conversation between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis where Willis talks about having fuzzy memories that slowly coalesce into place as Gordon-Levitt’s actions are made. It is a logical and rather clever way of getting around the inherent paradoxes.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has done a fine job in emerging from the annoying spotty-nosed kid in tv’s 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) to become a serious actor in recent years, all as a result of Rian Johnson’s Brick and other films like (500) Days of Summer (2009) and becoming a Christopher Nolan favourite in Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). He does a fine job as hero here even if the makeup designed to make him look more like Bruce Willis seems unnatural at times. Bruce Willis brings out the good old Bruce charms and is in familiar territory.
Emily Blunt makes a good showing – I was so used to her peaches-and-cream Englishness that I never guessed it was her having stepped into the role of a woman who looks like an Okie out of a Depression Era drama. It is also nice to see Jeff Daniels – who became familiar in light comedy parts but has faded in prominence this side of the 00s – take on a role that gives him something to sink his teeth into as an actor. The scene-stealer of the film gets to be the young unknown Pierce Gagnon as the spookily prescient child who makes a strong showing in the last third of the film.