Timey Why Me?: Rian Johnson’s Looper – Blu-ray review
A film that puts the ‘why me?’ in timey-wimey, as Johnson remixes the genre’s elements to put the onus on the human factor.
(Rian Johnson, 2012)
The most interesting thing about Looper isn’t the fact that it’s a time travel movie; it’s that the time isn’t now. Just about every one of the genre’s modern classics –from The Terminator to 12 Monkeys to Primer – is/was a contemporary tale, but Rian Johnson loops the loop well into the future, specifically between 2044 and 2074. It’s a crucial distinction because it prevents the film from falling into the cliché that the future will be awful. Here, the film’s ‘now’ is already awful enough, thanks, putting the onus more firmly on the ethics of time travel.
So having dreamt up a fascinating application of time travel – hitmen hired to bump off unwanted baggage from the future – Johnson wonders what kind of a world the ‘looper’ would have to live in to see this as a valid lifestyle choice. His 2044 has the flying bikes and designer drugs that all movie dystopias must have, but in every other way, it’s a grimmer version of the present day, rife with vagrancy and looting. A cross between Blade Runner and Children Of Men, if you like.
And with it comes Joe, a product of this lousy system who takes the job because it allows him to own flashy cars and not think too much about his peers. Strip away the sci-fi conceit and this is a withering look at mercenary psychology; even his victims are anonymous – hooded, handcuffed, very Abu Ghraib. Put the sci-fi back in and Johnson asks searching questions about redemption. When the older version of Joe arrives as a would-be victim, he looks at what he once was and shudders. Time has healed him, he reckons… but the redemption of a lost soul is a very different thing from standard ideas of morality.
Johnson cleverly fast-forwards through the thirty year gap to show how the older man’s ideals, while commendable, are still founded on his shallowness and selfishness. No wonder that old Joe’s agenda proves so problematic: he intends to kill the tyrant in his era while he’s still a boy… in order to safe the world. In film buff terms, he’s Kyle Reese and The Terminator, and the moral certainties of James Cameron’s classic are swept away.
Something about time travel suits Willis – see 12 Monkeys – but admittedly a lot of the work here is done by Joseph-Gordon Levitt. While the prosthetics are distracting, the fact that Johnson has gone to such extremes to marry the physique and personality of his two stars highlights the importance of continuity. Crucially, though, Gordon-Levitt brings shades of character that Willis has arguably never had, nailing Brucey’s cocky squint but giving it a coldness and amorality that, say, John McClane never had.
This is fascinating stuff for a film that has billed itself as a sci-fi action thriller, in which Bruce Willis kicks ass, because most people don’t expect to see Bruce Willis gun down a child in cold blood. Even the climactic set-piece as he exacts payback on his enemies is driven by a cold desperation; it isn’t exhilarating but painfully cathartic. Choices really do matter in this film – Johnson borrows the old Bill and Ted gag about leaving messages for yourself and gives it a nightmarish twist as an man is compromised by the torture of his younger self, the wounds appearing as if by magic on the older version’s body.
And yet: think of this as simply a time travel movie and it’s disappointing. The entire premise – that loopers must kill off their future selves – doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why not just send the target to another looper and retain the services of the younger guy? And, given that Willis is snatched in Shanghai, are we talking about a space/time machine or are we expected to believe that they carried this badass all the way from China to America? But it’s not strictly time travel, and Johnson’s refreshingly versatile response to genre means that the looping is actually a smokescreen.
The core of the story is another sci-fi standard – the Twilighty-Zoney story of a troubled telekinetic kid – allowing Johnson to play to his leftfield tastes with a scaled-down drama about a family, a fella and the fella’s Doppelganger. I’ve read many reviews criticising the latter stretches, but it’s one of the most ambitious tonal swerves since From Dusk Till Dawn. The trick is to realise that everything in the first half is merely setting up the rest. It takes a peek into the future to highlight what’s important in these characters’ lives. It’s not about time travel, it’s about now.