Looper, directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, Emily Blunt.
Rian Johnson’s third feature, following his wonderful debut Brick, and 2008’s disappointing con-man fairytale The Brothers Bloom, is his largest, most ambitious to date, featuring a captivating central performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Looper follows Joe, a hitman in 2044 whose job it is to assassinate undesirables sent back from thirty years in the future. He is the eponymous looper, enjoying handsome rewards and a lavish lifestyle with one catch: eventually he will meet, and be compelled to kill, his future self, played with an appropriate impatience by Bruce Willis. The reward is an early retirement, a big cash settlement and thirty years to contemplate the inevitable. The reason that the future gangsters don’t just send the ex-loopers back to someone else to kill them is never addressed, nor are the various plot holes that present themselves, but it matters little that the film doesn’t concern itself too closely with the minutiae of time travel movie paradoxes. Rather, Looper is at heart a character piece, with both JGL and Willis doing a fine job of bringing pathos and believability to a character who is often so morally reprehensible he makes Rick Deckard look like a boy scout. Granted, it’s a character piece with hoverbikes, retro-futuristic weaponry and one of the best-realised and believable futurescapes this side of Blade Runner, with shanty towns lining the streets as Joe and his pals pass by in their solar-powered sports cars, seemingly indifferent to the extreme poverty surrounding them.
|The future looks none too bright for Joe|
Indeed, Looper’s most effective scene is the tense discussion between young Joe and his future self in a 1950s-styled diner. When young Joe, effectively standing in for the audience, asks old Joe how the time loop works the older man just tells him he doesn’t want to waste time having to draw diagrams with straws. It’s not why they’re meeting, and it’s not why we as an audience are watching, either. Johnson seems acutely aware that films like Looper, with complex premises and plots, are often susceptible to those enemies of narrative economy: needless exposition and unnecessary voiceovers. The director plays with both these clichés, first by beginning Looper with a voiceover from JGL, only to drop it before bringing it back at the end; referring both to the conventions of film noir, and to the rightly-maligned voiceover narration that was hastily put together for Blade Runner’s original theatrical release. Second, the frequent expository discussions between characters are often interrupted mid-explanation, leaving us with just enough information to get through without ruining the film’s singular sense of momentum.
It’s that sense of momentum, built up in the first two acts, that keeps things compelling in the final third, where the action slows in favour of developing the relationship between young Joe and Sarah (spot the reference), played by the ever-reliable Emily Blunt. Another bugbear of big action cinema, the shoe-horned love interest, Sarah and Joe’s reluctant friendship gives us just enough decent characterisation and well-placed plot developments to maintain emotional interest, even if we all know where it’s going. Moreover, it’s in this section that old Joe goes into full Terminator-mode, going after a hit-list of children (yes, children), knowing that one of them will grow into the man who will murder his future wife. It’s one of Looper’s greatest strengths that it borrows so heavily from the sci-fi canon without ever feeling derivative. The casting of Willis is an obvious homage to Twelve Monkeys, and the final act plays almost identically to the early scenes in James Cameron’s seminal time-travel yarn. Just as he did with detective movie Brick, Johnson blends a mixture of the familiar to make something that feels new and refreshing, though it’s fair to say that despite its emotional depth, Looper lacks the intellectual complexity of many of the works to which it pays tribute. In addition, and without spoiling anything, the ending feels just a little too neat and tidy, and while there’s little point in picking apart plot holes in this sort of film, there do seem to be one or two that could have been tightened at the scripting stage.
What with Neill Blomkamp's District 9, Duncan Jones’ excellent Moon and Source Code, Chris Nolan’s Inception and now Johnson’s Looper, it seems that intelligent, single concept science fiction has surely returned to mainstream cinema. Where, for example, Jones’ recent triumphs felt like callbacks to the meditative sci-fi of the 1960s and 70s, Johnson’s entry in the genre is in many ways a tribute to the science fiction of the 1980s; movies that blended big ideas with bigger action. Though undoubtedly a smart film, Looper doesn’t match up to Cameron or Ridley Scott’s best work, and at no point is it at as groundbreaking as either The Terminator or Blade Runner. Nor is it as audacious as Paul Verhoeven’s extravaganza of violence, Total Recall. But consider this year’s remake of that film, widely considered a bland, flat and pointless retread of Verhoeven's original. Then consider Johnson’s film. Flawed, yes, but full of personality and ambition, not to mention giving us another great turn from JGL, finally in a leading role after playing second fiddle to the DiCaprios and Bales of Blockbusterville. While lacking the intellectual heft of the films to which it aspires, Looper is still challenging, engaging, and one of the most satisfying sci-fi movies you’re likely to see this year.