A film review by Craig J. Koban October 4, 2012

RANK:  #3


2012, R, 119 mins.


Joe: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Old Joe: Bruce Willis / Sara: Emily Blunt / Seth: Paul Dano / Abe: Jeff Daniels

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

Time travel has been literally done to death in science fiction films over the years, but it has rarely been used - as a main storytelling device - as cleverly, intricately, and inventively as it is in Rian Johnson’s LOOPER.  In a relative age when we think that we have seen just about all that a genre like this has to offer, along comes Johnson’s film to forcibly wake us up out of numbing complacency.  What he does here is not easy: He crafts a futuristic temporal-jumping and mind-bending science fiction tale that’s unreservedly fresh with its inherent material and combines that with brilliant and thankless performances, highflying and breakneck action sequences, Hitchcockian thrills, and an ingenious climax that packs a resounding wallop and makes you ponder all that transpired beforehand. 

LOOPER is in the great tradition of contemplative, ideas-based science fiction in that it sets up its premise with a steely-eyed precision and headstrong confidence and then meticulously executes it to the point where we don’t seem to doubt its authenticity.  Time travel films can often fail when they get too bogged down with the normal pratfalls of paradoxes, whereas others ignore them so much that it becomes a headache-causing distraction.  LOOPER miraculously finds a middle ground between the two: it acknowledges the implications of paradox and deals with them in a forthright manner, but it also never dwells on them.  Even the film’s characters speak towards this during many of its self-aware and sly moments, as is the case when one relays to another “This time travel crap…it just fries your brain like an egg.” 

As for the film’s premise?  It’s a real humdinger.  Ostensibly, LOOPER takes place in the hellish dystopian world of 2044 Kansas, which looks not too unlike Kansas of today, but just more sprawling with human decay, mass poverty, homelessness, and sprinkles here and there of technological innovation.  By the 2070’s time travel becomes a reality, but the mafia solely controls it.  Since it’s seemingly impossible for them to dispose of a body of a target in the future, the mafia has concocted a wickedly shrewd manner of getting rid of their enemies: they bind, gag, and blindfold their prey, zap them back to 2044 where they are instantly met by special assassins known as “loopers” that immediately kill them and rid the world of any trace of them ever existing.  Pretty dang nifty.



When loopers finish their assignment – they are paid with bars of silver strapped to their victims – they await their next job.   When the mafia wants to end a looper’s contract, they send back the 30-year-older version of the looper back to 2044 to be killed by his younger self, which is known as “closing the loop.”  Since the target is always blindfolded, the looper never knows if he is indeed killing his older self, but he does find out afterwards: gold instead of silver bars attached to the target indicates a closed loop (what a hauntingly convoluted and problematic way of earning a living).  One looper in particular, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is damn good at his job.  He works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), who has been sent back from the future himself to oversee looper operations in 2044 (this leads to the film’s funniest line of dialogue: When Joe confides in Abe his desire to eventually retire to France, Abe matter-of-factly retorts, “I’m from the future.  Trust me…avoid France and go to China!”).  Joe makes one blunder: he protects a fellow looper (Paul Dano) that decides to not close his own loop, but after he turns him in Joe discovers that his next assignment is closing his own loop, which pits him mano-a-mano with his three-decade-older self (played by Bruce Willis).   

Young Joe hesitates on the hit, and Old Joe capitalizes by knocking young Joe...or...himself...out cold.  Young Joe knows that if he does not kill…his older self…that Abe’s goon squad will indeed exterminate him.  Old Joe, at the same time, has his own plans: The future leader of the time-travel controlling mafia – known as (paging John Grisham) “The Rainmaker” - has caused all kinds of personal pain for Old Joe in the 2070’s, so he deduces that if he kills him as a boy in 2044 that it will change the future for the better.  Old Joe hones his list of potential targets to three boys, one being Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who lives with his farmer mother, Sara (Emily Blunt).  Young Joe comes to meet Sara and the boy, but he initially could care less about them: all he wants to do is close his loop, but Old Joe’s plans causes great ethical difficulties.   

Imagine all of the potential complications of meeting and confronting your older self from the future.  Johnson stages a bravura scene in a diner where young and old Joe sit down and speak to one another, during which they ask each other questions that just about any of us would if we were in their highly unique predicament.  Ultimately, though, both are driven by their own pragmatic motives: Young Joe wants to finish off old Joe, but Old Joe can’t kill his young self because that would make him cease to exist, even though he must defend himself from young Joe to finish his own twisted plan.  Gordon-Levitt may seem like the least likely young stand-in for Willis, but he's caked with remarkably restrained makeup to – over time – convince us of the credibility of him being a younger version of Willis.  Over time, Gordon-Levitt’s increasingly and deceptively subtle performance makes him eerily come off as a thirtysomething Willis.   

Gordon-Levitt is as self-assured and compelling as he’s ever been in a film, who has to evoke a morally dicey persona (he’s a cold blooded killer and drug user) that has to later – and authentically - morph into a meditative and protective hero, of sorts, to Sara and Cid (no easy task).  Willis has the trickier role, I think, seeing as he initially comes across as a deeply melancholic, but inwardly determined man driven by a past – or should I say future? – love that will do anything – including murdering helpless and innocent children – to change his future for the better.  It’s easy to hate Old Joe for his motives, but it only makes for a vastly more problematic and multi-faceted antagonist for the film, which further establishes and accentuates the moral ambiguities that typify LOOPER’s usage of time travel.  Old Joe’s actions seem hellishly cruel, but logically sound at the same time.  After all, just consider one of the oldest of time travel conundrums: if you could travel back in time and murder Hitler as an infant…would you? 

The other side performances are just as evocative and strong.  Blunt – superficially at least - may just be the hottest farmer in film history, but she’s not just here for pure window dressing.  She plays her staunchly independent minded and take-charge homesteader with a raw nerve and backwoods tenacity that I’ve not seen from the actress before (she’s never been so simultaneously tough, sexy, and vulnerable in a role).  Sara is also obsessively protective of her son, not because she knows that he’s a target for extermination by a driven man from the future or that she knows what’s to come of her boy, but rather because (a) she’s a mother and (b) she and her son both have secrets to keep from everyone around them.  It becomes alarmingly clear as the film progresses to its explosive finale that Cid is not a completely innocent and defenseless young lad. 

One thing needs to be said of the look of LOOPER.  Too many modern sci-fi action thrillers are wall-to-wall with eye-popping CGI and splashy visual flourishes.  Johnson is not concerned at all with eye-popping special effects or ostentatious artifice as he gets by on the power of his cool ideas and ceaseless creativity.  LOOPER never lets its visuals and effects crowd and overwhelm the picture, but rather they shows us glimpse of the two futures with a thrifty attention to detail that makes these environments feel familiar and otherworldly at the same time.  Johnson rarely makes the landscapes of 2044 or 2077 sleek, refined, or convulsing at the seams with opulent technology.  his less-is-more approach here lets us focus more on the character dynamics and the thought-provoking issues afoot in the film.  How wonderful is it when a sci-fi film’s production design and effects compliment the story and acting and not compete with or overwhelm them? 

More importantly, Johnson can officially join the upper echelon intrepid, resourceful and highly creative directorial elite with LOOPER.  His first film, BRICK, was a virtuoso original – a hardboiled detective noir homage set in and around modern high school characters.  His second film was the stylish, breezy, and inspired conman caper film THE BROTHERS BLOOM.  LOOPER cements Johnson as a filmmaker of remarkable imagination and fearless ingenuity.   He delivers an infectious and refreshing hodgepodge of futuristic sci-fi with old school action intrigue and further marries that to a time travel narrative that revitalizes the premise in ways few other similar genre films have.  LOOPER is easily the best sci-fi film since INCEPTION and is far and away the best film of 2012 thus far. 

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