Looper is consistently clever and surprising, and almost as consistently great. Yeah, I know: “The trailer didn’t look that interesting!” “Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face looks weird and nothing like Bruce Willis!” “They give away the whole plot of the movie in the trailer!” Shut up and go see it.
I figured I knew what I was getting into. At best, it’d be the movie I’d wanted Primer to be: a lower-budget experiment inspired by thoughtful 70s sci-fi, with tons of variations on time travel and paradoxes and what happens when you encounter your past self. At worst, it’d be what the trailer implied — high-concept sci-fi that fails to deliver on the potential of its premise and just becomes another mediocre action movie, like last year’s In Time. (Or I guess even worse: it’d be like the actual Primer: so tedious that it managed to suck all the enjoyment out of time traveling).
In reality, though, Looper delivers on all of the expectations of the high-concept premise — in case you’re not aware, hit men are forced to kill mob victims sent back from the future, and one of the hit men is assigned to kill his future self — while simultaneously side-stepping everything that could make the high concept tedious.
It’s clever throughout and surprisingly funny — one of the advantages of having a great cast who are all used to doing comedy and know exactly how to under-play it. It presents a cerebral brain-twister that could form the entire set-up of a different sci-fi movie, then relegates it to the background. It goes from action to melodrama to humor to shocking bursts of violence. And even better, it understands how much more effective implied violence can be than any amount of gore.
For the first half, it felt like an engine that was ceaselessly churning out more high-concept ideas. In fact, during one of the most memorable scenes of implied violence, I was starting to worry that the movie was burning its fuel too early: “In this one sequence, you’re using up all the weird implications-of-time-travel material you’re supposed to be saving for the climax! What are you guys thinking? You’ve still got at least an hour of movie left!” But Looper made it clear that it was just getting started. “Please. You really think we haven’t all seen Timecop?“
I’ve generally liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but more for his enthusiasm than anything else; he always seems to be completely committed, sometimes to the point of trying too hard. Here, the performance is almost entirely invisible, and the effect is uncanny. The make-up still doesn’t quite work, but his mannerisms are dead-on: if you see just a still frame, you’ll wonder what they could’ve been thinking; but when you see him and Willis together, it’s completely believable. Speaking of that, Bruce Willis gives a good, generally understated performance; and Jeff Daniels manages to be funny and intimidating at the same time.
Everybody in the cast is great, to the point of being eerily good. And like the movie itself, they all seem to start with the idea that we’ve all seen this stuff before, we know how it works, so there’s no point in acting like any of this is a major revolution. The story they want to tell just builds from there.
The only reason I’m not mentioning more of the cast is because going in, I had no idea who was in it other than Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Daniels. And Looper definitely benefits from knowing as little as possible going in. So everything else goes after a major spoiler warning.
Neo Kansas City Is About To Explode
Of course I realize now that it’s not really a time-traveling mob movie, but I’m impressed by how well the reviews and hype kept the movie’s second half unspoiled. I was worried that they were using up all of their time-travel ideas in the first half, because I had no idea that the second half was going to turn into a live-action Akira.
Plenty of clues were there, in retrospect, but I’d thought the mention of telekinesis was going to be just another case of tossing out a sci-fi concept and then relegating it to set-dressing without belaboring it. Like the vagrant wars, or the narcotic eye drops, or the old beat-up cars all converted to solar power. A subtle reminder, like hover bikes and a crop-dusting robot, that we’re in the future, and a future that manages to still look like our present is somehow even more bleak and dystopian than anything Blade Runner could deliver.
Emily Blunt was pretty much perfect; her performance was so believable I almost wished I hadn’t recognized her, so I’d have been left in the dark as to whether she’d become a Significant Character. And the little kid was fantastic as well; he was eerily good at being eerie.
There’s a sense of effortlessness in the performances; even the melodrama feels natural and realistic. Combined with how casually the movie tosses out and mashes up science fiction concepts, it grounds the movie in a world where the fantastic is commonplace, so the emotion can come back to the surface. Hover bikes, time travel devices, and even telekinesis aren’t going to fundamentally change human beings any more than smart phones and flat-screen TVs did. People still feel lost.
I’ve only got one problem with Looper, and it was almost significant enough to blow the entire movie for me. During the climax, as Sara gets shot, Joe starts a voice-over, describing how he suddenly realized it was “one big loop,” and he has a vision of the boy, now orphaned, boarding a train and riding by himself.
Wait, what?! I thought. Are they actually saying that the little boy grows up to be Joe? That doesn’t even make sense! The timeline doesn’t match up! The boy’s 10 years old; he’d remember his mother, and he’d remember meeting his adult self! And wait… that means Joe slept with his mom! While I was preoccupied trying to figure out the logistics of that whole scenario, I missed the weight of the climax.
Normally, I’d think that was just a case of me being dense, my own version of the “Oh, the apes had their own Statue of Liberty!” moment. But everywhere else in the movie, those brief cut-aways were used to indicate that Joe had a sudden memory of an altered timeline. It was never used to show Joe imagining a possible future. It still seems like a case of the movie breaking its own rules, and it’s unnecessarily confusing.
One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t pander; it never acts as if it’s blowing the audience’s mind with a new idea, and it never expends too much effort making sure the audience is following along. When a movie doesn’t insult my intelligence, and then makes me feel dense, it’s frustrating.