The year is 2044, thirty years before the invention of time travel. A voiceover tells us that as soon as time travel is invented it’s outlawed, but the most powerful criminal networks in the world continue to use it. So Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. Loopers are essentially hitmen, but not the Joe Pesci variety who sneak into your house and shoot you in the back of the head. No, they just wait in a field for a target to be sent back to their time. When the target arrives the looper blasts him away and the body can’t be found in the time in which it belongs.
Targets arrive in a kneeling position. There’s often a hood over their heads and their hands are tied behind their backs. After killing the target, a looper strips the unfortunate soul out of his jacket to find his payment strapped to the body. Typically the payment comes in the form of silver bars which can be cashed for age-appropriate currency. But there’s a reason we call these hitmen loopers: when the future employers decide to retire a looper, they send the future looper’s self back to be executed by his younger self. When a looper finds gold strapped to a body he knows he’s been retired in the future and he essentially killed himself. It’s called “completing the loop” and the main character tells us people in his line of work aren’t exactly forward-thinkers.
If this sounds needlessly complicated then that isn’t a fault of the film. It does a better job explaining in it five minutes than I can in a few paragraphs. Why would someone decide to get a job with such a lethal retirement plan? When we see that Joe lives pretty well in a future where very few people are well-to-do, we can see the attraction of the looper’s job. The real question: Is looping really as clean and effective as Joe makes it out to be? Satisfactory answers to that question aren’t prominent, but that’s the fault of the two-hour movie format, not the movie itself.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know this much: Joe’s future self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back and Joe fails to kill him. You probably expect a cat and mouse game between the two characters. It’s not. It’s more like a cat, mouse, dog, and tiger game in which timelines and alternative realities twist and tangle like pasta. While there is the occasional paradoxical plot hole (the fault of time travel movies in general, not the movie itself), the film is as close to a classic science fiction novel as you can get. As long as the trailer is the only introduction to Looper you’ve had, twenty minutes into the movie you’re going to realize it’s nothing like what you expected. So as not to spoil the fun, I won’t mention any more of the plot.
Obviously I’m a huge fan of science fiction (see: this blog), but what I’m usually not a fan of is Hollywood science fiction. The last absolutely great one was Minority Report, a film I actually disliked the first time I saw it because it was yet another mangled Philip K. Dick adaptation. Well, there was District 9, too, and I must say Duncan Jones’s Moon and Source Code certainly fit the bill of “real science fiction.” Those are really the only recent standouts I can presently think of. I’m thrilled to say Looper stands among them.
Writer/director Rian Johnson actually tops Brick, a film I went absolutely crazy over. He presents us with a dystopic future, but it’s one that we’ve never seen before. Sure, most people are living in poverty, there are flying motor cycles, and giant, futuristic skylines, but the brushstrokes are of a variety we haven’t seen before. There are hints that Joe’s city situation isn’t the same all over the world. When Emily Blunt’s character is introduced, we see that some people live very well indeed. So there’s a lot of dark stuff in this movie, but it isn’t bleak and it’s never completely hopeless.
Another creative decision I applaud: people from the future don’t appear with all the CGI bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern film. They just appear in crude stop-motion, as if Barbara Eden nodded her head on I Dream of Jeannie.
Early on there’s a movie death that’s absolutely chilling despite the lack of blood and on-screen violence. There’s also a few places I absolutely could not believe a modern Hollywood film would go, moments which remind me of a scene in… well, I better not say, but it was a western, not a science fiction film.
Jeff Daniels is in this picture. He’s a bad ass. At first you believe he’s the main villain of the picture. Then you think someone else is the main villain. After you’re given a few more possibilities, you finally give up trying to figure it out. Looper doesn’t give a shit about movie standards that came before it. It really is like nothing you’ve ever seen and either you like that kind of film or you don’t.
People keep griping about how movies were so much better in eras prior to this one, but I’m not sure this film would have been made in any other time. I’m not sure it could have been made in another time, either.