My friend and WGTC Radio co-host Sean Chapman has a theory that science fiction stopped evolving in the 1960s, if not earlier. He posits that there is a finite group of writers who most clearly invented or developed the major sci-fi concepts – H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, etc. – and that in the time since they passed away or stopped providing us with new, revolutionary ideas, nobody has stepped in to take their place. There have been many equally fantastic sci-fi storytellers who furthered the concepts these writers originated, but they have largely worked within accepted genre constraints. We continue seeing stories of apocalyptic futures, technology gone wrong, extraterrestrial invasions, and time travel – and accept them all as basic tenants of the genre – because nobody has come up with the next major sci-fi frontier.
I agree with this to a certain extent, but reject the principle that, even under these constraints, science fiction has stopped ‘evolving.’ Rian Johnson’s fantastic time travel film Looper is proof. Like much of the best sci-fi of the past decade, Looper does not reinvent or revolutionize the genre – or even its specific sub-genre – but instead manipulates and explores some basic sci-fi concepts in new and greater depth. Just as this summer’s Safety Not Guaranteed discussed the human psychology behind time travel fascination, Looper uses fourth-dimensional storytelling to conduct a wildly smart, emotionally charged conversation about the nature of identity and the elliptical patterns of personal evolution. It does not constitute a ‘new’ frontier for science fiction, but it does mark an evolution in what storytellers can achieve when exploring the human element of grand, culturally ingrained futuristic concepts.
With this in mind, Looper’s creative, attention-grabbing premise might just be the least impressive thing about it. The film is set in the year 2044; time travel has not yet been invented, but it will be in just a few short decades, and when it is, it shall be immediately outlawed. Only large criminal syndicates use the technology, and they do so to dispose of enemies. Targets are sent back to the 2040s, at a specified time and place, where ‘Looper’ agents perform the execution and burn the bodies. To ensure Loopers will not cause trouble somewhere along the line, those in charge will eventually send back a Looper’s older self from the 2070s, who the Looper must kill in order to ‘close’ their loop. Once they do, they collect a massive payday and are allowed to live the rest of their life – minus the messy conclusion – in peace.
Confused yet? Don’t worry. Johnson is a master storyteller, and he weaves his narrative with clarity and precision. Certain premise-based particulars may sound complex on paper, but are perfectly simple when viewed in context, especially considering how strongly Johnson prioritizes character over plot. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays protagonist Joe, a 25-year-old Looper caught in a cycle of murder, money, and drugs, and the film is, at heart, a small and intimate morality play for this profoundly broken man.
Or men, if we want to argue semantics, as the action of Looper kicks off when Joe is faced with killing his future self – played by Bruce Willis – and accidentally lets the target escape. Joe’s subsequent hunt for and encounters with Old Joe teach him about the future, force him to reflect on his past, and ultimately presents him with one of the most maddeningly complex moral quandaries imaginable, one I am absolutely unwilling to spoil here. You must discover where Looper goes for yourself, as the true story of the movie – the one barely glimpsed in any of the film’s marketing – is a refreshingly focused and thoughtful human drama that uses time travel not as a vehicle for action or mind-bending plot mechanics, but to ask some vast ethical questions about how personality and identity are forged through time.
I shall not reveal any more than this, for the viewer’s reading of character decisions and developments is an essential part of the film’s equation, and you may be at a disadvantage if you walk in with preconceived notions about what this story has to say. Looper certainly deserves further discussion, and I plan to revisit it in much greater depth with an analytical piece later this week, but for now we shall let the story lie, and move on to discussing the film’s considerable technical merits.
Rian Johnson has always been a wildly adept visual stylist – if you are unfamiliar with his films, perhaps you have seen one of his stunningly directed Breaking Bad episodes – but with Looper, he kicks things up to the next level, imbuing each frame with a quiet, haunting beauty and handling effects shots with nuanced, subdued realism. His future landscape is a wonder to behold, not for the sights it invents, but for its shockingly tangible, recognizable basis. There are some stylistic flourishes – taller skyscrapers, hovering bikes, smaller cars – but for the most part, 2044 is a dirtier, scarier version of our world, where the income gap seems larger than ever and those without means – which is most of the population – are left to fend for themselves. It seems like a natural extension of present-day issues and discussions, a plausible destination for an increasingly ignorant and selfish culture.
A setting this bleak pushes every performer towards dark, fearless territory, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems most eager to dive in head first. The man is arguably best known for playing lovable, ‘wholesome’ characters – which he does spectacularly – but he abandons all that here to illustrate an ugly, lost, and broken soul, wandering the world one from one hit – murder or drugs – to the next. His work is flawless. He inhabits this part as completely as any performer could, filling each movement and inflection with a tremendous amount of thought and precision.
Some viewers may be shocked to see that Gordon-Levitt looks substantially different here, as he’s wearing make-up and prosthetics to look more like Bruce Willis. It is a decision I absolutely applaud. I am often pulled out of the story when two people who look nothing alike play the same character at different ages, and I do not understand why make-up has not been used to rectify this issue before. The effect works flawlessly here, changing Gordon-Levitt just enough that when Willis first appears, we never question that these two men are indeed the same person. Much of the credit must go to Gordon-Levitt, of course, as he adjusts his voice and adopts several facial ticks to match and enhance the make-up.
Willis too is working at the top of his game here, portraying old Joe with a frightening, ferocious intensity. His Joe is a positively relentless force of bitter, angry energy, but the brilliance of Willis’ work is that he never forgets to illustrate the humanity underneath. It is one of his single greatest performances.
Emily Blunt rounds out the main cast in a role I cannot say much about if I am to stay lite on spoilers. Suffice it to say, she is just as terrific as her co-stars, transforming herself to similar degrees and projecting a tremendous amount of vulnerability. The film features several other small but important parts as well, and Johnson has wisely filled each one with truly excellent performers, including Jeff Daniels, Garrett Dillahunt, Piper Perabo, and Paul Dano.
Looper marks a significant step forward for time-travel storytelling. It may not introduce any revolutionary concepts in and of itself – even the central moral dilemma has been dramatized before – but Johnson’s outstanding vision and execution push at the genre’s emotional and psychological boundaries harder than any sci-fi work in recent memory. It is one of the most accomplished films of the year, a must-see cinematic event a little unlike anything I have ever seen before.