The Philosophy Of Looper: Exploring Identity Through Time

By Jonathan R. Lack On September 30th, 2012

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On Friday, I published my largely spoiler-free review of Rian Johnson’s Looper. After seeing the film, I felt very strongly that the core essence of Johnson’s narrative should not be revealed to the viewer beforehand, which made it difficult to discuss the film in any true depth. But Looper absolutely deserves detailed critical discussion, so today, I am revisiting the film to dive much deeper into the text, without worrying about spoilers. If you have not seen Looper, stop reading now. This article is intended for those who are familiar with the film.

In my initial review, I described Looper as “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.” What I am referring to, of course, is the part of the narrative I kept out of my review: Young Joe’s relationship with single-mother Sara (Emily Blunt) and her telekinetic son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). It plays into the larger narrative – Old Joe wants to kill Cid, who may grow up into the fearsome Rainmaker – but Johnson treats much of this material as character study, building relationships gradually and permitting his actors time to evoke complex, challenging emotions.

It certainly isn’t the kind of material one thinks of when pondering ‘action sci-fi,’ and that’s exactly what makes Looper so refreshing. It is definitely science fiction, but it isn’t – except in brief, contained bursts – action. The film is a small and intimate morality play, examining the philosophical construct of identity by presenting elliptical patterns of developing personality. Johnson asserts that every action a person takes can be traced back to another action – either acted upon one or executed oneself – and though this is experienced linearly in normal existence, time travel – and the presence, for Joe, of two ‘selves’ – creates circular paths that allow the characters and the viewer to better understand how identity operates.

Philosophy of this sort is, of course, an integral component of good science fiction. The genre allows writers to imagine concepts and scenarios foreign to present-day audiences, and in broadening the narrative canvas, the space for philosophical exploration grows as well. Asking and answering big questions is easier when the situations themselves seem impossibly vast. The beauty of sci-fi is that while its inventive concepts create this sense of enlargement, the action is still typically grounded in a world we can recognize, on some level, as our own (this is one clear distinction between fantasy and sci-fi). By mastering the relatable and fantastic, the artist’s philosophical aspirations are emboldened.

This is what Rian Johnson does in Looper. The premise behind the setting is large and ambitious – time travel, dual selves, telekinesis, and more – but the actual content of the narrative is grounded in terms most viewers are familiar with: Motherhood, child rearing, greed, addiction, etc. The questions posed – about the development of identity and the morality of condemning those who have not yet acted – are narratively rooted in the film’s sci-fi elements, but play out on a more intimate, universally relatable stage.

Those two questions mentioned above are inextricably linked, as our evolving understanding of each constantly informs the other. Old Joe’s desire to kill the wicked Rainmaker as a child is the core moral dilemma, but it is the film’s analysis of identity that gives us the tools to answer – or, at least, ponder – this ethical query.

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