The Philosophy Of Looper: Exploring Identity Through Time

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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Comments (8)

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  1. Well said Jonathan. Perhaps the best thing I’ve read on the film yet.

  2. Very good analysis. I still have one pervading thought that you touch upon regarding the malleable versus fixed aspect of time travel and how altering the present can affect the future. While very convincing and logical, there is no definitive proof that Old Joe killing Sara prevents Cid from becoming the Rainmaker. How, in a world such as the one they were living in, do we know a more gruesome fate does not befall Sara, a fate that Cid witnesses? Yes, the Rainmaker does target loopers but, at the same time, he is a scourge on the entire world. The truth is, we can only hypothesize the events that transform the damaged CId to something greater and more evil. It’s one of those things I love about time travel movies and the conundrum they often create.

    1. shutupsays:

      I agree 100%. We are never presented with the conclusion of what becomes of Sid; but it leaves us to paint the future in our own image. We are presented with the fact that the child is capable of great evil, coupled with the paradox of time travel and nurture vs nature, gives us many variables to ponder. Was Sid on the path to great evil regardless? Is there anything Joe can do do prevent the future horrors? The fact the story ends so open is probably the main reason I like it; the conclusion can be painted by my emotions the day I watch it.

  3. Guestsays:

    This is excellent writing. I am considering writing a seminar paper on Looper for my Philosophy BA. Your analysis was thought provoking and helpful. Thank you.

  4. This is excellent writing.

  5. Kaylahsays:

    This analysis is awesome. I have to write a paper on this movie and you helped me to greatly understand the more philosophical points of it. Great job!

  6. Wade Wilsonsays:

    I really do not want to go on a rant here though i most certainly could do so, however I personally found the concept of the film to be absurb riddled with needless BS (why not teleport people into volcanoes? Why needlessly involve other people?That aspect of the plot was just stupid), the time-travel weakly writen (the scars appearing and limbs disappearing was pretty funny) and quite possibly the lamest use of telekenesis I’ve ever encountered (I could go on forever…).
    It’s too bad, I kept hearing good things about this film but the flaws were like sore thumbs stabbing me in the eyes… impossible to ignore.

  7. Afshin Nejatsays:

    It is not a bad shot, kid. But real philosophy goes much deeper than this. It is much more extreme than hashing abstractions through the lens of an artistic fantasy, or vice versa. You will find out, perhaps the hard way, that REAL philosophy is much more intense, and has consequences much more absolute. For an exercise in this sort of philosophy, come close to death a few times. If you don’t have the luxury of doing that, see if you can validly “speculate” upon it with such intensity as to vicariously come close to the real thing. If that should happen, and it inevitably will with or without your provocation, then you will know the real meaning of Socrates’ words. Until then, back to your books, because you haven’t even gotten the gist of them them yet. Stop reading Locke and start reading Zhuangzi, then you might have a chance. Otherwise… your fate is sealed.

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