The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5
“A STITCH IN TIME TRAVEL”
Great sci-fi movies are far too rare; rarer still are great sci-fi movies about time travel. I think this is because time travel is something so far beyond our comprehension that it’s nigh impossible to “do it right” in film. As a character in Looper says, “This time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” (Which is why piece of crap time travel films like Deja Vu appear in movie theaters on a much more frequent basis than artful time travel films like 12 Monkeys.)
Unlike time travel, something like telekinesis, which also appears in Looper, might not exist in reality, but we can pretty well imagine how it might work and what it might look like. With time travel, it’s anyone’s guess–and whichever theory you adhere to, there are still inherent paradoxes and conundrums. This is why many time travel films try to have it multiple ways, and end up not making logical sense. They’ll change their own rules mid-stream, or come up with absurd ways around them that try the viewer’s patience or belittle the viewer’s intelligence. For the most part–with an exception or two that I won’t go into so as to avoid having to issue a spoiler alert before this review–Looper in my estimation plays by the rules it sets up for itself, and pretty much plays it straight. It’s portrayal of time travel works (as much as any decent portrayal of time travel works), mostly because the people behind the film have chosen to remain vague on both the mechanics of time travel and the implications of it in the world of the movie.
There’s a scene in the film where two characters (who, yes, are the same character)–Old Joe (played by Bruce Willis) and Young Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a prosthetic on his face to make him appear more Willis-like)–sit across from each other at a diner. Young Joe is full of questions about time travel and how it works. Old Joe says, “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” In this scene, Old Joe might as well be Looper‘s writer-director Rian Johnson, and Young Joe would then represent us. As inquisitive viewers, us Young Joes want to know how it all works, this time travel hokum, but Johnson asks us not to overthink the particulars. He just wants us to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. And, for the most part, I did.
Yet while Johnson remains vague on the particulars of time travel, the story itself is fairly straight-forward. In 2044, time travel doesn’t exist yet, but there are hitmen called loopers who get sent back marks from a future time where time travel does exist. They kill their marks immediately upon their arrival back in time, and thus dispose of the victims in a way that wipes them from their present (the future of this future). In that future, some 30 years beyond 2044, time travel exists, but is illegal. This is why the only people coming back to 2044 are people sentenced to death–and not by any future government, but illegally by the mob. So Young Joe, our protagonist, is one of these loopers, and thus a mob hitman. One important side note: loopers are expected to kill their future selves when their contract in the future expires. This is called “closing your loop.” But when Old Joe is sent back to 2044 from the 2070s for Young Joe to kill, something goes awry, and he ends up on a mission to stop a young boy from becoming “the Rainmaker” (a mysterious villain in the future who is closing all the loopers’ loops).
It’s The Terminator flipped on its head–instead of a heartless machine from the future coming back to stop a kid from becoming the savior of humanity, a supposedly decent man from the future comes back to stop a kid from becoming the Rainmaker (the assumed villain of the future). My one problem with this plot is that the only thing we really hear that the Rainmaker does is “close the loops” of the loopers (i.e. stop criminals from sending their victims to the past to be murdered and wiped from existence). Umm, is it me or does the Rainmaker not seem so bad? Or at least not any worse than the pretty bad system that is already in place where mob bosses send back people to be murdered? There are other aspects of this though, and they include telekinesis, which has popped up in the human species, independently of the invention of time travel, and adds another ripple to what is otherwise, like I say, a fairly straight-forward, if complex, plot.
And so this lack of ambiguity in the plot seems disjointed from the ambiguity in the plot device (time travel). This was perhaps my biggest disappointment in the film. It’s not necessarily an objective flaw, but it personally left me wanting. There were all sorts of possibilities I had been cataloguing in my head while viewing: Could this character from the past be this other character in the future? Or could they have some other odd relationship? Could the identity of the Rainmaker be flexible? Do we absolutely know it is who Old Joe thinks it is? I wanted a lot of these questions–which halfway and even three-quarters of the way through the film lingered–to remain open, unanswered, mysterious. But much of the film’s ambiguity is erased in the lead-up to the final showdown.
Immediately after viewing Looper, I went home and checked out some online message boards to see if fanboys had any bizarre theories complicating the plot. Some were hocking the initial possibilities I had envisioned in my head while watching. The problem is that the film, if it doesn’t actively disavow any possibility besides the straight-forward reading of the plot, definitely punches holes in any major alternative theory I’ve heard, read, or tried to come up with myself. The story is exactly what it appears to be, and I guess that’s just fine. I suppose I just wanted something more. Or something different. And I had these high expectations because Rian Johnson is such a genius filmmaker, and one who usually seems to court ambiguity.
Rian Johnson is one of the under-the-radar auteurs to watch of this next generation. Though I think Looper is his worst film thus far, it is less a reflection on my viewing Looper negatively (which I don’t at all, hence the four out of five reels) and more a reflection on how phenomenal I think Johnson is overall. His first film, Brick, is thought of by many critics to be one of the best debuts of the last decade; and his second film, The Brothers Bloom, though less critically acclaimed, was one of my top five favorite films of 2009. Even if I claim that Looper is his worst film, it’s still one of the best time travel movies of the last decade. In recent years, it’s only this and the Star Trek reboot that I can think of that really do the time travel sub-genre justice.
Looper is a film written and directed by Rian Johnson. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. In 2074, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to ‘close the loop’ by transporting back Joe’s future self.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Tristar Pictures
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film Still from Looper, Photography Courtesy of Tristar Pictures