Fantastic Fest: ‘Looper’ Throws Studio Sci-Fi For A Loop

By  · Published on September 29th, 2012

Joe (the conveniently similarly named Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, and no, sadly, that has nothing whatsoever to do with stunt piloting. What his profession actually entails is the assassination of targets sent back through time by an organized crime syndicate; the only entity to have access to the highly illegal, but totally existing time travel technology. These assassins will inevitably be one day sent the future versions of themselves in a retirement process known as “closing the loop.” Apparently the gold watch and the store-bought sheet cake was simply far too conventional. When Joe is put in a position to close his loop, he commits the fatal sin of hesitation; setting in motion a fight for his own survival as he seeks to kill himself. That sentence could only ever work in relation to Looper.

For fans of smart cinematic sci-fi, Looper is to be exuberantly inhaled and then let out in a demonstrative contented sigh. Rian Johnson is the director Hollywood needs, even if he’s not the one they deserve right now. This is precisely what we hope for, but have learned to stop expecting from studio science-fiction. Most of these films consider their plots only so far as to fit them into their slick, expensive, Apple Store futures. More often than not it becomes a masturbatory celebration of production design, often, ironically, at the hands of digital effects artists, and/or relentless action that hardly benefit the sci-fi. The concern of Looper is not to sell its future. It takes place not in some distant epoch far beyond our contemplation, but instead resides on point on the human continuum hovering just over the horizon. Johnson has crafted a fascinating story of identity and redemption that is serviced by the sci-fi elements, but not 100% defined by them.

That isn’t to say there is no alteration in the reality we know to account for the leap forward in temporal setting. There is no mistaking Joe-Go Levitt is not wandering the streets of a 2012 metropolis. But what is so perfect about Looper’s construction is that the techno advances are used sparingly and unobtrusively. When they come into play, it’s to expand upon on the otherwise slight core concept of a man trying to kill himself; Looper’s short film root. The speculative science and even fantastical devices are entirely utilitarian and weave together a number of different genre tropes into one unquestionably sci-fi tapestry. That organic techno modesty is echoed in the fact that Rian Johnson’s future still features agrarian landscapes; nice to see a farm now and then to break up the repetitively sterile environments that seem to be the standard.

There’s a subtle nugget of universal truth in the central conceit of Looper. No matter how we gauge the adults we’ve grown to be, we all of us would love the opportunity to go back in time and enthusiastically bitch slap our younger selves. The shit-talking that takes place between Old Bruce and Young Bruce is microcosmic of nagging regret, of capricious youth later found guilty of squander in the court of hindsight. Plus, Young Brian wore Jnco jeans; bitch slap thoroughly overdue. Joesph Gordon-Levitt is exceptional as Young Bruce (or Young Joe to be more accurately accurate). He’s not simply doing an impression of Bruce Willis as he is balancing personal character creation with simultaneously presenting the specter of another character’s past. Bruce Willis seems unusually strong here, both physically and in terms of performance, and Emily Blunt’s many layers are captivating. Nearly stealing the show from JGL however is six-year-old Pierce Gagnon as Cid. The command of the role exhibited by this pint-sized thespian is frightening…but in the best possible way.

There is something about Looper that reminds me Back to the Future Part II. Gee, could it be the time travel? Quiet you. Actually, it’s a similarity in mechanics that yields a bizarre, but interesting visual construct. In Back to the Future Part II, Marty goes back not only to the literal past, but the franchise’s past as well. We watch him watch established scenes from the first film from a far less cinematic angle. It offers a perspective that allows the audience to feel more connected with the material by getting a strange sort of backstage view of the story. Looper employs an identical tactic with one very crucial scene, and what’s remarkable is that it works to equal effect as it did in BTTF II without an entire previous film worth of canon to call upon. The suggestion here is not that Rian Johnson is borrowing from Zemeckis, but as the only other time travel film in recent memory to employ this function, it’s interesting to note.

When you get right down to it, there are so many things that work about Looper that it’s hard to find things that don’t. One could argue the logic of Looper’s time travel mechanics, but that’s about as useful as arguing the internal physiology of unicorns. Time travel is fantasy, all that matters is internal consistency. Looper stays steadfast to its own rules. There is even a comically apt scene in which Bruce Willis growls at JGL that he doesn’t want to talk about “time travel shit.” If anything could make an audience suspend, or wholly abandon, disbelief and enjoy a film, it’s Willis menacingly barking an order at them to do so.

The Upside: Gritty action sequences, striking visuals, and a superbly clever script. One of the better sci-fi films of the last decade without breaking a sweat.

The Downside: For those who need all time travel mechanics to abide by strict rules of real-world logic, you’ll find things to nitpick.

On The Side: Joesph Gordon-Levitt is under miles of makeup, including a fake nose, to more closely resemble a young Bruce Willis.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.