The Many Movies Inside ‘Looper’

By  · Published on October 2nd, 2012

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Looper.

Several hours after seeing Rian Johnson’s Looper, I find the film still rattling in my head. Not because certain moments have resonated with me, nor because the möbius strip sci-fi structure has motivated any existential introspection. Instead, I felt surprisingly conflicted by Looper, perhaps more so than any other film this year. Looper is a film that consists of so many great parts, miles above what most studio genre fare has released this year, yet somehow even the success of these parts didn’t seem to cohere into a resonant whole on the drive home.

What stands out the most about Looper is the emotional and thematic import of the film’s time travel plot device. In situating a young man confronting his aged (and changed) self, a middle-aged man attempting to change course in his life through any means possible, and several evident cycles of fate-determining actions shared between characters, Looper connects its investigation of predestination v. free will to a rumination on how our choices directly effect the lives of others in lasting ways.

The logic of Looper lays out a vision of life that includes many potential options from which we choose or have chosen for us. Here there is no such thing as fate, only opened and closed opportunities, the implications of which we can’s possibly comprehend in the present moment.

One other impressive aspect of Looper is its complex moral compass. When Old Joe (Bruce Willis) finally arrives, his story of personal reform found through true love makes him into the closest character this film has to a definitive good guy opposite Young Joe’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) nearsighted youthful arrogance (which Young Joe shows an incredible self-awareness of through the film’s selective – and, seemingly, beyond-the-grave – narration). We’re given clear reason for Old Joe to succeed and Young Joe to fail. However, any initial impression of Old Joe’s moral superiority is quickly complicated with the reveal that he must hunt children in order to ensure (i.e., alter) the fate of his desire. Morality in Looper is contextual and situational; the actions of both Joes distinguish the way an action looks from what it is intended to be, and the trajectory of these characters play into a greater conversation about means v. an end in relation to the ultimate good.

Can Old Joe do something reprehensible if it means that good is assured in the long run?

With Young Joe’s self-sacrifice, Looper doesn’t necessarily end with an endorsement or clear understanding of what “good” is, but instead highlights the essential nature of chance to exist in order for life to be lived freely. Even in a context in which time travel exists, mistakes should be made, and decisions should be brought to bear unimpeded by the direct interference of circumstances outside the present. Cid (Pierce Gagnon) may still grow up to be a vaguely-defined villain, but Young Joe’s suicide gives him the freedom to make that choice in a world of options where one’s actions are never wholly predetermined. And if actions aren’t wholly predetermined, and we’re in one amongst many possible worlds in which people can potentially make small but significant disparate decisions on a daily basis, then history can be changed. The ending of Looper seems to suggest that history shouldn’t, even for a notion of the greater good. It seems that, in that confrontational diner scene between Young and Old Joe where the stakes are established, Young Joe was right all along in saying, “You’ve had your time, old man.”

But the end product of Looper itself seems to be the end result of a database of narrative decisions that, if chosen differently, could have transformed Looper into one of many – perhaps better – options distinct from the film it is right now. This lingering notion, for me, overwhelmed the experience of viewing this film. Part of the problem is that the narrative universe Looper constructs exists well beyond the film itself. In nearly any other circumstance, to say that the world of the film is built in such a way that it permeates beyond the film itself would be a compliment, like in Ridley Scott’s dystopian Los Angeles depicted in Blade Runner: it suggests a coherent universe that offers many other stories along the periphery from what we actually see. Characters feel like they exist between the scenes in which they’re featured.

However, with Looper, a film about bringing closure to a circle of events (in terms of narrative structure and stylistic framing, circles proliferate in Looper), bringing this intricate and expansive narrative world to a convenient linear close feels reductive, as if the best option of all possible films Looper could be was almost found, but never fully grasped. For a film about closure, too many questions linger: what exactly does Cid’s evil look like in the future, and what does the killing of loopers have to do with telekinetic skill? How is time travel “really illegal” in a near future that seems to have zero centralized regulation of behavior or concern for human well-being? Why in the mid-twenty-first century has telekenesis manifested itself as a nascent superhuman trait? How does a specialized field like time travel become a black market technology? Why do gangsters in the 2070s look like dark pilgrim wizards?

I found the thirty-year flash-forward scene to be one of Looper’s more intriguing, compelling, and stylistically accomplished moments, yet at the same time a great deal of narrative information is prescribed rather than explained or justified. An entire film of its own exists within the few minutes depicted in this rich scenario. Imagine a character lying in wait for several decades prior to his own assured death, going from addict to assassin to redeemed lover. What could Looper be if the film started from this point and imagined the story from Old Joe’s perspective?

Of course, the process of assembling a story always entails selective decision-making. But with Looper, the potential for an alternate film seems foregrounded just as the film itself posits the potential for alternate histories. The film Looper is not seems just as evident as the film that Looper is, and the fascinating components off-screen resonate with comparable volume to the interesting components on-screen. Watching Looper, I felt as if I were Jeff Daniels’s villain, getting information through peripheral sources in the isolation of a small room rather than being given direct access to the big picture.

This, however, may be part of the general, slightly underwhelming state of mainstream science-fiction at this moment. This summer’s hotly anticipated Prometheus, for instance, laid out a buffet of good and bad decisions exercised through a conflict between aspirations of originality and pressures for franchise loyalty. Shared complaints about the film were predicated upon what the film should be in contrast to what it ultimately was. It’s interesting, then, that Prometheus is also a film about bad decision-making which posits the origins of humanity as a mistaken experiment by malevolent science-gods.

Duncan Jones’s Source Code is also a film about alternative realities that can arise through different patterns in decision-making, and in the end this film simply chooses one preferred (if perhaps disingenuous) reality amongst a variety of options. While I can’t help but support the fact that Looper is yet another studio-released sci-fi film that tackles significantly bigger questions than “what does it look like when robots fight and buildings fall down?”, the imperfect multiverse of well-meaning but ill-fated decisions that all of these films explore can’t help but suggest the possibility of a more perfect sci-fi film out there, if only the best possible series of successive decisions were made.

Looper has so many wonderful parts, but they don’t exist firmly or comfortably within the circle it forces.

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