Living, as we are, in a post-Transformers movie universe, is it at all helpful to label a film “intelligent”? Is that the kind of adjective that’s just going to chase viewers off and guarantee a mediocre box office? With ticket prices rising every season, people are often inclined to say, “I just want to be entertained” when it comes to spending their hard-earned, leisure-time dough. Folks don’t want to be entertained and have to think at the same time. Or do they? You tell me—I just write the reviews around here.
If you are the kind of person who doesn’t mind a little smarts in your entertainment, then Looper is definitely the kind of film you should be gravitating toward. Not that it’s a graduate-level discourse in quantum physics or anything. Looper is a rousing sci-fi adventure. It’s full of action. There’s a sly sense of humor on display. It’s got Bruce Willis, who is shooting a gun. And yes, it’s got some brains to it.
Those brains are undoubtedly attached to the film’s up-and-coming writer-director, Rian Johnson, who reunites here with the star of his 2005 object of cult worship, Brick. In Brick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt played a hard-boiled high school detective whose pulpy dialogue spilled out like Shakespearian sonnets. In Looper, he plays a futuristic hit man whose job it is to bump off people from the future. This is where some attention to detail is required. Seems that 60 years from now, time travel will be invented and then immediately outlawed. The only people who have access to this illegal technology are organized crime members. (I can see the NRA bumper stickers now: “When time travel is outlawed, only outlaws will have time travel.”) For various convoluted reasons, the mob uses this technology to send people back in time, circa 2040. There, anonymous assassins called “loopers” are used to dispatch them and dispose of their bodies—sometimes before the victims were even born.
Admittedly, this seems like a complicated, borderline-unworkable situation. But Johnson has created much the same atmosphere here as he did in Brick. Less of a reality-based sci-fi film and more of a fantasy spun out of movie history, Looper feels like some long lost gangster flick from the ’30s. Think James Cagney with a time machine. Johnson isn’t striving for hard sci-fi realism. He’s aiming for atmosphere. And he nails it.
In the future world of 2040, things have gotten very bad. With little-to-no tedious explanation, Johnson constructs a vivid world. Clearly, the economy has gone to hell. Criminal organizations run things without so much as a glimpse of police, government or other authority figures. Desperate vagrants fill the streets, sparking what looks like an all-out war between the haves and have-nots. There’s even a hint of Dust Bowl environmental breakdown.
In this world, it doesn’t feel so far-fetched that people like Joe (Gordon-Levitt) would jump at the chance to make hard money (silver bars, to be precise) executing people from the future. Joe’s tidy amoral world breaks down one day, though, when the person sent from the future for him to execute just happens to be his own future self (played by Bruce Willis). This confusing paradox sets up a battle between young Joe and old Joe. Seems his future self has a plan for changing the future. If only young Joe would stop acting like a murderous asshole long enough to listen.
Looper is wildly creative, brilliantly written and acted like a mofo. Gordon-Levitt uses a lot of facial prosthetics and some well-studied mannerisms to sell his role as the young Bruce Willis. Watching them spar is to witness the most fun two actors have had with each other since Nicolas Cage and John Travolta switched personalities in Face/Off. Throw in Emily Blunt as a terrified mother holding the key to the future, Paul Dano as Joe’s screw-up best friend and Jeff Daniels as a terrifyingly mellow gangster, and you’ve got a better cast than most sci-fi flicks deserve.
Sadly but inevitably, the film settles into a comfortable second-act groove, losing just a bit of its inventiveness. After setting up its fascinating world, intriguing characters and mind-bending premise, the script morphs into a one-set action piece that looks and feels like a cross between The Terminator and Shane. Even so, Johnson never stops tinkering with his ideas, exploring the ins and outs and messy conundrums of time travel. This thing isn’t nearly as head-trippy as Willis’ previous time travel excursion 12 Monkeys—but it might still leave you sitting in the dark, connecting the dots as the credits roll.
In the end, Looper is arguably one of the best films of the year and definitely one of the best sci-fi films in ages. Some audience members may exit the theater scratching their heads; but all, I suspect, will emerge suitably entertained.