Time-travel movies have really become their own genre, and in order to satisfy the fan base, they are required to address a very specific set of paradoxes. What happens if you meet your future self?
By Noah Gittell
Time-travel movies have really become their own genre, and in order to satisfy the fan base, they are required to address a very specific set of paradoxes. What happens if you meet your future self? When the younger you changes the past, how do you experience that in the present? Of course, in the end the biggest question is always: what would you do — and how far would you go — to save your present? In “Back to the Future,” Marty McFly only had to date his mother. The characters in “Looper” are faced with some far darker choices.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a mob hit man in the year 2044, who tells us in the opening voice-over that time travel does not yet exist, but it will in the future, when crime syndicates use people known as loopers to do their dirty work in the past. Here’s how it works: the looper drives out to the country, waits at a certain spot, and then shoots the hooded, handcuffed figure that appears out of nowhere. It’s an apt metaphor for the compartmentalized morality of movie violence and the dysfunctional relationship between a filmmaker and his audience. Science fiction is often used to hold a mirror up to society. But here, director Rian Johnson is using the genre to tell us something about movies, and just to be sure we get it, he fills “Looper” with intertextual cinematic references to tip us off.
He drops in allusions to “Casablanca” and the work of Jean-Luc Godard. He seems partial, in fact, to the French New Wave, as his lead character is obsessed with moving to France, and the cyclical nature of the plot is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s “La Jetee”. It’s no surprise – the New Wave directors were the first to play with non-linear narrative structures, which really paved the way for time-travel movies. These references in “Looper” are a tip of the hat to the old masters, and also an indication that Johnson’s true subject is film itself.
The arrangement between the mob in the future and the present-day Loopers allows both parties to dissociate from their guilt. But when Joe comes face to face with his future self (Bruce Willis), he hesitates and the delicate relationship that allows both parties to abdicate responsibility is lost. Old Joe escapes, and both subsequently enter parallel cat-and-mouse games with their bosses. Joe’s boss in the present (a lively Jeff Daniels) sends an army to kill him for allowing his target to escape. Old Joe goes looking for the child who will grow up to be the mob’s new kingpin – the man who will order his murder 30 years in the future.
In its denouement, “Looper” addresses the cycle of destruction that is perpetuated when people see violence as a solution. Although one character makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop that cycle, his choice – and indeed the film’s humanity as a whole – is undercut by the stylized nature of its violence. Johnson knows how to titillate his young male audience with sex and bloodshed, but this is problematic in a film that aims to say something serious about that violence. In “Looper,” only one death truly means anything, and most of the action sequences feel more like a video game than real life.
The plot gets a little complicated, and Johnson wisely keeps the esoteric details of time travel vague. “If we start talking about it,” one character says, “we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws.” It’s a wise choice because “Looper” is at its best when focusing on the emotional realities of time travel. If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you tell him? If you met an innocent child that you knew would grow up to be a mass murderer, would you be able to kill him? The film raises the right questions, but the answers never feel earned because none of the characters are particularly well drawn.
Johnson came up with the concept first – he has acknowledged this in interviews – and the characters were created to serve that concept. But in a film like “Looper,” which aims to engage not just the mind but also the heart, the characters must come first.
At times, “Looper” feels less like a film and more like a late-night conversation at a bar, albeit one had by some fairly intelligent, creative people.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue