I’ve seen some pretty fabulous sci-fi/speculative fiction movies this summer. The Avengers was the blueprint for how all ensemble films should work. Seeking A Friend for the End of the World revitalized the rom-com with actual emotional stakes. The Dark Knight Rises was perfectly cathartic closure within its own trilogy. But as much as these movies made me laugh, sob, and squeal, none of them really challenged me the way Looper did.
When I came out of the screening for Rian Johnson‘s time travel thriller, the first thing I could articulate was, “Wow. This is so my kind of movie.” I’ve spent the last few days trying to unravel what exactly I mean by that. First off, you don’t get the whole movie ruined in the trailer. Before going into the theater, all I knew — from trailers, movie sites, interviews, etc. — was that in the future the mob sends victims back in time to be dispatched by hitmen called “loopers.” Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is living the high life until he comes face-to-face with his older self (Willis), and then has to chase him down.
Within the first five minutes, Looper establishes so much more than just that. It’s astonishing world-building because even though JGL is speaking to us in voiceover, it never feels crammed or contrived. It also helps that this future is believable enough: In 2044, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but there’s a clear demarcation between the hedonistic haves and the trampled-upon have-nots. But even those living the high life are trapped in their own loops: Joe makes enough money to sustain his drug habit and party with his friends, but he knows that one day he’s gonna have to kill his future self and then will be locked into thirty more years before he will eventually be sent back in time.
So, there’s the fascinating push-and-pull of Joe wanting to kill his older self because that’s the only way he can ensure any future for himself. We’re treated to the grisly fate of one of his colleagues (Paul Dano) who fails to kill his future self, and it is one of the more disturbing sequences I’ve seen in movies in some time. Looper is delightfully sexy and violent—not that it takes any delight in these graphic sequences, but rather that they provide necessary texture to this world. Without the jarring executions or topless shots, you wouldn’t take this bleak future seriously.
Like I said, the promotion for Looper really only focused on the bare essentials of the time-travel conceit, and on JGL’s transformation via prosthetics into Bruce Willis. It’s incredible how Gordon-Levitt embodies this iconic action star, not just in the alterations to his forehead/nose/lips but also in the way he squints, murmurs, and even walks. And while Willis has lost some of his clout from the Die Hard movies, you can see that playing against a younger version of himself — and often owning him — revitalizes him.
Similarly, the supporting cast are just a shade off from what we’re used to. Emily Blunt wields a rifle and a slightly laughable Southern accent, but you believe her fiercely protective mother and don’t doubt that she’ll shoot anyone in half who tries to mess with her son. Yes, the central plot revolves around one of three children in 2044 who will grow up to become a fearsome figure in Willis’ future of 2074. I won’t say anything more because it’s better to go into this movie knowing as little as possible and letting Johnson paint it for you in bold splashes and nuanced sequences.
Just make sure you go with friends, so you can ruminate on all the twisty logic after you leave the theater. While Looper is pretty neat, it still establishes several paradoxes that are fun to puzzle over. In many ways, the movie is more about parallel realities than how you move between them: In order for old Joe to exist, young Joe must kill him at some point. And yet, old Joe is trying to ensure that he doesn’t die, because the thirty years he got (as young Joe) from killing his older self simply weren’t enough and he wants the rest of his life back.
Dizzy yet? Trust me, if you give yourself over to Looper, it will reward you ten times over with a captivating plot, dark humor, several fight sequences that will have you cheering, plenty of surprises, and stellar performances across the board.
Photos: Alan Markfield/DMG Entertainment/Looper, LLC