I’ve found “Looper” a challenging film to write about. The log-line looks exactly like something I’d really get into with it’s high concept time travel (criminals from the future send people they want to be killed into the past to be gunned down by “loopers” – hit men who then dispose of the body where future technology cannot find it. One day looper Joe Simmons recognizes his latest victim as…himself. What will he/they do?) Unfortunately, the actual viewing proved less satisfying. There is a bit of cliche amongst some time-travel fiction (usually on TV, actually), in which a less technical characters scratches his head and mutters something like, “Time travel gives me a headache.” That doesn’t happen anywhere in Looper, but it does sort of capture my response to the movie. Except that it’s not really time travel that’s the problem as much as it is the awkward writing about time travel.
Actually, there’s some awkward writing, just in general. The film’s first half hour or so is largely taken up with a series of voice-over driven scenes which are trying to explain all of the movies conceits (what a looper is, why they’re called that, why the crime syndicate’s use them at all, what the blunderbuss is, what the Gat Men are, who the Rainmaker is, the fact that some people are telekinetic, what happens if you cross the crime bosses etc.) without losing all of the movie’s momentum. This is a long time to wait before the “trigger” event of the movie finally takes place and the promise of the log line finally comes to pass. Having Joe forced to consider whether to kill his future self sounds intriguing but is less so when you realize that this is actually standard “looper” practice – it’s how the bosses close their contracts, including an extra big payoff for the former employee to live it up on for the next 30 years before he’ll be killed (this is in fact the only reason these guys are called “loopers” at all). We even get to see what happens when a looper fails to kill his older self (the bosses don’t take too kindly to it), conveniently explaining to us in advance what sort of consequences our “hero” might face in the unlikely chance that he were ever to do that exact same thing.
And so it goes. Young Joe Simmons recognizes his next victim is his older self because his older self oddly isn’t wearing a mask like most of the victims. He tries to kill him anyway, but fails, and the older self gets away. This leads to a series of events whereby the younger self goes on the run, but first goes back to his apartment, ends up in a fight and winds out falling out of a window. Then the film goes back again to the moment where he was set to kill his older self, and we get to see a previous universe’s version of the event one in which older Joe returned with is mask on, like normal, and was killed, as expected.
Then the film takes us on a rapid journey of Young Joe turning into Old Joe, which interestingly turns out to be a wasted life of drugs and criminal activity until Old Joe meets the woman who changes his direction. Then after 30 years, the Bad Guys show up to “close the loop,” but Old Joe manages to get the drop on them. He decides to use the time machine anyway, because – we find out later – the Bad Guys killed his wife when they came to get him t. Old Joe plans on going back in time and killing the Main Bad Guy before he is able to rise to power and set all this in motion. So that’s how Old Joe showed up in the first version of events that we saw (but it’s actually the second time it’s happened, at least), where Old Joe appeared without the mask on. The film goes on from there, following Old Joe as he watches his younger self fall out of the window (not to his death, it turns out), and so on.
Now of course, there’s no comment on how a version of these events which wound up with Old Joe being sent back with his mask on ever took place, or why this time (the time we watched) would be any different. If he didn’t escape before, what made this iteration of things different so that he did escape? There’s nothing to suggest that anything had changed. This particular illogic (common in some time travel fiction) just drives me crazy.
And I know, it’s just a movie, I should try to enjoy the story…but hey, this is the story they are telling. So I can be annoyed.
The use of time travel in the film is gritty and unique, but confused. Bad guys in the future have co-opted the illegal technology to use it as a way to dispose of dead bodies (because that’s hard to do in the future). They send people to the past where their hired guns kill them, and then dispose of them in a furnace. These bad guys don’t just kill their victims in the future and the send their bodies back into the middle of a volcano, which would seem to be easier. I could make up reasons why this is so, but the point is I’d have to because the movie doesn’t offer any explanation.
The movies uses the same approach found in the film Frequency (which I enjoyed a lot more) when dealing with “changing history.” If a past and future version of the same guy are running around together, than the Older Self will remember the actions that his Younger Self has taken, but not until the moment that the Younger Self actually does them. So the Older Self’s memories are constantly changing. In fact, you can even scratch a message to the Older Self into the Younger Self’s arm, and at that the Older Self will suddenly remember it and find it on his arm. You can even cut off one of the Younger Self’s fingers, and the Older Self will suddenly react in surprise as his finger disappears before him. This actually happens to one of the Loopers (not the main guy), not just with fingers, but with a leg and I think his nose as well. It’s pretty gross – he’s running around and suddenly he falls to the ground as his foot disappears. But it seems to be only the guy’s memories and not his actions that have changed. In other words, he was just running around on two feet a minute ago even though supposedly now he’s only had one for the last thirty years. So while his body has changed, his history remains intact.
Except for the end – when the main Young Joe decides the only way to stop his older self is to kill himself. (If you haven’t seen the movie his motivations for this might not make sense, but that is in fact dealt with in the meat of the story). When he does that, Old Joe just disappears for some reason, rather than just falling to the ground, dead from an identical wound that his younger counterpart just took to his body. But if he disappeared, does that mean his actions are undone as well? Nothing indicates that, so I guess that means the scene where Old Joe killed a child (seriously) because he thought he might be Main Bad Guy as a boy still stands. See? There’s just something unpleasant about all of this, as well as a bit random.
Also at the end, Young Joe gets the idea it’s the involvement of his Older Self that helped to create the Main Bad Guy in the first place. That’s why Young Joe kills himself – to stop Old Joe from killing the Main-Bad-Guy-as-a-Child’s mother and set that child down a road of bitterness that turns him into Main-Bad-Guy whose actions and Bad Guy Policies led to the death of Old Joe’s Wife. Young Joe doesn’t seem to consider the option of simply deciding not to do the things Old Joe is doing (he is himself in the future, after all). It’s like the fate of his future is too strong to resist by any such normal means. But at the same time he’s assuming that giving the Main Bad Guy a different childhood will allow him to resist the fate of his future when he grows up. What if he’s wrong? What if it wasn’t Old Joe who caused him to turn bad in the first place? After all, somehow the Main Bad Guy existed in the version of things where Old Joe was killed right when he turned up and never got involved in the past. And that kid was already pretty messed up before either Joe turned up on his farm. And he has massive telekinetic powers (did I mention that?)
Now, that’s not to say this movie doesn’t have its strengths. It does – and it’s been quite well reviewed and I guess I can understand to a degree why this is. I like the way that to shifts our perception of who the “good guy” in the story is between Old and Young Joe at different times. And though all the lead performances are good (Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt), I particularly liked Jeff Daniels as a very creepy bad guy. It’s more disturbing because he does not play it particularly creepily, but let’s his actions speak for themselves. There’s an emotional reality to the characters and events even if the concepts are not completely consistent. And it stirs up some interesting science fiction notions and metaphysical concepts, even if I didn’t appreciate the way they all played out.
I know in the end that this reads less like a review than a rant, and so it may be. But I think it’s legitimate when the very things that are designed to draw me to a project are the very things that are not followed through in a satisfying manner.
(After some consideration, my appreciation for the style and production value squeaks it up from two faces.)