Every question of time travel becomes a question of murder. Could I go back and kill Hitler? What if I shoot grandpa before he conceives Dad? Is there a way to save JFK, or is he doomed to die, struck down in every time, space and reality by Oswald’s bullet?
And so it comes as no surprise that the fiction devoted to time travel is inherently bloody. “Looper” is no exception, with time travel functioning in the film as a means of elimination of poor saps unfortunate enough to cross the criminals running the Earth in 2074. The victims are beamed back thirty years to Kansas City, where men armed with guns wait to greet them with a bullet to the chest.
The men with guns are loopers; it’s not a nice job for Bring Your Child to Work Day.
“Looper” is writer/director Rian Johnson’s stab at the Philip K. Dick brand of sci-fi Americana, entrenched not in the mechanics of time travel but in its unraveling. As is also common in films dealing with the traverse of time, things get complicated quickly. From the film’s exposition, the natural question arises — why send victims back to be killed in the recent past? Why not send them back to before they were born, the Middle Ages — prehistoric times! — and let them starve, be stoned or disappear into history. “Don’t worry,” the film says. “Let’s assume the time machine has a limit; you can’t travel back more than thirty years.” Fair enough.
Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the youngest looper in the business. He studies French and stockpiles silver earned from each kill so he can move to France, not caring that his profession’s title implies a hollow future. At least not until his older self (Bruce Willis) appears for execution: ungagged, untied, with a mission in the present day that threatens young Joe and the entire looper establishment.
It’s no coincidence that Bruce Willis previously played a sojourner from the future in “12 Monkeys,” where time also ran in loops and its destination was always death. Rian Johnson has built a career on pastiche-as-conceit since his debut film “Brick” cast John Hughes rejects as film noir sleuths and femme fatales. He grounds the 21st-century pondering of “Looper” in a similar 20th century affectation. Joe dresses in leather jackets and ties — his ode to the stars of French New Wave films “that copy other films.” Kansas City in 2044 rests on an uneasy equilibrium between hoverbikes and 50s-style diners built amongst cornfields. Loopers carry “gats” and “blunderbusses” — weapons as aesthetically old-fashioned as they sound.
Even the blending of traditional cinema and speculative film (an umbrella term for films of a fantastical bent) is a decades-old innovation plucked from Niccol, Gilliam and Godard. It’s a testament to the film’s quality that despite its intensely derivative quality, “Looper” never seems derivative itself. It takes enough turns and delivers enough surprises — nearly changing genre and tone in a mind-blowing climax — to hook the audience. Johnson, self-assured, excited for the material, buoys typical action scenes with a stylist’s flair and hints at questions of the human condition: “Is time travel possible?” “How different are we throughout our life?” “What lengths will we go to protect loved ones?” These are intimate issues grappled with by the greatest artists.
But it never goes beyond a hint. “Looper”’s intentions, like the older Joe’s mind when reflecting on memories of events yet to come, is hazy. It so muddies the line between imitation and original thought that it eventually loses its way. Johnson never figures out how to apply the chutzpah of his violence to the quieter conversations, so he settles with dry, sporadic exposition and lazy voice-overs. The film nearly grinds to a halt once the young Joe, on the run from his employers and future self, stumbles onto a farm owned by a mother (Emily Blunt) and her moody, enigmatic son (Pierce Gagnon).
Here, Johnson asks us to consider men’s brutishness — Joe’s desire to kill his future self, the loopers’ obsession with maintaining a cycle of death — set against a women’s fierce, unconditional love for her child. Neither seems convincing.
“Looper” skids, halts, barrels forward until it peters out — pursuing great ambition, but only achieving it in spurts. It suggests a bright future for Johnson if he learns to temper aesthetic excess with more care for storytelling. This is no guarantee. In an interview with NPR, Rian Johnson asserted that the time travel in “12 Monkeys” didn’t add up: “[It] fools you into believing it makes sense … so that you can go along on this ride.” This was Johnson’s first mistake — it’s problematic to use a film that you purport not to understand as the foundation for your work. Uncorrected, it’ll be one of many of the same, looped to infinity.