Rian Johnson has been making a solid name for himself within film geek circles. His feature debut Brick is a worthy cult classic and his follow up The Brothers Bloom was a fascinating film that made it onto my favourite films of 2010 list. Combined with his directing a couple of Breaking Bad episodes, the announcement that he’d be making a time travel movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis pretty much set geek hearts alight. His previous work proves that he is not only a writer/director that likes intelligent, clever stories, but one that also has a great creative and visual eye. Thus Looper has been the source of anticipation for quite some time now.
Like all good time travel movies it’s important to get the rules set from the start. The year is 2044. Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper. Somewhere in the future time travel has been invented but it’s judiciously controlled. A system is set up whereby loopers are employed to kill people who've been sent back to 2044; people who supposedly need to be disposed of. It’s a dirty business and probably not strictly legal. A confluence of events means Joe’s older self (Willis) is sent back for Joe to terminate. He doesn’t do it and Old Joe goes on the run. Joe needs to stop him as you don’t let these future people escape... especially your older self. That’s the basics in a nutshell.
So, to address the biggest factor in a time travel movie – does the filmmakers concept of it work? Principally, yes. Rather than being about the act of time travel and “science” behind it, more focus is given to the aftermath, meaning it serves more as a catalyst and nice framing for the events that occur, making for a more engaging story, mostly. It can be all too easy to tie your story into knots and confuse the audience when travelling through time. Not so here, with the story presented in a pretty logical manner that doesn’t require any head scratching if you just go with it.
But there is a problem with the story. The first half of Looper functions beautifully, fantastically setting the scene, showing us its fascinating future vision and allowing the introduction of the compelling concept of how far you’d go to stop your future self. Then the story arcs off into an unexpected direction that is somewhat akin to hitting a brick wall. This chosen route offers some even further challenging questions, which I thought were explored well conceptually, but in the actual context of the story and the flow of the film it did nothing more than slow it down to the point where interest was starting to wane. One of the elements that informed this aspect of the story, the more fantastical TK side, really felt like it didn’t need to be in this film.
The real strength of Looper is the talent involved. Gordon-Levitt has had a particularly strong year already with The Dark Knight Rises and Premium Rush, the latter of which probably wouldn’t have been as good without him in the lead. Joe is ultimately an antihero. We’re rooting from him and we would probably aspire to his life in the context of the future we’re shown, but he’s still a flawed character who is really nothing more than a glorified hitman. And so he successfully traverses that line of likeability, which is certainly aided by the make-up to heighten his likeness to his older self, helping to make him look a tad less JG-L like. Willis is his usual reliable self, somewhat playing to his archetype but always enjoyable to watch. Emily Blunt plays her character well too but she is ultimately superfluous to the story.
Looper looks great, as ever with anything Johnson directs, and I was intrigued by the vision of the future it presents. The whole package is interesting so it’s a shame that such a strong first half is let down by a dominating plot thread in the second half that should really have been jettisoned and considered for a separate film. It wasn’t the right direction for Looper but is something I would want to see explored elsewhere. Unsurprisingly its utilisation of the time travel concept is successful and helped by approaching it somewhat economically – it may not live up to the heights of Primer (that is the master of all time travel films after all), but it is more successful in this area than most. As much as I liked Looper, and don’t get me wrong I did like it a lot, I feel disappointed that it didn’t live up to it’s potential. I hope it continues to do well at the box office though as we need more bigger budget films with this type of intelligent approach.