As we move closer to the end of the year, the movies are getting smarter and less popcorn-driven, as the lure of Oscar gold trumps box office silver. These final three precious months of the year— October, November and December—are the cinephile’s sweet spot, what we wait for all year, when we reclaim the multiplexes and rejoice in the return of movies worthy of a post-credits conversation.
While writer/director Rian Johnson’s latest movie, Looper, isn’t a classic Oscar-bait movie, it is a classic post-viewing discussion movie, a Christopher Nolan-type mindbend that requires multiple viewings to really appreciate and digest. Writing a review of this movie is difficult, since so much of the experience of this film is how the story unfolds through its twists and turns and plot machinations. Unlike The Master, which is a movie all about mood and character, Looper is all about story. It’s about time travel, a futuristic sci-fi actioner in the spirit of Blade Runner and Minority Report, with its dystopian visions, dark heroes and humanistic themes. What sets Looper apart, though, from its predecessors and obvious influences, is that humanistic element, as Johnson really strives to keep the movie character-focused, not overly concerned with eye-popping visuals or special effects. And that’s what makes Looper even more engrossing. There are moments in this movie when you are so involved with the character and his personal journey that you forget the whole past/present/future mindblow—forget, that is, until something really weird (but cool) happens to jolt you back.
The concept of time travel has been explored before, the idea of changing things in the future to fix things in the past. Terminator 2 and Back to the Future both played with it cinematically, in very different ways. But what Looper does is instead of using time travel as a tool to tell the story, time travel is the story—not the logistics of it, but the moral ambiguities of it. If we knew the future, how would we change our present? And how would changing our present affect our future? And don’t get me started on the concepts of destiny and free will.
What I love about Looper is it really does feel modest. It approaches all these larger themes with relative simplicity, a relatively straightforward narrative (as straightforward as a timebending narrative can be) and an uncomplicated hero who we root for despite his imperfections. There are, naturally, moments when you feel yourself trying to catch up and wish you had a pause button to ask someone what just happened, but that’s all part of the fun because it does all come together like giant puzzle pieces at the end, as every great mindblow sci fi movie should. The nice thing about Looper is the journey to that epiphinous moment is filled with humanity and really great story-telling.
Johnson’s storytelling is only as good as the actors who play it out and the casting here was a stroke of genius. Looper stars Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis as younger and older versions of the same person, a clever nod to the fact that Levitt is a rising stud in Hollywood and Willis is a fading Hollywood action star. The filmmakers took some liberties trying to make Levitt resemble Willis to make it more believable, which has distracted some, but I credit the uncanny likeness more to Levitt’s spot-on Willis-ian behaviors and tics than prosthetics (I was more distracted by Jeff Daniels trying to play a mob boss). Both men are in their element here, Levitt revels in his character’s kinetic relentlessness, while Willis is more the quietly intense hitman with the steady hand. Willis and Levitt also share a natural sense of humor and Johnson wisely brings it out in each actor—their chemistry together is terrific. Emily Blunt nearly steals the show, however, in the latter part of the movie as a woman who gets tangled up in their doppelganger drama. She grounds the movie well and gives a real human connection to a movie that sometimes gets too caught up in the “what ifs.”
Overall, Looper is not the greatest sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen, but it is thoroughly entertaining and provides more than enough brain food to get you through the evening. And if you’ve been starving all summer, that’s just what the doctor ordered.