“Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but in 30 years, it will have been.” It’s a line we hear more than once during Rian Johnson’s Looper, and in its use of the future perfect, it brings with it a degree of certainty. It’s not that time travel “will be invented,” which is still a prediction, however educated a prediction it may be. “Will have been” means that from the time frame in which the clause roots itself, it already happened. It carries with it a lot of philosophical implications regarding the certainty and malleability of the future that, despite the occasional noble attempt, Looper never quite fulfills.
Looper takes place mostly on the timeline in which time travel has not been invented yet, the time that bodies are sent to so they can be disposed by assassins, called loopers, paid in silver bars strapped to the back of the bodies. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with terrible make-up) explains this and other details of 2044 to us in heavy narration, and we quickly learn that in the future, a crime boss is ending the contracts of all the loopers (“closing the loop”), sending their future selves to the present to be killed in exchange for a large sum of money, a retirement fund. Joe runs into trouble when he, like a few others before him, “lets his loop run.” That is, he does not kill his future self (Bruce Willis), a crime punishable by death.
Sounds good, right? And it is. For about half an hour, Looper sets itself up to explore the two diverging timelines, and we see Joe’s loop-closing scene both fail and succeed depending on whether we see it from Gordon-Levitt’s frame or Bruce Willis’ frame. The film also addresses the link between memory and reality, and one’s ability to reject predestination and make his path on his own. There is a conversation between the two Joe’s where the future version explains that his memory resembles a cloud, becoming clearer or foggier based on the probability that Gordon-Levitt’s Joe will actually complete an action. It’s an interesting concept, and after seeing a blatant hole in time-travel logic earlier when Paul Dano lets his loop run, we almost have an explanation. Unfortunately, the conversation devolves into a questionably acted piece of exposition set to establish “ground rules” that leaves us with more questions than answers and, worse, which are never important again, as if they serve only to catch up the audience member who had trouble keeping up with Johnson thus far.
When Joe arrives on a farm, we quickly learn that the child who resides there is the crime boss of the future, and that Willis’ future Joe wants to kill the boy to save his wife. Luckily, the Joe of the present knows this is happening, and is determined to finally close his own loop, in part to save the boy but mostly to get away from the looper agency that is trying to kill him for his failure. Joe is not too worried that killing his future self will lead to his own death in 30 years; he’ll just take another route through life, marry someone else, and avoid the fate. There are surprisingly large amounts of plot development in a short period of time; Looper does a good job of telling its story, and even though reliance on narration is a bit heavy, save for the one conversation above, it is quickly paced and expects the same of its audience.
Unfortunately, what Looper becomes is a generic action flick with poor central performances, bouts of awful writing, and plenty of over-direction. On this farm, Gordon-Levitt’s Joe initiates a prescribed and emotionless romance with the boy’s mother/caretaker (Emily Blunt). Why this romance was initiated despite what we see earlier with the waitress at the diner (who both versions of Joe remember) is never made too clear, as the waitress is forgotten and the new romance is never important. Even worse, Gordon-Levitt delivers his lines with a particular strain that lends far too much black comedy to scenes that are supposed to be central to character development or plot, demolishing all chemistry between Blunt and himself. For a film that begins with such originality and purpose, that it so shamelessly devolves into clichés and poorly written developments is disappointing.
Johnson is far too quick to give his game away, as a temper tantrum becomes an over-directed, slow-motion, sound-distorting, emphatic spectacle. It’s more of a giveaway than foreshadowing, and the abrupt change of character that it forces Gordon-Levitt’s Joe to go through is so poorly acted that this reviewer could not help but laugh at the “TK freak” line and the character’s immediate subsequent backpedaling. It’s a character overreaction, but one played with so little gravity that it feels entirely pointless.
The ending of Looper is perhaps its worst sequence. A highly stylized aesthetic shift signals its importance, but what actually happens is both predictable and the biggest cry for attention and discussion since Christopher Nolan’s Inception ended. Looper, however, is worsened by a voiceover that lends the whole thing a self-importance and attempt to be “deep” despite merely enforcing the usual themes of family and fate while adding absolutely nothing to them. Joe’s epiphany is an epiphany of the shallowest kind, one that any viewer familiar with this brand of sci-fi (see: La Jetée or Twelve Monkeys among other, better films) had reached by the time Looper stopped being good almost an hour and a half ago.