From the director of art-house favourites “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom” comes a sci-fi actioner that focuses more on story and characters than spectacle. How does it fare?…
For a change, this review will be a little “unusual”. This time I’m doing a Tag-Team review, where I team up… with myself. Yes, in the spirit of “Looper”, the following is a transcript of a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with my future self, right after he arrived from the future in a DeLorean. Oh. Wait. Wrong movie.
This movie’s about a future where the mob uses time travel to dispose of dead bodies. They send people back in time to be killed by assassins called Loopers, thus erasing any evidence of the murder in their timeline. Loopers are known as such because when their services are no longer required, they are also bundled off to be killed by their younger selves, thus closing the “loop”. Trouble ensues for a young Looper named Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when he fails to kill his older self (played by Bruce Willis).
And that’s all you need to know. Now, on with the discussion…
After-Movie Wai: Yeah.
BMW: Why the hell don’t you look anything like me? It’s only 3 hours for gad’s sake! How could I possibly have changed so much in that time??
AMW: They got another actor to play you. I mean, me. I mean, us.
BMW: Couldn’t they have picked someone… better looking? Like say, Colin Farrell? You look more like Will Ferrell.
AMW: Hey screw you, kid. We here to talk about the movie or not?
BMW: Alright, alright. Geez I’m so grumpy in my old age… So, “Looper”. I’ve been looking forward to it all year! You know what a sci-fi geek we are.
AMW: Yes we are. Ha ha.
BMW: Well, how was it?
AMW: I liked it!
BMW: Really? Cool. I’d been hearing good things about the film, though some of the responses were kind of mixed.
AMW: I know where those sentiments are coming from. In all of the film’s marketing, “Looper” has been sold as a time travel actioner with a gangster-noir flavour. It is all that, only that’s not all that it is. There’s much more going on beyond the basic advertised premise, and I think it threw a lot of people off course. The movie takes you down a different path halfway through, although I find the turn to be a natural progression of what’s been hinted at early on. So it’s not exactly out of place.
BMW: I think I know what you’re talking about here. But for the benefit of our readers who haven’t seen the film, let’s not get into spoilers.
AMW: Hey, you know me. Never do. But I’d still like to discuss this, as I think this part is where the richness of the film’s themes and underlying meaning really comes through.
BMW: Sure. Am I right to say that at the end of the day, the film that writer-director Rian Johnson’s made isn’t terribly interested in time travel per se?
AMW: Yes and no. While Johnson is just using it as a set up to tell a compelling human drama… he DOES respect the conventions of the time travel sub-genre. And he has an interesting take on it.
BMW: Oh, what’s that?
AMW: Non-linear memory. There’s a scene where the young Looper Joe has a conversation with his older self. Old Joe tells his younger self that his memories are in constant flux. By being back in time, he’s likely to disrupt what already happened. Since the possible outcomes are now infinitely variable, what Old Joe remembers experiencing keeps changing based on what he or his younger self does next.
BMW: Man, that is one heck of a mindfuck.
AMW: Literally! According to Old Joe, the experience of shifting memories physically hurts your brain. I liked the way Johnson uses this conceit too. There’s a touching scene where Old Joe’s memories of a loved one are fading because events in the present timeline are changing. He desperately tries to hold onto one particular memory because that’s the only thing left as proof that the life he led with her was real. It’s sad and kind of sweet. Then there’s the whole thing about Young Joe wanting to kill his older self to get his life back. I think there’s a point being made here about how attached we can get to our sense of self, as moulded by our respective values and life experiences.
BMW: Hmm. I’m starting to see a pattern. Or a theme. There’s something of a Buddhist undercurrent going on here, right?
AMW: Yeah that’s what I saw. The very concept of having people who kill for a living end up killing themselves… That’s karma. Plus the notions of attachment to self. There’s a line in the movie that goes, “Ask yourself, who would I sacrifice for what’s mine?” When that “who” turns out to be future YOU — now that’s self-attachment to the utmost degree. It’s like even if you know you’re hurting your future self, as far as your present self is concerned that’s “another” person in another time. Buddhism warns about the problems that arise when one is too fixated on selfish wants and self-centred goals. I guess you could say these are universal truisms but this religion said it first.
BMW: Or you could take it as a commentary on how the youth live only for the present and simply don’t care about the future.
AMW: There’s that. Speaking of self-centred goals, I was surprised at how far the film was willing to go to demonstrate that. “Looper” goes into some seriously dark territory. Old Joe commits truly heinous acts for the sake of preventing a future problem. I won’t give too much away, except to say it struck me as a “Terminator”-inspired situation. Only here, Old Joe knows full well what he’s doing is wrong yet does it anyway. And unlike Cameron’s emotionless killer cyborgs, he is actually doing it out of love. It’s a fascinating contradiction, and one that’s often true of human nature. These are the subtle — even if not entirely original — aspects of the film that I truly appreciated.
BMW: Well, that’s what genuine sc-fi is about, after all. Holding up a mirror to the human condition.
AMW: It’s not all darkness though. “Looper” actually has a pretty positive, uplifting message about how love can change things for the better. When it is pure and selfless. The power of compassionate love.
BMW: You’re referring to Emily Blunt’s character aren’t you? And her kid?
AMW: Good guess. You’ve been watching all the trailers and sneak peeks, I bet. There’s a wonderful moment in the film that pays tribute to a mother’s love and how it can conquer even the darkest of impulses. I gotta admit that scene really moved me. It’s the performances that really sell you on the big emotional beats that the film hits towards the end. I haven’t heard of child actor Pierce Gagnon before, but my goodness this kid is talented. So natural was he that I never saw anything but a real little boy, in spite of the somewhat fantastical elements of his character.
BMW: This is a pleasant surprise. I was expecting to hear you gush about the leading men.
AMW: Oh, they’re good. No doubt. I don’t think Bruce Willis is doing anything terribly different from the schtick he’s been peddling for the last decade or so. Basically, playing variations of Bruce Willis. A curious thing has happened this time. Because he’s confronted with an actor who’s modeling his entire performance on him, Willis is suddenly out of his comfort zone. He can’t sleepwalk his way through this role. That self-awareness has resulted in Willis coming across the most alive and engaging he’s been in years. He genuinely connects with the audience, and it’s this sort of thing that reminds us how good he can be when he tries.
BMW: So, Willis has Gordon-Levitt to thank for jolting a good performance out of him, eh.
BMW: Good to know. I was afraid JGL’s make-up job would be a major distraction and end up making both of them seem goofy. I never thought it was necessary.
AMW: I still don’t, so your instincts were right. The make-up is a gimmick, nothing more. Everyone knows what Willis looked like when he was younger, and it sure wasn’t anything like Gordon-Levitt, even with a Willis-alike prosthetic nose and chin. The good news is, the make-up isn’t as distracting as we imagined it would be. And that’s down to the strength of JGL’s performance. On the surface, he nails the mimicry. The squints, the smirks, the pensive stares: that’s all Willis to a tee. Underneath that, Gordon-Levitt captures the same cynical, world-weary vibe we often get from Willis.
BMW: What else did you like about the film?
AMW: Let’s see… I think the action is pretty well handled, considering Johnson has never done anything like this before. There isn’t a lot of action, but what we do get is robust, snappy, and always easy to follow. Johnson doesn’t shy away from violence either, although it’s used sparingly. I also like how functional and lived-in his vision of the future feels. The tech especially looks like the logical extension of what we have now. What’s even more believable is the idea that most of the planet has gone down the drain, while China is positioned as this gleaming, prosperous new first-world haven. I can see that happening. Oh, and Nathan Johnson’s score is superb. Loved it.
BMW: Any dislikes?
AMW: A couple. The pace slows down considerably in the second half. I understand what Johnson was going for, and it needed that breather for us to get to know the characters. Still, a tighter edit would’ve helped. Also, I feel Jeff Daniels was kind of wasted in his mob boss role. You shouldn’t hire a guy like Daniels if you’re not going to give him an opportunity to cut loose. He could’ve been a lot more menacing if the script had allowed it. Honestly, the film lacks a proper, concrete antagonist. The story really is about a man at odds with himself, making him his own worst enemy. But ultimately, you’ll tend to root for them both — albeit for different reasons. So, going back to what “Looper” was advertised as, some might feel cheated out of the conventional good guys vs bad guys scenario.
BMW: From all you’re telling me, “Looper” clearly ISN’T conventional, is it?
AMW: Mm-hmm. While the film has some unoriginal parts, it is more than the sum of its parts. This one’s a rarity: a studio picture made with an indie film mentality. Made with intelligence and a lot of love, with ideas and characterisation emphasised over spectacle. I think we’ve a got a future classic on our hands here, dude.
BMW: So says Future Boy. Thanks for the heads up, but I’d like to make up my own mind, if you don’t mind.
AMW: Okay, I bet you a billion bucks you’re going to think “Looper” is destined to be a future classic.
BMW: Not if I never watch the movie! Hah! I win a billion bucks! Woohooo!!!
AMW: Ouch. My brain hurts.