As anyone who’s been reading these reviews for awhile already knows, I’m a big fan of cerebral sci-fi. There’s not much of it around anymore, given the increasing tendency to “dumb things down” for mass consumption. Accordingly, I’ve been looking forward to “Looper,” Rian Johnson’s dark time-travel adventure, for several months now. Given that it’s currently sporting a 93% feedback rating on RottenTomatoes, I was decidedly optimistic.
The premise is extremely unique: thirty years into the future, when time travel is invented and outlawed, organized criminals will use it to send their victims back into the past. In the past are men with guns – “Loopers” – who execute them and promptly dispose of their bodies (no corpse = no evidence in the future). Eventually, when a Looper’s contract has run its course, the mob sends back the assassin’s future self. If the Looper does as instructed and kills himself, he lives out his remaining thirty years in relative prosperity. If not…the consequences are grisly.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, last seen as John Blake in “The Dark Knight Rises”) is a Looper who encounters an unexpected predicament: his future self (Bruce Willis) fights back and runs away. In the future, older Joe’s wife and unborn child will be killed by a vicious crime lord known as “the Rainmaker” – and older Joe will do anything to prevent that from happening, even if the Rainmaker is still no more than a child himself.
It’s a great setup, and the first act is brilliant. Director Johnson’s urban-grunge aesthetic is beautifully realized, a vision of future noir that never becomes banal. Performances – especially from Gordon-Levitt – are expectedly strong, and the action (though a little lacking in memorable set pieces) is high-octane. What’s more, the flexibility of an R rating allows Johnson to deliver an uncompromising cinematic experience (this film goes to dark places, but this genuinely results in a more compelling product).
That said, “Looper” suffers from several unfortunate flaws that hold it back from top-tier status. Most glaring are the lapses in time-travel logic the film occasionally asks its audience to accept. I recognize that the subject is necessarily paradoxical (and gets confusing almost immediately) but in a critical scene, the film appears to blatantly rejects the rules it’s previously established for itself. (I saw it with a friend, and we discussed it at length afterwards. In order for the climax to make sense, we had to establish several time-travel principles that the movie never itself stipulates. That’s a mark of sloppy writing.)
There’s also a B-plot involving humans born with the “TK” or “telekinetic” gene. This is a completely unnecessary addition that only damages the movie’s credibility. I’m willing to accept time travel as a semi-realistic plot device, even with all its foibles…but throwing mind-magic into the mix starts feeling a little too reminiscent of “Chronicle” and “X-Men.” At no point does the telekinesis element result in any earth-shattering plot developments. It’s either another mark of weak plotting, or some Hollywood executives mandated its inclusion.
As a result of these and other vulnerabilities, the film suffers a marked drop in quality by the end. It never becomes terrible or unwatchable, but more attention to detail in its final act would’ve helped quite a bit.
Worldview elements are subdued at best. There are a few interesting ideas one could pull out of the film – mostly involving causality, predestination, and the like – but there isn’t much discussion regarding the overall ethics at stake. Objectionable content is as follows: high doses of violence (bloody but not extraordinarily so), some brief but unnecessary nudity in a strip-club scene, and fairly pervasive language. It earns its R rating, but I wish it had done so for thematic rather than titillating purposes.
Is it worth watching?
If you’re a fan of dark, cerebral science fiction (like me), “Looper” probably merits viewing…at least on DVD. Even though it aspires to Christopher Nolan levels of inventiveness and falls short of the mark, it’s a well-crafted, intelligent movie that serves as an interesting conversation starter. Just don’t expect “Inception”-caliber brilliance. Less interested viewers probably won’t find it appealing – and that’s perfectly okay.
A highly original, but flawed, mind-bender. Recommended with caveats.
Normalized Score: 4.6
September 29, 2012 at 11:43 pm
I like your analysis, and really liked the movie, but did you consider the possibility that Cid is Joe’s son? It’s plausible, it ties up a lot of loose ends, and it makes the story more elegant as literature (though it still has flaws, plot and otherwise). Consider: 1) Sara says she has a sister who took care of her kid for a while, a fact that goes nowhere unless her sister matters to the plot. 2) That sister could be the only other woman in the 2044 plot, the showgirl Suzie, who also mentions having a son. 3) Joe offers Suzie half his money, which might be purely because of his feelings for her, but it also could be because he suspects he might be the father of her boy. 4) All this would mean Cid had good reason for calling Sarah a liar,one of the more dramatic moments in the whole film. 5) A small point, but Sara knew what was involved in detoxing; that may be due to her own detox, or it may be from helping Suzie, before Suzie returned to La Belle Aurora. 6) Willis-Joe got 3 possible addresses for the child Rainmaker: he kills one kid, then goes to the 2nd address– where he finds Suzie, but no kid (that where Willis is captured). Coincidences like that demand suspicion.
Aside from linking the women much more closely to the plot, making the future Rainmaker Joe’s son is a chance at his own redemption. He ends up saving the world from his own legacy by killing himself. He gives Cid a chance at a fresh future by taking himself out and saving Sarah’s life so that she can do what she said she would, teach Cid to control his TK. (Incidentally, the TK was required not only because the Rainmaker needed some special gift– and telekinesis isn’t quite the hokum of X-men mutations, it is being looked at as a quantum phenomenon, however unlikely that may be– and also, of course, because Cid needed a weapon.)
There’s more, but I’d be surprised if you read this far. I just found the film fascinating, and it seems, so did you.
October 1, 2012 at 10:47 am
“goes to the 2nd address– where he finds Suzie, but no kid (that where Willis is captured).” – this is incorrect. when he first is stalking that location, he sees Suzie knock on the neighbor’s door to pick up her child. The neighbor opens the door and hands the child to her.
April 15, 2013 at 12:39 am
That was not incorrect. Yes we do see Suzie take a child into her house, but when Willis enters her house and goes to the child’s room, he is tazed and knocked unconscious. He never actually finds the child.
September 30, 2012 at 8:44 am
Here’s the thing. If you kill yourself once the contract is up, you get thirty years to love and ball out. Then you go back in time to be killed by your younger self. From this we can see that the loop is continuos. Because the younger self will again have to live that 30 years. The only way to break that cycle is what Joe did att he end, which was kill himself. Joe and Cid are the same person. The rainmaker ends everyone’s contract by killing everyone. They mention that he does it all by himself. That’s exactly what Bruce Willis did, when he killed all the looper dudes and head boss in that office where the loopers meet. Thus The rainmakers actions actually happened. The backstory of Cid and joe are the same. That’s why they are the same person…..however of this is true then joe slept with his mom and that was the only confusing part for me
September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am
Interesting, J. And elegant. But I don’t think it works. If Cid and Joe are the same, where’s Joe’s telekenesis? Why the name change? (It shouldn’t, but it also freaks me out all three Joe’s would exist simultaneously in 2044.)
Incidentally, I don’t think it was incest when Middle Joe slept with Sarah. I think Suzie was Cid’s mother. I didn’t see the color of the women’s eyes (it’s noted above the Cid’s are brown, unlike Joe’s), but Sarah has TK in her gene pool, which is yet more teeny tiny evidence that Cid is related to Sarah.
If I keep going, though, I’ll be making diagrams with straws.
September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am
Correction. I misread your post, J. You didn’t say Cid and Joe were the same; you said their backstories were the same. Apologies.
September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am
I like Irene’s idea – that wasn’t the first thing that occurred to me when I was watching it, but it’d add a good deal of emotional resonance. I’m impressed at how thoroughly it’s exposited here.
J, that was actually my thought too, but the eyes were what did it for me. Cid’s are brown, whereas both Joes have blue eyes (something the film does seem to stress). And I agree with you on the creepy incest angle.
December 2, 2012 at 8:29 pm
but maybe joe’s eyes are blue from the drug use.
A Big Butt and a Smile
September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am
The TK wasn’t a useless subplot – it was there to be the identifying factor of the Rainmaker. That’s how they knew which kid it was. Remember the convo about the Rainmaker: He’d taken over the five syndicates by himself in short order. Young Joe said that was impossible – Old Joe says that’s what happened. When he see the kids TK powers it confirms that this kid is The Rainmaker – ’cause really if you can do what he could do at such a young age – take over a crime syndicate is a piece of cake once you hit maturity.
September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am
I enjoyed your review, but …
Most glaring are the lapses in time-travel logic the film occasionally asks its audience to accept.
I’m not sure I understand your criticism here. You acknowledge that time-travel is necessarily fraught with paradoxes, but then don’t seem to tolerate them when they occur (or when they are dismissed by the writers, as when Bruce Willis is reluctant to discuss time travel because it is ‘messy’).
It seems to me that an extra-strength dose of disbelief-suspension is required of time-travel stories. Director Rian Johnson acknowledges this in an interview this weekend, citing ’12 Monkeys’ and ‘Back to the Future’ as films where, if you look at the details too closely, the inherent illogic of the genre will pull the narrative apart. But these movies are so well made, most viewers will simply enjoy the ride–or anyway, they shouldn’t let logic-lapses prevent that.
Speaking of illogic, how is it that Gordon-Levitt character gets to narrate this story? Is he doing that from heaven? (Reminds me of ‘Angel Heart,’ where Mickey Rourke is apparently narrating the whole mishegas from the other place.)
What time-travel film (or of any medium) handles the paradoxes more adroitly, in your view?
September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am
Here’s what stood out to me (spoilers, for anyone who hasn’t seen it):
The catalyst that sets “Old Joe” on a path leading through drugs and violence, and that culminates in his being sent back, is the fact that (as a 30-years-younger version of himself) he executes an individual that is his future self. Within the movie’s timeframe, then, there is an undisputed instance where Gordon-Levitt is executing Willis. The fact that Willis survives past this point (at least for awhile) is evidence that there isn’t necessarily a causal relationship between the existence of Young Joe and the existence of Old Joe. In the climax of the movie, when Young Joe shoots himself to kill Old Joe, Old Joe simply vanishes.
In order to make this work, we have to infer the following proposition: “An indefinite number of older versions of oneself may be killed, but if a younger version of oneself is killed, all older versions are simultaneously destroyed.” Think of it as a branching-timelines approach. I’m willing to accept this explanation, but it should’ve been stipulated within the film somehow.
(There are also three distinct takes of the scene where Willis appears in front of Gordon-Levitt. In the first, Willis throws a gold bar at Gordon-Levitt and escapes. In the second, Willis dies. In the third, Willis punches Gordon-Levitt and runs away. The logic of this third take is never explained.)
To answer your concluding question, I actually thought the third “Harry Potter” film did a rather clever job of dealing with the time-travel question and resulting paradoxes. Though it’s been rightly derided as a textbook deus-ex-machina, I think Rowling’s integration of the gadget is more fluid. Admittedly, that one’s working within a much narrower window of time (4-5 hours vs. 30 years).
September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am
Time travel paradoxes are a given, of course, but I thought both Star Trek (2009) and Source Code were solid attempts.
I agree with Mr. Studge about Joe’s voice-over, but I’m happy enough to accept narrating corpses as a literary convention.
Can anybody explain, or did anybody see an explanation for, the skin messages? (I don’t want that question to derail the general discussion, but it felt to me like a big loose end.)
Incidentally, Dano’s character became fascinating when Old Seth started to fall to pieces as they’re autopsying or dissecting Young Seth. (Not medically sound, but cool.) There were quite a few terrific self-contained scenes like that. I also thought the way they showed Sarah in bed, about to masturbate when she summons Joe for an emergency instead, was terrifically done. Every girl should have a frog handy.
October 1, 2012 at 10:45 am
skin messages – the younger looper just carves into his body, scaring himself. his scars would remain on him as he grows old, thus they appear on the old looper
“There are also three distinct takes of the scene where Willis appears in front of Gordon-Levitt.” – there are only two. the one where he gets shot and the one where he turns, throws the bar, and knocks out JGL. the camera angle we see just changes. it both angles he throws the bar and knocks out JGL (it just switches from 1st person).
October 13, 2012 at 6:09 am
The skin messages were how the future self and current self communicated with each other secret
ly or not so secretly as the dying first future looper found out.
October 2, 2012 at 7:15 am
There is something unsolved for me, when bruce killed the first boy, he had a dream or maybe a piece of new future, when he was huging his wife in the bed. that part of the movie was confusing, cause he kept on the quest although he allegedly seen that he has fixed the problem.
October 10, 2012 at 10:04 am
In that scene, I believe that you also hear a baby crying in the background. I thought that the scene wasn’t demonstrating that Old Joe had successfully fixed the Rainmaker problem. Instead, Young Joe’s quitting drugs (while at the farmhouse) must have fixed the whole Old Joe sterility problem and they were able to have a baby in the future.
October 10, 2012 at 11:24 am
this is probably the most logical explanation for that scene. thanks.
October 4, 2012 at 1:29 am
Here is what I dot understand:
Young Joe is a looper at middle age. How did the very first instance of Old Joe come to be? How can you kill yourself the first time without getting old first? In the first instance, did Joe simply get recruited as a looper for awhile, lived his life then got sent back in time to get killed by his previous self? If so, this could explain the two instances where Young Joe kills Old Joe and whee Old Joe escapes. Because at that point Old Joe would’ve had the silver and gold to meet his future wife eventually. Money he would’ve had during the first instance.
October 9, 2012 at 11:22 am
I tried to just accept the time travel inconsistencies. The one that was the hardest to handle though is the fact that if young Joe kills himself, and this changes everything enough for Old Joe to simply disappear then logic would state that he would have never been at the field since Old Joe would have actually “disappeared” previously before he ever showed up I guess? I can understand him dying by Young Joe at the execution site, because you could argue a continual loop of opportunities to save yourself, but once you aren’t on this loop anymore, it would seem to get hazy.
I still enjoyed the film, but this was the part that I struggled with the most.
October 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm
There is one plot point that I find particularly difficult to accept, and I haven’t seen anything about it on the interwebs… We are to believe that mobsters from 2074 have to send their victims back in time in order to have them murdered, because it’s nearly impossible for them to kill and dispose of the bodies in 2074. Yet, when they come for Old Joe in China after his 30 years are done, they have no problem shooting and killing his wife on the spot. WTF? Why couldn’t they do the same to Joe and dump his body, or burnt it, or bury it? So it’s hard to kill some people, but not all of them? Doesn’t make much sense to me.
July 17, 2013 at 11:33 pm
Have to disagree with parts of the analysis above. You say that TK is an unneeded addition to the plot of the story which is completely false. The Rainmaker takes over the mob syndicates in the future BECAUSE of the TK mutation. He has an advanced level of the mutation and thus allows him to do what he does in the alternate timeline. Without TK then his powers would just be an unexplained phenomena in the film.
Along with this, you said that you had to create some timeline principles to understand the ending to the film. Time travel is a fuzzy topic at best whenever and wherever you see it, because of the obvious laws of our universe that theoretically make time travel impossible. How can any director make a time travel film that makes complete sense when the present laws on that subject mean it can’t be done? Not only has it been made plausible, I think that the director Rian Johnson did an amazing job in pulling this movie together and making it one of the best films I saw in 2012.