Contains medium-level spoilers, so please read with caution!
It’s been well over a year since the last time that I went to the cinema to see a new release film, but the positive reviews for Rian Johnson’s Looper made me stir and head off into town for a change. Maybe that led to too-highly raised expectations for the film, because while it’s a solid three-star piece of entertainment it’s also rather flawed, frustrating and ultimately disappointing compared to what it could have been.
The premise of the film is that criminals from 30 years in the future send their victims back to 2044 to be disposed of by hired guns called ‘loopers’ such as Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). One day he realises that the victim he’s been sent to kill is his future self (Bruce Willis), and he botches the assignment leading to him being hunted by the big local crime boss, Abe.
So far so good; it’s a good idea with lots of possibilities. The film even has its cake and eats it with regards to time travel, clearly establishing early on that time is fluid and changeable by events in the present which neatly means that almost any script flaws and inconsistencies can be dismissed as unintended consequences of the time changes. The film even has not one but two characters warn us not to think too hard about any of this stuff: “This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg,” says Jeff Daniels, playing Abe.
This is even dramatised early on, first with the unsettling fate of Seth (Paul Dano) which sets up the stakes for Joe, and then we apparently see Joe himself killed as a result of his own failure to complete his self-terminating assignment. But that means he can’t be alive in the future to be sent back to spark the events in the first place; so the film cuts to an alternate timeline in which Joe succeeds in his task, lives his life, ages into Bruce Willis and gets sent back after all … where he once more escapes the attempt on his life by his younger self. It’s a temporal paradox, and the film cleverly establishes the situation in which time itself seeks to find the best-possible workaround from this impossibility even if it means using bits and pieces from mutually incompatible futures. This approach might not make an awful lot of sense in practice but since we don’t know what time travel would mean if it actually existed, it’s as believable as any other theory. In the film’s scenario it’s set up well enough to make possible an ending which would otherwise mean that the entire film could not have taken place at all.
The trouble is that having set up this promising framework and get-out-of-jail-free card, the film then over-abuses its hard-won narrative freedom. It leaves in numerous hints and red herrings of possible significant clues to what’s going on, and then doesn’t bother delivering on them but instead waves its hands and dismisses them as either irrelevant or fragments of futures that are needed by time to make sense of things but which never actually happened. That means any investment in our time trying to follow the plot is essentially pointless. For example, the storyline of the Rainmaker who is the unseen future instigator of the entire film is left unclear and unresolved; the strange scene involving Old Joe’s second target leaves us scratching our heads; or the question of how Sara (Emily Blunt) knows so much about supposedly secret loopers from the start; the matter of Abe’s identity is set up as being significant but then never followed through. As for the ending, there’s an implication of the real identity of Sara’s son Cid’s which cannot be supported by the script as written, but without this dimension the ending becomes a rather weak straightforward rendition of the famous “Kill Hitler” ethical quandary mixed with the grandfather time paradox. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if writer-director Rian Johnson doesn’t have a whole extra hour (or even entire second movie) in his head that properly explains all these undeveloped strands – it feels like they were present early in the development of the script but then had to be dropped for time, budget or clarity to the detriment of the film as a whole.
Instead, the film overall ends up being quite a wild mish-mash of film genres – although I wouldn’t include The Matrix among the influences, even though that has been specifically alluded to in the film’s promotional campaign. The most obvious inspiration is actually The Terminator – something made even more glaring by the casting in a significant role of Garret Dillahunt, who played the main adversarial cyborg in the short-lived The Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV spin-off series. There’s also a strong hint of Inception thanks to the multi-layered, interlinked perplexing narrative and the worthy attempt at producing intelligent but still mainstream science fiction for today’s multiplex crowd.
A large section of the film becomes a traditional Western in which a mysterious stranger (Joe) shows up at a remote farm house and protects a mother (Sara) and her son (Cid) from dangerous gunslingers while also falling in love. And then there’s a strange last act lurch into The Twilight Zone or more specifically Stephen King’s early novels such as Carrie, Children of the Corn and The Shining. There’s even a touch of future city dystopia hinting at Blade Runner, Dredd and Robocop; but by postulating a future that never recovers from the current economic recession, Johnson is able to deploy a derelict vision of 2044 not really very removed from out own except for a few minor touches here and there. Unfortunately this leads to a visually dull, almost TV-movie-of-the-week realisation. (It probably didn’t help that the showing I attended also featured a very dull, murky picture.)
I don’t mind an overt merging of genres (Johnson himself pulled it off excellently with his 2005 breakthrough hit Brick) but here it feels obvious and clunky and far less accomplished than I would expect from someone of his talent. It was noticeable in the showing that I went to how many of the (young) audience started to get restless during the slow-paced ‘Western’ act of the film and started checking their mobile phones. I’d never stoop to that level of discourtesy, but I confess I thought the film dragged at this point and it never really managed to recover in time for its rather obvious final act wrap-up.
All of this sounds very negative, so let me pick up again by saying that a lot of the first half in particular was very well done, gripping and absorbing with some great set-up. The moral debate about the lengths people will go to protect their futures and the people they love is also compelling and at times unsettlingly dark. There’s also some genuinely funny little moments amid the drama, too. The performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and from Emily Blunt as Sara are excellent, as are Daniels and Dillahunt, and there is even a disturbingly realistic portrayal of Sarah’s troubled young son Cid by child actor Pierce Gagnon.
Bruce Willis is also very strong in his early scenes, and in particular in what is easily the best scene in the film by a country mile, the diner meeting between young and old Joe which quite wonderfully captures the impatience and disappointment of youth towards its elders, and the withering scorn and distaste of the older man at being confronted with the shallow, nasty piece of work that he once was. It’s just a huge shame that after this scene, Willis is essentially sidelined for much of the rest of the movie and becomes a Schwarzenegger-esque killing machine with little in the way of significant dialogue.
So we finish this review where we started – closing the loop, as it were – by concluding that while it has some definite strengths and is enjoyable for much of its running time, it’s also flawed, frustrating and ultimately disappointing which makes it hard to rate at more than three stars out of five. That’s significantly lower than I had gone in expecting from the reviews and word-of-mouth, to be honest.
As a ‘bonus extra’, can I suggest that you check out Duncan Jones’ 2011 film Source Code (reviewed previously) if you haven’t already? Here’s another film featuring a twisty time travelling premise and which makes blatant calls on other well-known films, but which actually manages to be smart and intelligent: the more you think about any apparent gaping plot holes the more you realise that actually it makes more and more sense. In exactly the reverse situation to Looper, in other words.