With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Piper Perabo. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content. 118 minutes.
The odd thing about Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis both being in LOOPER is not that they both play the same character, but that they’ve both made much better films just like this. Gordon-Levitt was in the equally complex “Inception” and Willis was in the twisted time travel tale “12 Monkeys.” Here, writer/director Rian Johnson takes an interesting premise – a man tasked with murdering his future self – and adds so many extraneous complications that he loses his way. Viewers are likely to be intrigued, but not completely satisfied.
Joe (Gordon-Levitt) lives in the year 2042 but works for gangsters from the year 2072. See, time travel has been invented but instantly outlawed, so apparently the only working device is held by a criminal boss who uses it to eliminate people. A person marked for death is sent back, bound and masked, to 2042 where Joe or one of his counterparts kills him and disposes of the body. No fuss, no muss. Of course the killers are themselves loose ends and know one day they will have to close the loop by executing their future selves. They can then enjoy a well-paid 30-year retirement until their time is up.
If that sounds a bit contrived – are there really no other time machines, not even in later centuries? – at least it sets up the premise where Old Joe (Willis) shows up and Joe hesitates, giving his future self the chance to escape. The confrontation between past and future selves, each with different agendas, is intriguing. Johnson, though, might have brought in a science fiction writer with some familiarity with the paradoxes of time travel stories. We see that the 2072 characters can be altered by changes to their 2042 selves, but since they’re from the future wouldn’t those changes have already taken place? At one point, old Joe complains that a discussion about time travel will turn into making diagrams with straws and he wants no part of it. Neither, apparently, did Johnson, because he ignores most of the issues he raises.
Abe (Jeff Daniels in a nice turn) is the local crime boss who has come from the future and lives in 2042 under tight security. Why? What’s in it for him? Isn’t he imprisoned in the past unable to enjoy his ill-gotten gains? Then there’s the out-of-left field plot point that some people have mutated to have telekinetic abilities, able to move things with their minds. It’s raised and then disappears for long stretches of the story only to prove crucial late in the film. It feels like Johnson painted himself into a corner with his time travel story and retrofitted it with this additional gimmick to get himself out.
Indeed the film slows down to a crawl midway through as Joe, Old Joe, and Abe are all chasing each other, hiding, or looking for a child who is destined to become the “Rainmaker,” who is singlehandedly taking over the 2072 crime syndicate. Since Joe is hiding out on a farm run by Sara (Emily Blunt), who is taking care of her orphaned nephew, it’s not too hard to see where all this is heading, especially if you’ve seen the “Terminator” movies. The payoff is something that turns out to be clever but little more than that, lacking the emotional punch that was clearly intended.
With a talented cast and an unusual premise, “Looper” had the opportunity to be the science fiction movie of the year. Instead, it’s a muddled echo of several other films where the filmmakers treated their ideas as something more than a gimmick.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.