The dystopian future in Looper, the new time travel movie written and directed by Rian Johnson, is every Democrat’s nightmare of what would happen if the Republicans regained control of the government: no middle class; no social safety net; everyone has guns; and China rules the world economy.
Everyone seems loopy over Looper (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I have to admit it left me more than a bit under whelmed. The basic idea, the conceit, it absolutely brilliant in its high conceptiveness (I love making up words): as anyone who has seen the previews knows, time travel has been invented in the future, but has been outlawed, and only bad guys use it to send people back it time to be assassinated by hired killers, called Loopers (the main one here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). But then things didn’t quite go as I expected. In fact, once this conceit was established, I found the plot just one arbitrary decision after another until I felt the writer was driving the story rather than the concept and the characters changing the gears.
First, I find it almost impossible to believe that all the future governments would have gotten together in order to ban time travel (this is perhaps the Republicans’ nightmare view of what would happen if the Democrats regained power—world peace and cooperation). But let’s let that go; I’m more than willing to at least give that much on the basic set up (hey, I can be a good sport at times).
But things started falling apart for me when it was revealed that at some point, the looper’s future self is sent back for assassination. Why? Well, the only reason really given is that time travel is so illegal (you know, as opposed to only so-so illegal–like marijuana, maybe), they have to be disposed of. Okay, fine. But a week later and I still haven’t figured out the cause and effect here.
When this future looper is sent back, his present day counterpart kills him (himself); realizes that the time has come for him to retire; and he’s given a big payoff so that he can live out the rest of his life the way he would like. Thirty years to be exact. Why thirty? Why not thirty-one? Why not twenty-eight? Why not thirty-three and a third? Do I hear forty two years, one hundred and twenty two days? Again, a week later and I still haven’t figured out the cause and effect here.
But the arbitrariness doesn’t stop there. There are actually two, count them two for the price of one, conceits to the story. It’s not just a high concept movie, it’s a HIGH high concept movie. Some people in this future have suddenly obtained a genetic mutation that gives them a telekinetic ability. I’m not sure why Johnson fell he needed this to be part of the plot. To be ruthlessly honest, it feels like the sort of thing that is added when a writer doesn’t trust his basic concept (which, if so, is too bad, because again, the concept is brilliant) or it’s the only way he can force an ending based on the premise first given. It’s not that it doesn’t play a part in the story, but it just seems so…arbitrary, and not nearly as interesting as the original idea of loopers. But a writer’s got to do what a writer’s got to do, I guess.
It all leads to a showdown on a remote farm run by the only empathetic character in the story played by Emily Blunt (though for me, I just didn’t find her interesting enough to empathize with). You see (and stay with me here), in the future some ruthless gangster has gained control of all gangs and is systematically getting rid of all loopers (how anyone could know what is going on in the future is never explained). This leads to a child being raised by Blunt, a cute as a buttons, barely out of his nappies boy who has such an advanced stage of the telekinesis gene, that in the future it will give him the power to take over everything. (Exactly why he only takes over the gangs when with power like this he could take over the world, well…whatever).
So this new boss must be eliminated, because the men he sends out after Gordon-Levitt’s future looper (played by Bruce Willis) accidentally kill his future wife and Willis must stop this from happening. So, the goal is kill this kid so he won’t grow up to be a ruthless, sociopathic gangster that will do anything to gain power as opposed to the way everybody else grows up if the new boss never came along—ruthless, sociopathic gangsters that will do anything to gain power. But at least the future wife will still be alive (well, I guess—I mean, she died unintentionally so it could have happened no matter who ran the gangs, but a reason was needed for the future looper to come back, no matter how….arbitrary, I guess).
Wow, that was kind of exhausting.
At the same time, the movie is technically arresting, creating a very convincing nightmarish future, though perhaps the most impressive and moving shots are not the crumbling cities, but a lonely diner and farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. There are also some beautiful shots of an Asian city in the future that would be perfect for one of those 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles. And there are also some moments of wit, not just in the dialog, but in the way Gordon-Levitt mimics Willis’s facial expressions. But perhaps the emotional high point is the rather stunning and deeply emotional moving way Johnson ends the story; no matter what had come before, the ending does get to you.
This is the second time that Gordon-Levitt has joined forced with Johnson. They first worked together on the high school, hard boiled film noir Brick, a cult favorite (something I have little doubt that Looper will also become). I actually sorta have the same issues with Brick as I do here. The concept of teenagers acting like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and talking like Sam Spade was arresting at first (though my immediate reaction was actually, I’ve seen Bugsy Malone, I don’t quite get the originality here), but in the end, I started losing interest because I felt the concept was driving the story and little else. It was the same here.
But also like Brick, I realize I’m going to be on the outside of the zeitgeist here. Johnson is brilliant at concepts and is every studio’s dream. The fact that he and I don’t see eye to eye will probably in the end say more about me than him.