How rare is a high-concept science-fiction movie with a good script? So rare that fans go back to Twelve Monkeys or even Blade Runner for examples. Just in this past year, Prometheus was all smoke and mirrors, while In Time turned an irresistible premise into a bad comic book. Looper doesn’t try to be trippy, like the former, or timely, like the latter. But writer-director Rian Johnson delivers on the promise of an absorbing story set in a believably detailed future, and that’s rare indeed.
Johnson is clever at messing with the expectations of genre and setting: In his first film, Brick, modern-day high schoolers spoke Raymond Chandler-esque dialogue as if it were the latest slang. In Looper, which is primarily set in 2044, the characters treat telekinesis, time travel and space-time-continuum-defying suicide in a similarly blasé fashion. Human nature, you see, hasn’t changed: Time travel is just another way for the mob to whack people. Telekinesis is just another way to pick up girls. Meanwhile, the streets of Kansas City are full of starving vagrants, and China (which helped finance the film) is seen as the land of the future.
The unlikely setup is explained in a world-weary voice-over by protagonist Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also anchored Brick). Joe is a looper, a hit man whose targets are sent to him from 30 years in the future. (Dumping corpses in the past, it appears, is even more efficient than melting them in barrels of hydrofluoric acid.) When his bosses have no more use for him, Joe will “close his loop” by murdering his future self, vouchsafing himself three decades of the good life before his foreordained demise. It may sound like a bad deal to anyone who wants to grow old, but Joe’s profession, he notes, tends not to attract “forward-looking people.”
When loopers fail to execute themselves, “bad things happen,” as Joe’s affable boss (Jeff Daniels) puts it. Joe’s problem, we soon learn, isn’t steeling himself for suicide; it’s that he’s going to grow up to be Bruce Willis. A fit Bruce Willis with decades of fighting experience, who is very interested in not dying.
Once you’ve stomached the notion of Willis and Gordon-Levitt being the same person (even with makeup, not an easy feat), Looper goes to unexpected places. It doesn’t devolve into a simple cat-and-mouse chase between the two Joes, or a buddy movie about learning to like yourself across the generation gap. Even after Old Joe has explained his motives, which exceed self-preservation, Johnson keeps the two men at odds by introducing another central character, a rural homesteader (Emily Blunt) with strong motives (and secrets) of her own.
Looper isn’t exceedingly visually flashy or “mind blowingly” complex, like Inception — the last third takes place on a farm, for God’s sake. But, with help from his excellent cast, Johnson establishes old-fashioned, compelling personal stakes. Time travel generates paradoxes aplenty, just as it did in Twelve Monkeys and the Terminator films, but Looper’s focus stays down to earth: It suggests that a person’s older and younger selves can have irreconcilable agendas, even if their values dovetail somewhere down the line. That may not be good news for real-life policy makers trying to persuade young voters to provide for the elderly, but it makes for a great story. And, if time travel did exist, you just know we’d be using it to dump our garbage in the Pliocene.