It’s a small fraternity of directors that have taken on the formidable task of helming a time travel movie. Between the potential for audience alienation that comes with heavy duty science fiction, and the third rail of time travel physics, it’s a wonder the group isn’t even smaller—which it is, when you amend the qualification to successful time travel movies. Measuring success in a time travel movie means measuring the success of the explanation of time travel alongside all the other stuff that a movie has to do well. It means walking a tightrope; a tightrope that Director Rian Johnson describes thusly, “On one hand, the sci-fi nerd in me feels there’s a danger not explaining [the time travel], because it can look like plot holes. On the other hand, the story guy in me is like, ‘You know why that’s there, and that’s not what’s important to the story.'” This is the central dilemma for Looper as a film, this balance between saying too much and not saying enough. Because while Johnson spends much of the film’s duration astounding the audience with an exceptional grasp of storytelling and world-building, his ambivalence about the film’s central device ends up blurring the whole.
Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper—a specialized hitman working for a mob boss named Abe (Jeff Daniels). The year is 2044. Thirty years hence time travel has been invented, and subsequently outlawed. Since everyone in the future is carefully tracked by the government, murder is nearly impossible, resulting in the need for guys like Joe; guys who stands in cornfields and shoot weasels and goons sent back from the future. Being a Looper pays well, and Joe stockpiles his cash for the day he can “get out” and have a real life. Which can’t happen until he closes his own loop, killing his future self and thereby ending his membership in the mob. But when that day comes, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) has other plans, and sets into motion a chase that will send two men—or rather, two versions of the same man—gunning for each other.
Making a film that hinges almost entirely on one actor being able to play a younger version of a different actor is incredibly ballsy. There is endless potential for problems here, and Rian Johnson owes JGL a sizable gift basket for his ability to sidestep them. While there’s not a scenario where an audience looks at Joseph Gordon-Levitt and thinks he’s a young Bruce Willis, it is apparently possible to make them forget about the distinction, and that’s what Johnson and Levitt have managed to pull off. The performance from JGL is simply impeccable. It’s certainly aided by a decent makeup job and some colored contacts, but what’s primarily striking about Young Joe is all the Bruce Willis mannerisms Levitt is able to muster. He’s mastered the raspy, Jersey-tinted voice, along with a whole array of familiar facial expressions. But the end result isn’t simply bits and pieces of the Willis persona; it’s ostensibly him. Even in the film’s pivotal scene, where Old Joe and Young Joe share a booth in a diner, and we’re given our best shot at comparing the two versions of the character (which is, at a glance, simply another Bruce Willis no-nonsense hard ass), it’s hard to find any faults with Levitt’s portrayal. He’s that good.
This leads me to the other aspect of Looper that deserves vast praise: Rian Johnson’s dystopian world-building. Like Children of Men before it, Looper has a lot of respect for the reality of our future. There’s quite a bit of economics and politics tucked away in Johnson’s vision, and all of it is thoroughly plausible. From the masses of jobless vagrants to the retro-fitted, solar powered cars, the America of the future has been broken by democracy, and what remains is a world torn and tattered and duct-taped back together. It speaks volumes about Johnson’s vantage point as a filmmaker. In and of itself, this aspect of the film should give producers and studios a lot of confidence about what Rian Johnson can do when given the resources.
Still, it’s not all golden for Looper. So much of the film is tied into time travel that, as the time travel goes, so goes the film itself. Which is fine to a point, but, predictably, the third act unravels a bit. This is a tricky discussion topic without spoiling the film, so I’ll keep it simple: time travel in a story increases the likelihood of plot holes by about 300 percent. Even Back to the Future has some pretty serious missteps when you start to break it down. It’s not necessarily impossible to build a time travel story that aligns perfectly, but to do so you can’t toy with the pieces the way that Johnson does here. I don’t blame him, as his allegiance is ultimately to the story and characters far more than the physics and plausibility of his time travel scenarios, but this is a gamble, and as Looper comes to its close, the gambling simply leads to too many question marks.
But, as I’ve said before, there’s an important difference between trying too hard and not trying hard enough, and Rian Johnson absolutely gets points for effort. Looper is a blast while it’s happening to you, and only starts to diminish a bit when you leave the theater and allow yourself to, you know, think about it. There are so many things happening that you’ll never get bored. And so little time to think that the loopholes won’t reveal themselves until afterward. Which is surely by design. As it leaps through the genres, Looper maintains its sci-fi roots, but it also keeps a toe in action, and even throws some western into the mix, all of which makes for a sundry of exceptionally unique moments. In fact, though it’s not perfect, I can say one thing about Looper that I don’t get to say very often: it will absolutely show you things you’ve never seen before.