"In fact if you look at some of the best time travel movies, if you look
closely at their time travel mechanics, it makes sense on a storytelling
level but time travel doesn't really make sense. You don't have to dig
too deep into any movies to find any paradoxes that don't add up. So
it really boils down to good storytelling vs. bad storytelling."
Writer/Director Rian Johnson
It's a fair point. If you can tell a good story with care, originality, imagination and verve, you can slip the most absurd logic past audiences (unless you've just written or directed Prometheus). Do audiences only care about giving a damn, being entertained, being provoked and in some cases damaged? I certainly do. It's only those irritating moments when you say "Hang on..." and then go on to point out something you feel in your very DNA the writers should have thrashed out a lot better and more convincing than what you're being presented with and asked to swallow. Slight deviation (Looper review starts in the second paragraph); do you want about twenty instances of a seeming dereliction of screenplay logic duty? Then read my Prometheus Blu-ray review coming out around its release date of 8th October. If those questionable ideas and moments were done on purpose (of course they were, these people are not idiots) I would just love to know why... I've read many interviews with the credited writers and Damon Lindelhof even admits he's both warmed and burned by the flame of the unknowable big questions... Then don't ask the bloody things or set up an audience to desire those answers for tantalizing months or even a year in advance... If you know you can't make me go "Wow!" then don't set up the damn potential to do so in the first place. Sheesh. Rant saved for later.
Making a science fiction time travel movie, logic wise, is like being the man with the hat in the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You have to have everything covered, all risks and dangers mapped out... One mis-step and the whole thing falls around your ears or you get a poisoned arrow in the ass. Time travel has cliché traps all over the place but director Johnson has done his work diligently. He has set up two all too believable future worlds, a series of interesting if not exactly morally defensible characters and a gold-clad destiny for each of them. Despite a couple of Act Two longeurs (enjoyable scenes to be sure but less pacey than the rest of the picture) and one instance of crowbarring an idea into the movie which screams "I'm specifically here only to pay off later...", the film is a fine, solid success. One of the keys to this is Joe (winningly played by golden boy-wonder du jour, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a character who only does the right thing once in the entire movie. That's a small exaggeration but this is the sort of character that no sane source of film funding would cheerfully back. He's cold-blooded, self-centred and no friend to have in a pinch. Essentially, the guy's a bastard. To say he's morally ambiguous is like saying Hannibal Lecter is nice to animals.
Joe is a Mafia hit man, killing countless victims sent back from the future (where it is too difficult to get rid of a body due to tracking technology). It's just occurred to me that Loopers would not be needed in a previous time if the time travel technology would only be used for dead body disposal. Kill them in the future, chuck them away in the past. This is one of those pesky ideas that spokes the wheel of an otherwise perfectly crafted movie. Then the Loopers themselves would be organic dustmen instead of the tortured, morality-compromised souls that mass killing inevitably produces. Apologies. That's like saying to Chief Brody in Jaws, "Here's a hand grenade. As soon as you say 'Slow ahead... I can go slow ahead. Come on down and chum some of this shit...', pull the pin and prepare to drop the live grenade into a gaping mouth that may present itself to you. Amity Island problem solved. I hear they need a new Mayor...
Strapped on to the back of the bodies, which pop into existence on a prepared sheet for easy disposal, is payment for the hit (in silver bars). If the payment is in gold, then the victim turns out to be the assassin's future self. The loop is closed. The killer then retires knowing one day he'll be bundled into a time machine and sent back to die by his younger self's hand. Got that? To give credit, the movie never lets you lag behind in understanding the premise which is pretty crucial to enjoying the movie's premise. There is a moment when a key scene is repeated Rashomon-like and for a teasing split second I thought the projectionist had projected the reels out of order (yes, my local still projects real 35mm film). But as the scenes progressed I realized that it was telling the story of Joe's older self, how he came to be Bruce Willis. It's a clever montage and Willis's execution (pun intended) is sympathetic and convincing. He's less John McClane and much more James Cole from Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. Willis does damaged and vulnerable so well when directed to do so.
When not killing people, younger Joe lives in hedonistic excess; down time is party time and the preferred drug of choice, taken via the eyeball, is consumed avidly with potential withdrawal ruinous. He's saving up for a rainy day hoarding half his silver. It's only when his best friend turns up admitting he didn't (or couldn't) kill his future self, does the movie drop a cog and throw Joe for (uh...) a loop. While Doctor Who has the mortgage on the more smiley, happy-meal time travelling, Looper has a firm handle on the horrific. The society of 2044 is instantly recognizable via some very deft production design (lots of retro fitting and nods to some future gadgets) but everyone seems to be packing heat and justice via shotgun blast seems the way things are done here. This place is a dark cousin of Judge Dredd's Mega City One but with no discernible law enforcement. And it feels supremely unsettling to think the film-makers have probably got it right. It's an uneasy place to live. Throw in the time travel element and what can happen to people from the future if you have power over their younger selves is featured in one of the most disturbing scenes on screen I've seen for a while. I won't spoil the nasty surprise but the temporal logic is impeccable.
Sent from the future to supervise the Loopers is Joe's boss, played with villainous gusto by mild mannered Jeff Daniels. He apparently got the part by physically proving he could act against type by throwing director Johnson against a wall. He's terrific in the role. He knows how Joe's life will pan out so throws out subtle guidance to his own surrogate son of a sort. Once the spanner's in the works, Joe hides his friend and accompanies Daniels' henchmen for a little word. Daniels is electrifying in this scene implying a casual access to the most appalling torture and violence but instead he plays the psychological cards. It's his sublime believability that convinces Joe to do the right thing by his boss and the oh-so wrong thing by his friend. Soon after, Joe finds himself in the same situation as his friend. How easy is it to pull the trigger on the older version of yourself?
But older Joe (Bruce Willis) has a surprise for his own murderous but callow youthful self. He's on his own mission (one that I won't reveal) but he's hunting down specific people and given our society's feelings towards those people, I think Willis was brave to take on the role, a tough part to play sympathetically. Every character has very solid reasons for what they do and their motivations are never suspect. Placed in similar dilemmas, most of us would do what these characters are pushed into doing. Rounding out the strong cast is an actress who manages to be both believable as an 'ordinary' person (whatever that is) and simultaneously appealing as movie actors seem to have to be. Emily Blunt plays a farm girl who gets caught between both versions of Joe and of course her role is significant to such a degree that her future behaviour becomes part of the resolution of the narrative in an elegant and extremely satisfying way. She's utterly convincing and helps the film immeasurably as the dark twisted time travel violent thriller pauses to spend a little time on the farm.
Looper is solid entertainment with cracking performances and special effects. Its story is inventive and always surprising and the worlds it creates are frighteningly realistic. It's not a patch on The Matrix for shock value and sheer blast of originality (if The Matrix was not in tone and content, it sure was in execution). Let's face it, The Matrix pulled the entire motorway of action cinema and pointed it in a completely new direction for good or ill. Looper will intrigue many and entertain most but I don't think it's redefining cinema as it does so. Still, it's well worth a look.