In Chris Marker’s groundbreaking 1962 time travel film La Jetee, the woman (Helene Chatelain) in the film refers to the films time-traveling protagonist (Davos Hanich) as a ghost. Later in the film, the man realizes that as a child he witnessed his own death at the hands of a time traveling assassin. La Jetee in many ways became the first time traveling ghost story. Director Rian Johnson has regarded La Jetee as one of the inspirations for his new film Looper.
Time travel films are the greatest ghost stories science fiction has to offer. The very idea of people from the future and past commingling with people in the present offers countless waves of possible interweaving conflict. The logic of time travel itself in these films is often thoughtfully constructed and mind-numbingly complex. Luckily, Rian Johnson is a fan and student of sci-fi film, so with Looper he’s constructed a narrative logic for time that is mostly sound and very well conceived.
Consider this a major spoiler warning. If you read any further before seeing Looper, you can’t go back in time and forget you’ve read it.
There is a scene in Looper where Bruce Willis (Old Joe) and Joseph Gordon Levitt (Young Joe) sit across from each other in a diner. As these two men (really one man rewriting his timeline) sit across from each other, Young Joe tries to rationalize the science of their circumstance. Old Joe simply looks at him and says it would be a waste of time to sit there for hours and draw diagrams trying to understand it all. Perhaps this was Rian Johnson’s inside joke to audiences; a warning not to think too deeply about the fictional concept of time travel. I didn’t heed the warning.
Looper sees time in continuous loops of action that run clockwise with outcomes always coming full circle. This is how we are to understand time was perceived in the world of Looper before the invention of time travel. Time travel offers opportunities to close loops and bridge into new alternate timeliness with different outcomes and often artificially manipulated stakes. There are basically three loops presented in the film that circle around the action of Young Joe and his older self. The Infographic below outlines these loops in the clockwise motion of their cause and effect.
(Click here or on the image to expand the size)
The first loop Johnson presents in the film is loop number 2. Johnson then flashes back to loop number one to understand where and with what intention Old Joe came into the second loop. The bridge between loops 1 and 2 comes when loop 1 is closed by the Rainmaker sending Old Joe back to be killed by Young Joe. In this second loop, the Rainmaker, a futuristic criminal overlord of sorts grows into a vengeance seeking villain of the future. We are led to believe the Rainmakers intentions for closing the Looper’s loops are to find his mothers killer, Old Joe, and kill him by sending him back. Young Joe however closes this second loop preventing any of that from happening. By killing himself before Old Joe has the chance to harm anyone, he takes us into the third loop where the film ends. We don’t know what happens in this third timeline now that Joe is gone.
That’s how the three loops in the film work. There is however one major loophole that is never explained, and quite honestly can’t be. Why is Young Joe tasked with killing Old Joe in the first timeline to begin with if the Rainmaker doesn’t even seek vengeance until the following loop? This is one of those things that is just necessary to the story. Thinking about it is enough to drive you mad. Quite frankly, dwelling on it is an unnecessary distraction from enjoying what is ultimately a really well conceived and thrilling film.
You could conclude that the mere invention of time travel itself in Looper has created multiple overlapping timeliness that have jumbled cause and effect throughout time. You could also conclude that perhaps the Rainmaker’s telekinetic abilities are the films Macguffin for explaining the unknown power of time itself. Who knows. All I really know in the end is that Rian Johnson has made a great science fiction film that ranks up there with Back to the Future, Timecrimes, and La Jetee itself.