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‘Looper’ is one of the best science-fiction films of the last 20 years

Directed by Rian Johnson
Written by Rian Johnson
USA, 2012

If there’s any justice in this world, we’ll look back on Looper in 10 or 20 years, and pinpoint it as the moment when Rian Johnson entered into the realm of stardom. Though he proved his directing savvy with Brick and The Brothers Bloom, it’s Looper that cements Johnson as an exciting and ambitious auteur, someone whose next film is something we should all be anticipating breathlessly, no matter what it ends up being. We may soon drown in the hyperbole surrounding Looper, but every so often, a film earns such high praise. Looper is a thrilling and daring story that earns its place next to The Matrix and Children of Men as one of the best science-fiction films of the past 20 years.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a criminal who works as a looper in Kansas City, circa 2044, when time travel has yet to be invented. However, in 2074, time travel not only exists, but it’s outlawed and used only by major criminal syndicates. When these gangsters want someone in their time dead, they send the unfortunate soul back to 2044 in a specific spot, where loopers kill and dispose of the bodies. One day, Joe finds himself tasked with closing his loop, also known as killing…himself. The older Joe, that is, played by Bruce Willis. The 2074 version of Joe, however, is prepared to fight off his younger self, and runs away with a mysterious plan in mind to change the future. Both versions of Joe are soon on the run from each other, and from Abe, the mob boss in charge of loopers (Jeff Daniels), who wants Joe’s loop closed at any cost.

One reason why Looper is so exhilarating, so gripping, is that Johnson, who wrote the film, has plenty of surprises up his sleeve. It’s rare to applaud a movie’s marketing campaign, but whoever came up with the trailers for Looper deserves a pat on the back. All you need to know to hightail it to the multiplex is that Bruce Willis travels in time to meet his younger self—the rest, you should find out on your own. Johnson’s script is smart and perceptive for myriad reasons, deftly balancing complex concepts with riveting action sequences. The question of whether a person would travel back in time to, say, kill Hitler to prevent the Holocaust and World War II is commonplace by now. However, by analyzing a similar dilemma in Looper, Johnson chooses to deals with the emotional ramifications of what changing the future means, how it changes a person. That aside, Looper is equally intelligent because it never forgets to be a hell of a lot of fun. Johnson knows how to make an audience laugh (Daniels gets the wittiest dialogue in a movie bursting at the seams with it), to move them, and to compel them. From the opening scene, Johnson sets the tone for a story that’s concurrently darkly funny, twisty, and tense.

The futuristic world of Looper—close to our own, with a few tweaks, such as telekinesis treated as normal and hovering motorcycles—is steeped in noir conventions, from the younger Joe’s dry, knowing voiceover narration to his fashion sense to the shadows lurking around every corner in the grimy, forbidding city. Within this setting and the other primary location, a Kansas farmhouse, Johnson, as well as production designer Ed Verreaux and cinematographer Steve Yedlin, gets to subtly yet confidently build a unique environment that’s still hauntingly familiar. From the sets to the achingly sad score by Nathan Johnson to character beats like Joe learning to speak French, Looper threads the needle between being a propulsive action film and a probing look at how we have the ability to be implacable and stubborn, to stick with something and ignore the good sense telling us otherwise.

Gordon-Levitt, in some ways a muse for Johnson, delivers another assured performance as Joe, confirming that he’s one of the most enjoyable and talented young actors. He’s been a vital and interesting performer for a long time; though others may have blanched under the conditions of playing Joe (he’s made to look like what Willis would’ve looked like 30 years ago), he thrives with the extra challenge of resembling what Willis was like physically and aurally when he was younger. Willis, no stranger to science fiction (12 Monkeys is a superior entry in the sci-fi genre), acquits himself nicely as the older, more world-weary and mature Joe. Despite a spotty overall filmography, he’s always been talented, just as able to project emotion as when he fires a weapon. In Looper, he gets to do plenty of both, yet he’s strongest with the emotional material, appropriately injecting weighty pathos into the proceedings.

Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon have pivotal roles in the second half of the film as a mother and son who help the younger Joe out as he figures out a way to fend off his future. Blunt, especially, wipes away any memory of her more glamorous roles with a versatile turn as Sara, who’s tougher than she initially looks. Gagnon may not act again in his entire life, but that would be a crying shame. Playing Sara’s 5-year old son, Gagnon is disturbingly good, always natural in his interactions and not at all precocious. In smaller roles, Daniels, Noah Segan, and the chameleonic character actor Garret Dillahunt get to work with various antagonistic traits, the gruff leader, the wounded underling, and the no-nonsense specialist. Though each are quite good, Daniels, in his first scene, threatens to walk away with the whole film, oozing snake-oil-salesman-style charm.

Looper is the product of an exceptionally confident filmmaker, someone who knows exactly what he’s doing, whose talents are on full display. Looper is also a fantastically entertaining hybrid of science fiction, romance, drama, and action, a film that begs to be seen repeatedly, simply to further drink in its pleasures. Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt headlines the film, this is Rian Johnson’s show. Looper is his entrée into the big time, something so worthy that he now genuinely deserves to be compared to Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. Looper, easily one of the best films of the year, is the kind of film that demands attention be paid, and absolutely deserves it. If you were let down with the majority of the summer’s splashy, big-budget blockbusters, take heed: Looper is the movie you’ve been waiting for.

— Josh Spiegel