Rian Johnson’s superb ‘Looper’ is the best Hollywood sci-fi of recent memory

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Looper
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
USA/China, 2012

Of its numerous strengths, one of Looper’s greatest is that, despite featuring narration by its lead character, it heavily relies on visual storytelling to successfully convey both information and emotion. The narration delivers as little exposition as necessary to begin understanding both of its dystopian worlds, and its characters, respecting the viewer’s intelligence and leaving further comprehension down to them. In no way does this make Looper’s fictional world, one of time-travel that blends sci-fi and crime film conventions, feel at all under-realised. The world is, in fact, fully rendered and often beautifully so: see a montage depiction of one key player’s past, or rather future, that spans years but is completely without dialogue, motivations becoming clear for the viewer long before this character needs to spell it out for his younger self much later in the film. Additionally of note is a horrific but gloriously executed sequence of torture, also dialogue-free, that conveys the narrative’s logic regarding time travel and the effects actions in the film’s present can still have on one’s future self.

The film is set in and around Kansas in 2044. Time-travel has not yet been invented, but thirty years on from then it has been. Immediately outlawed, its use is relegated to organised criminal organisations: with corpse disposal a much more difficult task in 2074, gangsters send targets for extermination back in time to 2044, where they are immediately assassinated on the spot by hired guns known as loopers. Supervised by mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), sent back from 2074 to oversee their operations, loopers are rewarded with silver payments that arrive with their bag-headed victims. Their career will eventually come to an end when a victim arrives with gold strapped to their backs: this means they have killed their future self from thirty years ahead, sent back in time so as to dispose of any and all traces of the time travel operations. A looper will then be safe in the knowledge that he has the financial support to live his remaining thirty years however he wishes.

Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is accepting of this, and prepares for future travels by studying French and later Mandarin, but begins to notice that loopers are starting to have to terminate their future selves with alarming frequency. One fateful day, he is taken aback by the arrival of his future self (Bruce Willis) at the designated spot for execution: older Joe is curiously without a bag on his head to disguise his identity, and promptly knocks out his surprised younger self to escape. There is now an unexpected riff in the process of the looper operations, and Abe orders the termination of both versions of Joe, though Levitt-Joe can perhaps change his situation if he tracks down and kill Willis-Joe himself. Willis-Joe, meanwhile, has his sights set on wiping out the younger incarnation of a feared presence in the further future, one behind considerable destruction and the increase in looper hits.

With Willis-Joe looking to change the past to alter directions of his future, The Terminator is the film most vividly recalled: Emily Blunt’s character, a gun-toting, protective mother of major importance, is even called Sarah. Writer-director Rian Johnson, as evidenced by Brick in particular, has clear fascinations with genre history, and Looper references, but wisely doesn’t imitate or ironically wink at, concerns and themes of other time-travel films. Something like Witness also seems like a clear influence, mood-wise, in the second-half’s country-set stretches, with Levitt-Joe holed up with Sarah, who may or may not be the mother of the future harbinger of doom. The film is so clearly inspired by famed genre characteristics, but its stylistic and tonal influences exist for the purpose of supporting its own original story.

This is a work concerned with character and moral concerns rather than logistical intricacies; knowing the paradoxical discussions his narrative’s version of time-travel will provoke, Johnson even has an aside where the older Joe rejects explaining the logistics of the process because it will only confuse and distract. The rejection is not an admission of defeat on the part of the writer, but an acknowledgement that the film has more pressing, interesting issues. Chief among these are the questions of what sins you would be willing to commit if the punishment wouldn’t occur for a clear and designated lengthy period, and of what would you be willing to do to obtain the life you feel you deserve. The film consistently pushes the limits of morality, operates in unrelenting tension, and is bravely uncompromising for a Hollywood feature of a relatively large scale. The story thrives because the goals of all of its well developed characters are fully realised but completely incompatible with one another.

Showcasing both city and country settings, Looper’s look is refreshing in that it feels curiously timeless. Though there are genre flourishes like the odd hover-bike and telekinesis-based mutations, the vision of 2044 is inherently believable thanks to its low-key simplicity. The city setting has vague influences from cyberpunk fiction, but the visual execution of this is not overly pronounced. Disparate styles from various existing eras (e.g. old-fashioned guns, “60s cool” apparel, cars that wouldn’t look out of place today) blend together to create a recognisable landscape, further enhanced by its use of a dystopia that follows an economic collapse (hence the payment in silver and gold), and a divide between city and country in such an environment that recalls the Great Depression.

Johnson’s regular collaborator Steve Yedlin provides some truly sumptuous cinematography with a successful alternation between both warm and icy visuals. The action sequences are also great, aided by a clear sense of special relation and adrenaline-inducing framing and camera movement. Much credit must also be given to the excellent cast. The leads are all great, Blunt in particular giving one of her best performances to date, while Johnson favourite Noah Segan is a delight as an inconsistently effective henchman. Special mention must also be given to the ever-reliable Garret Dillahunt; he’s only present in two scenes, but one of them is an extraordinary work of dread and terror that is one of the film’s strongest sequences. Looper, as a whole, is a remarkably strong work. Sharply written, clever, unsettling, thrilling, darkly comic, uncompromising, and possessing a thorough, original vision, it may well be the best sci-fi film to come out of Hollywood in a very long time.

Josh Slater-Williams

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