Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano
About a third of the way through Rian Johnson’s time-travelling sci-fi thriller Looper, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (both playing protagonist Joe as his older and younger self) sit in a diner discussing time-travel, only for Willis’s older Joe to point out that too much talk of time-travelling will confuse you and make your head hurt. In this sentence, Johnson clearly points out the flaw in his film; it’s just too technical. So much so that for a large portion of the films opening half hour you’re spending your time trying to get to grip with this universe and the lexicon that comes with it, instead of enjoying the film in front of you. However, if this begins to put you off Looper I insist you stick with it as for all its sci-fi brains, Johnson’s film is one with real heart.
“Looper” is the name given to a special type of assassin in 2044, of which Gordon-Levitt’s Joe is one. Time-travel will be invented and instantly outlawed in 2074. But the mob in 2074 has found a way to use time-travel to dispose of those they don’t want around anymore. They send them back to 2044 where Loopers, such as Joe, kill and dispose of the bodies. The only rule is that you must always kill your target; so when Willis, the older Joe, is sent back to be killed by the younger Joe… it all goes ‘Pete Tong’ to put it mildly.
At the heart of Looper is Gordon-Levitt; coming off his assured performance in The Dark Knight Rises, here he manages to prove himself as the action hero while retaining his dramatic muscles he flexed so well in 50/50. Similarly Willis manages to put in one of his finest acting performances; of course he does get a John McClane moment that plants a large, nostalgic smile on your face. But it’s during one of the films many shocking turns, which engulf the second half, that Willis outdoes himself; as we see the older Joe commit such an unforgivable act of violence, the pain of the situation etched in to Willis’s eyes is clear to see.
No matter how accomplished the performances of his two male leads though, this is a film that belongs squarely to writer/director Rian Johnson. It may be very technical to explain, but his take on the time-travel concept is inventive and original. His take on the future is both believable and subtle; this is a world not much different from the one we’re currently in. Kansas in 2044 is on the brink of a great depression, where everyone’s out for him or herself, only the rich now occasionally drive past on Hover-bikes.
Johnson has a keen eye for action too, lest we forget the brilliance of the foot chase sequence from Brick. The action sequences are visually enthralling as well as exhilarating to experience, notably the subsequent shootout following the previously mentioned diner scene. Ending almost as abruptly as it started, this is not a sci-fi film that gets bogged down with an overuse of violence and explosions (see Transformers 2&3 for examples of when this does happen).
It is shortly after this action scene, about midway through the film, that Johnson reveals his narrative shift, which also proves to be his ace card. To reveal details is, in my view, unfair suffice as to say that it involves a stellar performance from Emily Blunt as the protective and determined mother of Cid, played by newcomer Pierce Gagnon (look out for his name in the future). It’s in this second half that Johnson reveals the true heart of his film; it may be a sci-fi thriller on the surface but pull away the techno-talk and we have a tale focused on the importance of family and the idea of nature vs. nurture.
It’s a gutsy move by Johnson, deciding to use the sci-fi genre as a way of tackling such an important topic. But, in the same way Moon dealt with the ideas of loneliness and identity, it’s done in a subtle way that truly tugs at the heart. With Looper, Johnson truly establishes his talent through his mix of sci-fi originality and dramatic tension and cements a star in Gordon-Levitt, one of Hollywood’s finest young actors with a fantastic career ahead.