“Time travel” is a wonderfully clever avenue for filmmakers, provided they have something new to bring to the party. We all have our favorites like The Time Machine (1960), Time After Time (1979), Back to the Future (1986), and 12 Monkeys (1995), but sometimes the premise gets played out. We can only take so many “time loop story cheats” from Heroes or one of the Star Trek series before the cleverness starts to feel like a crutch. And sometimes, when we’re very fortunate, a filmmaker finds a completely new way to employ time travel tropes, tell a cool story, and subvert an audience’s expectations at the same time. That’s what Rian Johnson and his collaborators have done with Looper, which is one of the cleverest time-travel sci-fi stories of the past several years. And like most very good sci-fi movies, Looper works as a whole lot more than just a nifty piece of speculative fiction.
Let’s keep the plot synopsis simple, because reading this part is boring and Looper is the kind of movie where small discoveries spring up around every corner. Basically, Joe is a “looper,” which means he’s an assassin for criminals who live in the future. They send back the troublemakers; Joe does the dirty work, disposes of the body, and earns a nice reward. But one day Joe is stuck staring at his own face, 30 years older, and he has to find a way to kill his future self. He fails at first, and that’s what kicks off the main plot thread in a movie that boasts four or five rather novel plot threads, but like we agreed earlier, it’s stuff that’s best left to the viewer to discover. I will say that Joe’s manhunt of himself becomes a major problem for underworld thugs (Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Garrett Dillahunt) and an innocent mother (Emily Blunt) of a strange child, but beyond that let’s just say that Looper works as very smart sci-fi, a sometimes brutal action film, and, at its best moments, an unexpectedly thoughtful rumination on things like fate, love, loyalty, and the true “source” of evil.
Most time travel movies are so plainly enamored with their own cleverness that the filmmakers feel required to explain, re-explain, and over-explain how the science works. To his absolute credit, writer/director Johnson tosses this fear aside during one fantastic diner discussion between young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his older self (Bruce Willis). This is a movie about characters, not concept, and once Looper lays down the rules, in both its premise and in its strangely humane approach to such a bizarre story, Looper cruises forward with a confidence and craftiness that’s a trademark of the coolest science fiction films. Both actors are fantastic, as usual, but there’s a novel wrinkle to seeing JGL and Willis “play” each other. It goes well beyond simple impersonation; there’s some really sly acting from both guys. Emily Blunt pops up just as the film gets darker, and her presence adds a warmth (and, fine, loveliness) that proves invaluable for Looper‘s second half.
On only his third movie (after the cult favorite Brick and the charming The Brothers Bloom), Mr. Johnson hits the science fiction genre with an audible crack of enthusiasm and intelligence, and since we don’t get all that many genre films that can be described as smart, sad, exciting, slick, *and* made for grown-ups, here’s hoping that Looper finds an audience at the multiplexes right away instead of having to wait for the home video affection we belatedly afford to sci-fi greats like Dark City, The Iron Giant, Moon, and Blade Runner. Strong sci-fi cinema is fast becoming an endangered species, but flicks like Looper are clearly a move in the right direction.
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