With his third feature film Looper, writer/director Rian Johnson marks the official return of the smart science-fiction film that works to stimulate audiences while making them think. Such a double-layer genre of “style equals substance” sci-fi has been elusive but more than often successful in Hollywood as studios took a leap of faith on projects like Blade Runner, The Matrix, Dark City, Minority Report, and most recently Inception. I can only assume that the film industry insiders who attended the premiere of Looper at the Toronto International Film Festival also leaned towards that same exercise and brought up comparisons of years past to properly qualify their impressions of the film. In doing so, none could be more accurate than Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, the 1995 mind-bending remake of the French cinema classic La Jetée (which also featured Bruce Willis…). Johnson may have been inspired by the closing scene of Gilliam’s opus, where an innocent child watches an older man fall on his knees after being shot by airport security.
Other worthy comparisons include some of Brian De Palma’s earlier works (especially The Fury) and the Back to the Future trilogy. Worry not, there is no correlation in tone between Doc Brown’s DeLorean adventures and the central plot elements of Looper. But like Robert Zemeckis, Johnson approaches time travel from the viewpoint of subjective consequence, which remains the most fascinating aspect of this very popular concept. Similarly to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance where Marty’s parents must fall in love, Johnson takes pleasure in offering us the same scene more than once but from different angles and outcomes depending on which character he wants us to focus our attention on.
Before I do anything stupid, I should simply refrain myself from revealing much else about Looper. Everything you need to know is in the trailer and anything that happens beyond that is worthy of remaining a complete surprise. However, I should take a moment to elaborate on “approaching time travel from the viewpoint of subjective consequence,” which Zemeckis dived into with light situational humor and Johnson tackled with the much grittier subject of murder. So let’s do some role playing.
Imagine that you’re sent back in time on a mission at the very start of the 20th Century in Germany. You are armed with a gun and asked to walk into a school and put a bullet into a child’s head. You execute the task and realize that the child was a young Adolf Hitler. Did you just commit a horrible crime? Well, that depends on who you ask. Someone from present day will tell you that you just saved the lives of 22 million soldiers now that Germany won’t be invading Poland anytime soon. But teachers who worked at that school will consider you to be a senseless murderer. Obviously, they can’t understand what little Adolf was meant to do later on in his life, but is that a certainty considering he had yet to do it when you murdered him? Once informed, could they not have offered this child more care, more support? Would they not try to reason him out of his destiny while there was still plenty of time to do so? How can you pretend that you are more right than they are?
That’s Looper in a metaphorical nutshell.
At the TIFF premiere on the red carpet, Johnson revealed that it took him a decade to finalize his script. Ten years of thinking about this idea exhaustively, adding components to it and perfecting every bit of dialogue. The last time I recall directors working on a script for a decade (not the development hell rewrites that plague Hollywood, but rather true visionaries perfecting an idea), it was Christopher and Jonathan Nolan on Inception and Darren Aronofsky on Black Swan. Could this be the way great modern movies need to be made? While sitting on his cool concept, Johnson must have thought of something clever, let it sit for a year, re-read it and reworked it with an objective eye since he forgot how he originally felt about it. Not unlike his two leads in Looper, he was able to collaborate with his older self in order to elevate his script from good to great.
The entire production is top notch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt leads the charge in the acting department and has gone through some facial reconstruction for the role (no worries, it’s just make-up). While we all thought it was to ensure that he looks more like Bruce Willis, it strikes me now that it served a much greater purpose. Similarly to the the Oscar-winning turn that Charlize Theron cooked up in Monster, he is hardly recognizable which significantly helps his brilliant performance win us over. Having spent his career playing fun-loving, hopelessly romantic, glass half full characters whose eyes squint whenever he smiles, he truly goes for a drastic departure with Looper. His portrayal of the film’s protagonist is cold, distant, tough and never smile-cracking. Audiences will have to remind themselves of which actor they’re watching on screen.
By offering us an in-depth exploration of how subjectivity can affect events of tragic consequence within the realm of time travel, Johnson has achieved a tour-de-force. At one point in the film, the whole course of events could be severely affected if any of his characters were to die, which makes it impossible to accurately predict what will happen. And what more could we possibly ask for – in this modern era of remade sequels and microwaveable reboots – than an original movie where anything can happen?
The Upside: Brilliant script, inspired storyline, beautiful cinematography, great use of old practical effects, and a performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt that could stand the test of time.
The Downside: A bigger budget could have helped depict a more groundbreaking, grand scale vision of the future.
On the Side: If Hollywood studios could alter time, I wish they’d allocate the Total Recall remake budget to Looper, and put that Total Recall script on ice for a decade until it becomes something worth making into a movie.