Time travel – it’s a tricky thing to master in cinema. How much does it have to make sense? Completely, at all? “This time-travel stuff fries your brain”, Jeff Daniels’s mob boss Abe says towards the start of the film. So how does director Rian Johnson solve this problem? By asking the audience not to think about it too much. For a time-travel film, Looper isn’t that much about time-travel. Time-travel is used more as an agent to tell a story about family, love, redemption and show the ins-and-outs of some complex characters.
Looper’s plot could easily become convoluted and alienate its audience, but Johnson’s tight structure means that the fast-moving plot always carries the audience along with it. Set in 2044, the film builds itself around the premise of “loopers”, specialised assassins hired to kill off mob targets from thirty years in the future, when time travel has been invented, and get rid of bodies that do not technically exist. “Loopers” are so-called because when, to erase any evidence of the murders, the mob bosses of the future decide to get rid of these assassins, they send them back to their younger selves as their final kill: this is called “closing your loop”. One of these “loopers” is our protagonist, Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose older self he fails to kill, setting in motion a series of events that will eventually lead to a spectacular rural showdown.
We are introduced to a dark and dangerous world, and in a terrifying foreshadowing sequence involving the older version of Paul Dano’s character, we are shown the real threat that faces the protagonist. Ever-thrilling, and most certainly not lacking in action, Johnson also brings an emotional core to the film; these characters have difficult choices to make, and we see the impact these choices have, as well as what leads them to make them. The montage showing Gordon-Levitt’s Joe’s transformation into his older self (played by Bruce Willis) is especially affecting. We care about these characters – from both of Joe’s same-but-different incarnations to Emily Blunt’s gun-wielding single mother
In Looper, Johnson is brave and bold enough to create something original and inventive, something whose world we can get engrossed in. Whether by the subtle acknowledgements that we are in the future – the odd floating vehicle in the background, a genetic mutation causing telekenisis – by the thrilling action sequences, or by the characters themselves: morally ambiguous, complex: it’s with its characters that succeeds where so many sci-fi films fail, it never reduces them to mere stereotypes, or sacrifices their development for the plot. With heart, brain and thrills, Looper brings all of these key elements elegantly and effortlessly together, and the result is both thought-provoking and thrilling – a time-travel yarn definitely worth watching.