chris kilby -> RE: Looper (31/10/2012 4:56:54 PM)
Dystopia, dat topia…
Science fiction is always about the present not the future, whether intentionally or not. It can’t help but reflect the times which produced it – all those giant bugs and alien invasions in the 1950s which amplified then-current anxieties about The Bomb and The Red Menace. And look how Star Trek has never failed to reflect the prejudices, preoccupations and fashions of the last 50 years. There’s nothing as dated as yesterday’s future.
So it’s worrying that Looper’s future Kansas (just 30 years hence) is more Grapes of Wrath than Blade Runner. More depressed dustbowl than neon-drenched metropolis. Sure there might be the odd flying motorbike, but at the rate we’re going no-one will be able to afford to put petrol in them. Assuming there’ll be any petrol left, of course.
In a lot of ways Looper is truer to the spirit of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than Blade Runner was. The poverty, the homelessness, the boarded-up windows and general state of disrepair (not to mention the sort of yawning chasm between rich and poor you only get in third world countries) smacks of the entropy at the heart of Dick’s novel. Or “Kipplisation” as he called it. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
Looper is the first post-Credit Crunch science fiction movie and it’s sober viewing. America is in terminal decline while China is in the ascendant. One empire falls as another one rises; economic apocalypse replacing the more traditional nuclear or eco variety and all too depressingly plausible as a result. Between this and Dredd, the future isn’t bright any more. It isn’t even artily shot like a commercial any more!
Looper is a bleak, despairing film for our troubled times. A futuristic film with no hope for the future. Still, it could be worse. It could be raining. It also shares the oppressive, brooding atmosphere of some of Bruce Willis’ finest films – Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable. The less Willis smirks the better. And he certainly has an eye for a good genre script. Except Surrogates obviously…
Looper’s intriguing premise is ingenious if a bit of a stretch. A “Looper” is a professional killer. But none of yer “cool” movie assassin bullshit. What sort of assassin uses a blunderbuss - “A gun for fuck-up turkeys”? These guys aren’t cool. They’re douchebags. Just like the real thing. Crude mob hitmen hired to whack helpless, trussed-up victims sent back through time to be disposed of. (Um, why go to all that bother anyway? What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned slug in the back of the neck? Or concrete boots? "Tracking devices," my ass!)
They’re not too bright or well-respected either. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe himself ruefully acknowledges with the fatalism of the doomed, noir antihero (and moral vacuum) that he is: “This job doesn’t attract the most forward thinking people.” Loopers are well-paid (in silver, as in “thirty pieces of…”) but only have a limited amount of time to spend it before Fate comes a-knocking and they themselves are sent back in time to be whacked by their younger selves! Not only are Loopers fuck-up turkeys who vote for Christmas, they are fuck-up turkeys who stuff themselves. This could just as easily be called Loser. Or Leaper. As in lemmings.
“Looper” also hints at a closed loop or predestination paradox, of course. Which is precisely what happens when Joe fails to “close the loop” on his older self when he arrives in the no-nonsense form of Bruce Willis who, unsurprisingly, has his own agenda. Young Joe fucks up, “letting his loop run.” Old Joe gets away. This is when things start getting weird…
It’s a great set-up. Sure, the central conceit’s hard to swallow and it’s a bit heavy on the exposition at the start. But whadaya expect with this sort of thing? Besides Joe’s hardboiled voiceover kinda adds to the carefully-cultivated noir-y ambience in a “They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper” sorta way.
Joe’s a great protagonist. He’s a great antagonist too. It’s that kind of movie. He’s not even an antihero. He is an incredibly unsympathetic character. Both of him. Especially for a big-ish budget studio event movie, however “indie” in spirit. Young Joe is “a killer, a junkie with a child’s mentality. Self-absorbed and stupid.” And while Old Joe likes to think otherwise, he hasn’t changed. Not really. It’s a central trope of this film.
Without doing anything as crude or obvious as an impression (aided by an unobtrusive make-up job with, I suspect, some subtle CG-augmentation) the versatile Levitt is so convincing as a young, smirking Moonlighting-era Bruce Willis you want to slap him too! Willis isn’t to be sniffed at either. Few A-listers would be prepared to play such a character considering the atrocities he commits. The older Willis gets the better he gets. Like a fine wine. Or maybe a good bourbon. And we should cherish him for it. Bruce does get to be Bruce at one point, though. Actually, Bruce gets to be Arnie at one point. It’s exciting but curiously out of place. Looper just isn’t that kind of film. It’s like watching Blade Runner turn into Total Recall for five minutes. And that’s before he turns Terminator when the plot takes a detour down Would-You-Kill-Hitler-As-A-Child? Boulevard.
Willis and Levitt’s eerily convincing coffee shop face-off is the most electrifying since Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. Old Joe tries to warn his headstrong, not-too-bright, younger self about his future. About their future. But Young Joe, being headstrong and not-too-bright, doesn’t listen. Of course he doesn’t. Given our time over again would we do things differently or just make exactly the same mistakes? Or bigger mistakes? If I knew then what I know now… it probably wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. It’s one of the great philosophical imponderables and the thematic heart of the film. It’s also the bleakest message of all.
Old Joe also warns Young Joe (and the audience!) not to think too much about the precise ins-and-outs of time travel or they’ll end up having to resort to diagrams. Like Back to the Future Part II, presumably. This is glib but welcome. Indeed, we are repeatedly warned not to dwell too much on the trans-temporal intricacies of the plot. “Time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.”
You can say that again. Especially when it appears that events never play out exactly the same way twice. That time travel, by its very nature, inevitably changes things as a matter of course. Re-writes history, alters reality (and our memories along with it) and probably creates parallel universes every time it takes place. It’s The Sound of Thunder. It’s the biggest, most brain-frying concept in the movie. And it is never explicitly stated. It’s just there. In the background. Waiting to be earnestly discussed, debated and theorised about. For ever. Not that you have to bone up on quantum mechanics to enjoy Looper. But I bet Rian Johnson did!
So not one for fanboys who like to be spoonfed, who demand that everything is spelled-out for them in mindnumbingly pedantic detail, or who absolutely insist on that every “i” is dotted and “t” is crossed. Although I expect the nitpickers had a field day.
Like Blade Runner’s flying cars, convincingly humanoid robots and colonisation of other worlds, oh, seven years from now, time travel by 2074 seems at best… unlikely. If only the same could be said of Looper’s all-too-plausibly rundown future.
How come time travel is exclusively in the hands of criminals and not the military or corporations? And thuddingly unimaginative, unambitious criminals at that. It’s like a nuke falling into the hands of those mutts in Donnie Brasco. Or chimps getting hold of computers. Er...
Will people Still be smoking in the future? I doubt it. I’m not talking health Nazis or awareness of the risks. The way things are going, fags’ll be 100 quid a packet by then!
Oh, and it wasn’t exactly subtle how the whole 10% “TK” (telekinetic) thing was introduced. Yeah, like that won’t be important later. When Looper does an abrupt volte face and turns into The Fury...
Time travel and telekinesis are just a means to a storytelling end anyway. Looper isn’t about tachyons or ESP. It’s about a lot of things. But it’s mainly about people. It’s about how we are all the products of our upbringing and wider social and historical forces beyond our control. Monsters aren't born, they're made. Nurture not nature. Although it’s nature which ultimately triumphs in the end. Or does it? Looper's ending is ambiguous to say the least. If power corrupts doesn't absolute power corrupt absolutely?
Scars – emotional and physical, are a recurring motif throughout. One poor sod watches helplessly in unimaginable horror as, one-by-one, his digits, limbs and other extremeties just disappear, the terrible wounds having long-since scarred over. The mindbending result of his younger self being tortured – the fate which awaits Old Joe should Young Joe be captured. Consequences is a huge theme here. How the future is haunted and shaped by the past. Bruce’s mutilated ear is like Jack’s slashed nose which makes Looper a time twisting Chinatown.
It’s a disorienting experience is time travel. Hence the recurring visual motif of the cream swirling in a cup of coffee. Like a maelstrom. And the eye of the temporal storm is The Rainmaker; the unseen bogeyman (who sounds suspiciously like Heroes’ Sylar) whose future reign of terror is of course tied to Joe in some way. Let’s just say The Rainmaker doesn’t pussyfoot around when it comes to fucking with causality. He is more than willing to play fast and loose with established history. But precisely why this guy is so hellbent on “closing the loop” on all Loopers and vagrants alike is never explicitly spelled out either although the clues are drip fed throughout and left for attentive audience members to piece together for themselves. And while it isn’t exactly hard to figure out, vital clues to The Rainmaker’s true identity are neatly scattered among the costumes and set decoration.
Great as Willis and Levitt are, Looper isn’t just The Bruce and Joe Show. The supporting cast excel too. Emily Blunt is right. As in no-nonsense. As in take no prisoners. A believably tough yet vulnerable gun-toting mom, this is a real departure for her and the best she’s ever been, I think
With his reedy voice perpetually on the point of cracking and that look on his face like a cross between a neurotic Karen O and a constantly perplexed Tamsin Greig, Paul Dano is Hollywood’s go-to hysteric at the moment.
Jeff Daniels is effectively cast against type as Abe, the seemingly genial Godfather sent from the future to run the loopers and the city - “Any other city that’d be impressive.” While laughs are as thin on the ground as you’d expect, Abe mocks Young Joe’s style: “The movies you’re copying are just copying other movies.” A bit cheeky in the age of endless sequels and pointless remakes, but also self-deprecating coming from the director of the homage-tastic Brick aka: The Maltese Classroom.
If knowledge is power, foreknowledge must be ultimate power. Yet, judging by Abe, it’s more a burden or a curse. Or rather an inescapable trap. His foreknowledge doesn’t bring him any joy or satisfaction. Far from it. And the closest he comes to exploiting it is advising Young Joe to move to China not France. Joe, of course, doesn't listen to him either. (What’s with Joe’s France obsession anyway? Well Looper is almost a French film. More Godard than Cameron, more Alphaville than Terminator.)
Hailing from Joe’s future, I kinda thought there would be more to Dishonest Abe. Some eleventh hour revelation about his younger self. But there wasn’t. Oh well. You can’t have everything. Where would you put it all?
Looper is subtle, multilayered stuff which works on a whole host of emotional, philosophical and temporal levels but in unobtrusive ways which don’t get in the way of the storytelling or draw attention to themselves, screaming and shouting “Look at me! Look at me! Look how deep I am!” like a precocious/obnoxious teenager who, embarrassingly, doesn’t actually understand the philosophical concepts he brandishes like they were his dad’s gun. Yes, The Matrix saga, I’m talking to you!
Much is implied but nothing is spelled out for the slow kids at the back. Johnson respects the audience's intelligence and we're expected to work and pay attention to this one. Which will inevitably lead to accusations of “plot holes” which simply aren’t there. Not if you think about it and consider the big picture. And the really small one.
Besides, Looper plays deliberately fast and loose with the “rules” of time travel the same way The Rainmaker plays havoc with all those loopers and vagrants. It even warns the audience in advance, so there’s really no point complaining about it. This sort of thing always requires that the audience be even more willing to suspend its disbelief than usual. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s all nonsense anyway.
Intelligent, thought-provoking, “proper” SF for grown-ups with real ideas, emotions and everything (as opposed to shooty-bang-bang sci-fi rubbish for children, usually with the word “Star” in the title*), Looper has been getting five star reviews across the board and rightly so. Which probably means the hard-of-thinking have been ripping it to shreds. A badge of honour I hope Rian Johnson wears with pride. When true quality appears in the cinema, you may know it by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against it.
* Don’t get me wrong. I love shooty-bang-bang sci-fi rubbish with the word “Star” in the title. But it ain’t “proper” science fiction.
EDIT: I just read this entire thread and... Jaysus! It was worse than I expected. How the flip can anyone seriously rate or slate something they haven't seen? I just saw Looper again and it stands up remarkably well to a second viewing. Given its own ground rules, it's actually more watertight plotwise than I thought. But only if you look beyond the obvious and consider the quantum implications of what's going on. Clever, clever stuff. There were even more layers and ironies that I didn't pick up on the first time round. And that ambiguous ending is truly chilling - there isn't any guarantee that Joe's actions will make the slightest bit of difference to the future.
Having said that, I did notice that Willis has earlobes while Levitt doesn't. So I take back everything I just said - THIS FILM SUCKS!