Rian Johnson’s Looper
Originally published in Issue 3, Screen Machine.
It is impossible to give a comprehensive plot synopsis of Looper without it being a giant spoiler-fest. Looper is a dense, knotted story that unravels over two halves clearly distinguished by a “twist.” However, I do not intend to reveal any bombs here or play the written equivalent of movie minesweeper; no spoiler alert will be issued as I won’t be exposing the twist that splices the film. Instead I’ll focus on my experience of the film, and the strange distance I felt from it on my first viewing. This may seem like a cop out for a review, and if I’m honest, in part it is. To describe the whole plot of Looper would require a fair amount of potentially confused word count that detracts from the things that most intrigued me about the movie.
So, to summarise what you can discover from readily available promotional ephemera: Looper is a high-concept, sci-fi/action film fixated on time travel, the human condition and dystopian futures. Set in 2044 where time travel is yet to be invented, young hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is hired to kill his older future self (Bruce Willis), sent back from the 2070s. So far, so simple. Complications ensue when (young) Joe botches the assassination.
Like writer/director Rian Johnson’s acclaimed indie-noir Brick (2005),Looper is a puzzle film, which feeds both its charm and folly. Quandaries surrounding the notion of facing your future self are implicit, as are philosophical questions around existentialism and nihilism. According to various critical appraisals, benefits from multiple viewings. At the time of writing, my present self has only seen Looper once.
Subsequently, I found myself more intrigued in the different ways thatLooper has been consumed, discussed and defended, than the interesting high-concept nature of the film itself.
There are always particular buzzwords that, threaded through different reviews or online forums, attach themselves to films. Often these words reflect a consensus, a level of mutual understanding in the assessment of a film. “Nit-picking” is now, for me, and it seems countless others, forever affiliated with Looper. I was hyperaware while viewing Looper that I was, indeed, viewing Looper. I was unusually unable to become wholly immersed in the world presented before me. My favourite way to watch a film is without any associated press on my mind: no interviews or directorial mission statements, only a familiarity with the key players’ body of work. This isn’t to say I am unable to form my own opinion or that I’m a passive mind mute when I go to the cinema, I’m just impressionable (and aware) enough to know how planted seeds can soon impede upon my viewing processes.
Granted, the “thought-provoking” nature of Looper lends itself to questioning. Perhaps it was the combination of Bruce Willis and a sci-fi-action premise, with the connotative power of Joseph Gordon Levitt andBrick injecting a dose of indie-noir, self-aware sentiment that offset me from the beginning. Additionally, I was forever trying to critique Gordon Levitt’s fun portrayal of an action icon: what parts of his reconstructed Willis-esque face were make up and what parts CGI? And how much of the embodiment was Gordon Levitt’s physical mimicry and performance prowess? This, alongside a jarring lack of redeemable qualities, meant that I never really connected with this character. Possibly, because Johnson is prone to making puzzle movies, I was attempting to find more pleasure in solving the story than experiencing the world of it. Or just maybe I wasn’t in the mood to relax into a nihilistic, dystopian sci-fi film that is explicitly violent: the imagery of hooded enemies being blown away alone musters direct political affiliations that are terribly confronting and uncomfortable, among other acts of violence that shall remain (for spoiler reasons) unlisted here.
While I spent a lot of time looking for different errors or inconsistencies inLooper, I also spent time hoping not to see what are often the inevitable breaches of logic and indiscretions that take place in time travel movies. Essentially, whether attributed to my want to outsmart it or my want to be won over, the spaces between myself and the movie were too apparent. I love movies and always enter a cinema hoping to like a film; I believe in the adage “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” and prefer to praise than naysay. Consequently, I genuinely think that my tendency to nit-pick here was due to both what Looper was trying to do and my general enthusiasm to critically engage it.
Looper’s allusions to other sources and deliberate inclination for homage, drawing meaning from associations with a varied cultural catalogue including La Jetée,¹ Terminator and the work of Ray Bradbury,² does inspire a heightened form of viewership. Criticwire blogger Matt Singer recently tweeted: “LOOPER nitpickers make me glad THE TERMINATOR came out before the invention of the Internet.” And while online discussions do illuminate tall poppy tendencies and reflective know-it-all-ism, this is the same democratic sphere in which intense, loyal fan-bases are formed and interesting insights often emerge. I shall not digress and join the dialogue surrounding online criticism but instead note that, in essence, Looper has definite threads that can be picked up to unravel certain cinematic seams, but it also has its staunch defenders.
With all of this in mind, I do intend to sit down and watch Looper again. I remain hopeful that, on the advice of various critics, a second viewing is worthwhile. So, loaded with the knowledge of how the story unfolds, I truly hope that my past nit-picking self can reconcile with my future film watching self, and that second time around, I can sit back and just enjoy the film.
¹ For more on the influence of La Jetée on time travel films, see A.O. Scott, “What ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Terminator’ Owe to ‘La Jetée’,”New York Times, 26 September 2012.
² See Jeremy Baril, “Rian Johnson talks directing ‘Looper,’ influences, and time travel,” Hypable, 28 September 2012.