If Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” had a child, it would be Rian Johnson’s “Looper.” Johnson’s third feature melds the film noir influences, sleek aesthetics, and dystopian themes from “Blade Runner” with the time travel elements, world-saving mission, and difficult ethical questions from “12 Monkeys.” The resulting medley is a thought-provoking sci-fi drama which will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
Johnson’s movie opens in remote territory, where a lone man stands waiting with his weapon. A bound captive suddenly appears, and is instantly gunned down by our anti-hero Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As we learn from Joe’s narration, the year is 2044 although time travel hasn’t been invented yet; in 30 years mobsters will send targets back in time so that hired guns called loopers can get rid of the bodies discreetly.
Using film noir style voiceover, Joe acquaints you with the social injustice of his era, the random telekinetic mutation of the populace, and all of the terminology associated with his line of work. The most horrifying and twisted part of a looper’s job as Joe explains, is the agreement that at some point, everyone “closes their loop” by murdering their future selves. If you can’t pull the trigger though, dire consequences ensue.
Naturally, things go awry for Joe once his older self (Bruce Willis) shows up, because old Joe is on a mission to change the future, and manages to escape. As a result, young Joe is forced on the run from his displeased mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and trigger-happy henchmen like Kid Blue (Noah Segan). While in hiding, young Joe must decide whether to save his own ass in the present or to aid old Joe for the good of his future.
At that point, “Looper” ditches its noir tendencies and becomes like “12 Monkeys.” Just as he did in Gilliam’s flick, Bruce Willis plays a time traveler whose past and present run together into a messy mixture of memories. Akin to Willis’ previous character James Cole, old Joe must confront painful ethical decisions on his quest. His choices not only test your stomach, but they challenge your sympathy for his character.
“Looper” is also similar to “12 Monkeys” in its less scientific approach to time travel. Multiple timelines are introduced, and even though you can’t resist dissecting their continuity, you shouldn’t think about them too hard. As the characters state a couple of times in the film, it’s not worth the effort. That’s because time travel merely serves as an impetus for telling a flawed character’s captivating story of redemption. Young Joe’s nihilistic choices will sicken you to your core, but when you see how he makes good on them, the emotional anguish is worth it.
Thankfully annoying elements are in short supply with “Looper,” but there is a couple. First, when the Joes are separated from each other, the pacing drags. Once their paths start coming together, “Looper” delivers on the fast-paced action you were promised in the film’s trailer. Second, as previously mentioned, certain people in this era have developed telekinetic powers. It’s an interesting subplot that would have been cool for Johnson to explore more in-depth considering an important character possesses these abilities. Sadly he leaves that piece largely unexplained.
Minor annoyances aside, “Looper” is compelling character piece that begs for more viewings. Once you soak in all the sci-fi elements the first time, you want to spend each subsequent screening sinking your teeth into the meaty drama and stylized visuals.
My Grade: A-