“Time travel has not yet been invented, but thirty years from now it will have been.”
Our lives are tapestries woven together out of strands of choice. But who sews the strands together: us or a higher power?
Beneath the sci-fi gadgetry and special effects, this is what time travel movies are all about: the nature of free will. Consider the elegantly constructed sentence above. “Time travel has not yet been invented” — suggesting an open future shaped by men — “but thirty years from now it will have been” — not “will be,” suggesting a future already carved in stone by an unseen but omnipotent hand.
The complexity of that sentence, uttered several times throughout the brilliant new time travel movie ‘Looper‘ reflects the complexity of the film, which is as thorough and as thrilling an exploration of the philosophical issues around time travel as has ever been put to screen. It’s also an incredibly suspenseful sci-fi noir. In other words: it’s pretty damn good.
Kansas, 2047. Time travel has not yet been invented; but thirty years later, it will have been. And in that future-future, organized crime will have seized on time travel as an illegal but highly effective way to destroy the evidence of their activities, by kidnapping, binding, and blindfolding their enemies and sending them back thirty years into the past, where special assassins known as “loopers” wait to shotgun blast them into infinity. The job pays well, but those who take it also pay dearly for it; because time travel is so illegal, all loopers are eventually required to kill their future selves in order to preserve the mob’s power. This act is called “closing one’s loop.”
That is the task that has fallen to Joe, played as a young man by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and as an older one by Bruce Willis. In the movie’s present, Young Joe is a looper and drug addict carefully stashing away half of all his earnings for the opportunity to get out of the murder business and enjoy the fruits of his labors. Willis’ Old Joe is the man who’s already done all of that: closed his loop and moved to Asia, where he wasted away his fortune, then began killing anew to feed his habit. Eventually his past catches up to him — a figure of speech made literal here — and he’s sent back to relive his death, this time on the receiving end of a shotgun. But with the foresight of having lived through the event once before — and with a reason I won’t discuss for wanting to change something in the past — Old Joe manages to alter the circumstances of his arrival just enough to confuse Young Joe and give himself the opportunity to escape. But failing to close a loop comes with consequences, which means the mob is after both Joes now.
The battle between the two Joes crackles with tension, and Gordon-Levitt and Willis have several incredible scenes together; one, a mano-a-mano act-off set in a diner, recalls the heavyweight battle between Pacino and De Niro in ‘Heat.’ There are other more overt movie references in ‘Looper’ too — ‘The Terminator,’ most obviously, Scanners’ to a smaller degree, and even ‘Field of Dreams’ with its iconic connection between time travelers and corn fields. But ‘Looper’ is a great deal more than a pastiche, and even with its homages to previous movies, it feels like something new and different. Futuristic, even.
The man bringing all the pieces together is writer/director Rian Johnson, who previously made the high school noir “Brick” and the con man movie ‘The Brothers Bloom.’ Those movies favored style over substance; ‘Looper’ finds room for both. It’s beautiful and taut and thought-provoking and romantic and sad. It is the product of a man who has clearly put a great deal of thought into his work: visually, thematically, and metaphorically (watch for the use of cigarettes and smoke as brilliant, multilayered motifs). Johnson covers all the bases and delivers a movie that works on many levels. If you want a good old fashioned sci-fi yarn, you’ll get it. If you want Bruce Willis acting like a badass, you’ll get it. If you want to puzzle over the mysteries of the universe, you’ll get it. If you want a doomed love story, you’ll get two for the price of one.
The opening of ‘Looper’ is a bit heavy on infodump exposition, but that’s a small price to pay for a movie that quickly blossoms into one of the most morally and philosophically ambiguous time travel tales ever told on screen. There is a lot more that could be said about it, but most of it should be saved for the future, when we can discuss the plot twists and themes in spoilery detail. ‘Looper’ hasn’t opened in theaters yet; but twenty-two days from now, it will have. We’ll talk more then.‘Looper’ opens in theaters on September 28th.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’