Loopy "Looper" Occasionally Flirts With Greatness

You haven’t seen this before. “Looper” is a bewildering blast of unhinged sci-fi, equal parts fascinating, imaginative, unwieldy, and, pardon me, loopy. It’s full of great ideas that lead to bad ones and vice versa, but you’ll find yourself peeling back layer upon layer once the credits roll. It’s a conundrum of a film, built on contemplative silliness and complete with whiplash-worthy tonal shifts and call backs to numerous famous films – among them “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” “Minority Report,” “Carrie,” and “Groundhog Day.” Writer-director Rian Johnson previously gave us the intentionally unintelligible “Brick,” a high school noir thriller (also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and with “Looper,” he’s provided us with an equally dense exercise in reinvention through inversion. He’s turned the traditional time travel film inside out with terrifically uneven results.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a quasi-hitman living in the year 2042. He receives his targets from the year 2072 via time travel (which doesn’t yet exist in 2042) and executes them immediately, disposing of the bodies. His breed is called “loopers,” as their termination of employment involves the execution of their future selves, thus “closing their loop.” Except, the cycle never ends, whether young Joe succeeds in killing old Joe (Bruce Willis) or not. We see both scenarios early in the film, and each ends with Joe either dying quickly or living out his last 30 years only to be sent back for execution at the hands of his younger self. For all intents and purposes, the character is doomed to relive the same miserable, drug-addled existence over and over.

At least, that’s what we’re initially led to believe. In reality, older Joe has an epiphany that leads him back in time with a purpose, and the entire narrative goes up for grabs. When young Joe and old Joe finally have their first face-to-face conversation in a diner, Johnson throws a figurative stick of dynamite into the proceedings. Just when you think you have the film’s noir-ish action aesthetic pinned down, it shifts gears entirely and becomes the kind of film M. Night Shyamalan might have made before his career went off the rails. The second half of “Looper” is pensive and talky, and comparisons to “Signs” wouldn’t be out of place. Young Joe spends much of the film with Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son at their farmhouse… waiting… and waiting.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s make-up doesn’t go a long way in making him look like Bruce Willis, but it does allow him to act outside of himself, making him less familiar and providing a necessary detachment to the character. Even his voice has undergone an impressive transformation. Willis has more of a supporting role and his performance is very much a Bruce Willis performance. He leaves the serious acting to Gordon-Levitt and, apart from the diner sequence (the best in the film), fails to draw on his decades of experience. Emily Blunt fares well as a mysterious loner with a precarious son and a deep sense of paranoia. Her American accent comes off well.

It’s impossible to talk about the rest of the film without divulging specific plot points, but in the most general of terms, it centers around one specific moral dilemma. This conflict (among others) is painted in broad shades of grey and the relevant themes are numerous: idealism versus realism, past versus future, youthfulness versus experience, and greed versus selflessness. The film wisely leaves judgments to the audience, but the film never ceases to oscillate between clunkiness and elegance. Luckily, the latter wins out in the end as Johnson is able to close the film’s own loop – rather gracefully, in fact.

The reaction at the screening I attended was tepid – some folks clearly had no grasp on what they had seen while others shuffled out the door quietly. One audience member volunteered to a screening rep that “I don’t know… I don’t know. It just wasn’t good.” I suspect those looking for a brainless action flick will be sorely disappointed while those looking for smart sci-fi will be let down by the intermittent goofiness of the film. If you’re looking for post-film conversation, “Looper” delivers in spades, and while the film overshoots its landing by a mile, it’s a worthwhile science fiction piece with no shortage of interesting ideas – good and bad. It’s no masterpiece, but certainly isn’t lacking for ambition.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 28, 2012
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use)