LooperReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/28/12 11:15:16
While watching the twisty new sci-fi thriller "Looper" at a press screening a couple of weeks ago, I felt a sensation that has become increasingly rare in my moviegoing as of late--genuine surprise. You see, movies--at least the ones from major studios--are so expensive to produce that the moneymen generally try to smooth all the weird and rough edges out of a prospective screenplay early in the production on the theory that the less there is that could possibly confuse potential audiences by offering them something that they haven't already seen a dozen times over, the more likely it is that they will go to see it and recommend it to their friends. Oh sure, the occasional one-of-a-kind film will make it through more or less intact--things like "Inception" or "Tree of Life" or the output of the Coen Brothers--but that is largely due to the fact that those guys have established track records and you can be assured that if any of those had bombed completely, they would be kept of a very short leash their next time out. For the most part, however, the vast majority of the films that we get often come across at best as listless variations of familiar themes and at worst as so dull and derivative that you can not only predict every plot development but you can practically recite the dialogue along with the actors up on the screen. These films aren't so much bad as they are wearying--after seeing the same old stuff yet again, the only things on the minds of most viewers are the twin questions of why the producers spent so much time and money to produce something so completely devoid of originality and why they themselves did the same to watch it.Now take a film like "Looper." To break it down into its most basic level, it has been constructed from elements that will not be unfamiliar to most moviegoers--gangsters, time travel, car chases, sexy dames, shoot-outs, elaborate special effects and the like. However, it takes those elements and reshuffles them in new and fascinating ways and then, just when you think that you have it all figured out, it shuffles the deck again and spins things in new and wildly unanticipated directions. The film is so ambitious, in fact, that even if it wound up biting off far more than it could chew, most people might have been inclined to give it a pass simply for making more of an effort than most other current movies. What is miraculous, however, is that "Looper" not only measures up to the scope of its wild ambitions, it actually exceeds them and the result is easily the most conceptually and artistically satisfying sci-fi epic to hit the screen since the aforementioned and equally audacious "Inception." A film like this comes such a relief after the usual brainless, mindless and pointless swill that its very existence is as close to a genuine cinematic miracle that we are likely to encounter this year.
In the year 2073, time travel will finally be discovered and immediately be made illegal, presumably to prevent people from killing Hitler and making mints off the 2013 Cubs World Series victory and the like. Inevitably, the technology is seized by organized crime and put to ingenious use. If you run seriously afoul of the mob, they use a time machine to send you back thirty years in the past to a specially designated place where a hired killer--known as a looper--is waiting to finish you off with a shotgun blast the moment you arrive and dispose of the body, thereby neatly and effectively getting rid of someone who technically doesn't even exist. For a looper, this is an easy and well-paid existence but the one hitch comes when the higher-ups decide that a looper has outlived his usefulness. When this happens, the future loopers are sent back in time, along with a substantial cash settlement, to be killed off by their younger selves, who then take the money and go off for the next thirty years until their time comes. For those who aren't a part of the criminal underworld, the future is still apparently an interesting time now that a small portion of the population is beginning to demonstrating evidence of traits like telekinesis, though still largely on the level of a nifty parlor trick.
When we first meet looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he is doing about as well in the business as one could hope to be--he has the admiration of his boss (Jeff Daniels), a romance with a sexy stripper (Piper Perabo) and enough money socked away to make the next thirty years manageable when it inevitably comes time for him to close his loop. Alas, all of that quickly falls apart when fellow looper Seth (Paul Dano) turns up at his door late one night in a panic. Not only was his latest target his older self, that version managed to get away--a serious breach of protocol that could destroy the entire looping process if left unchecked and while Joe gives Seth up quickly enough, the damage is done. At this point, things get very complex and to avoid the possibility of spoilers, I will now tread very lightly. Suffice it to say, the older version of Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives and is hell-bent on carrying out a very personal mission while the younger one is trying to close his loop for good his associates can find him and do it themselves. There is also a woman (Emily Blunt) living in a remote farmhouse with a young boy () and as it turns out, they figure importantly in what is going on in ways that I can almost guarantee you will not be able to fully anticipate.
On the surface, "Looper" sounds like the kind of wild brain-bender that one might expect from the likes of Terry Gilliam or Richard Kelly so it may come as a surprise to many of you to learn that it is actually the brainchild of Rian Johnson, who two previous films were the noir-influenced high-school mystery "Brick" and the globetrotting caper comedy "The Brothers Bloom." I loved the former (if you haven't seen it yet, do so as quickly as possible) and was mixed on the latter (I enjoyed its silly spirit but felt that it was too busy being whimsical to bother pulling itself together into something coherent) and decided that, despite the unevenness of his sophomore effort, his was an emerging career worth paying attention over the course of his next few projects. With "Looper," any reservations that I might have held against him can now be cast aside for good because this is the work of a born filmmaker showing off his abilities in a truly dazzling fashion. Like his previous films, he takes a couple of highly familiar genres--sci-fi and noir in this case--and splices them together in unexpectedly winning ways. In the hands of a hack with an enormous budget, "Looper" might have been lavished with dazzling special effects at every turn but by dialing way back on such things, he cleverly grounds his fantastical tale in something resembling reality (for once, the not-too-distant future world that is depicted is close enough to our current environment to seem plausible) while ensuring that when he does need to deploy big special effects, those moments have more of an impact on viewers because of their relative scarcity.
In addition, Johnson contributes a screenplay that is smart and clever without getting too contrived or convoluted and has filled it with a collection of characters who all play important parts in the narrative. There are no placeholder characters that exist only to supply expository dialogue or a warm shoulder to cry one--everyone has their place in the service of the story--and they are all filled with actors who are clearly thrilled with the idea of being able to sink their teeth into genre material that allows them t say more than "Trust me" or "Get him" or "Nooooooooooooo!" At the same time, Johnson has clearly made enormous strides as a filmmaker since "The Brothers Bloom" and "Looper" demonstrates that in virtually every scene. The premise of the film may sound like head-spinning nonsense on the surface but he deftly handles all the complexities and contradictions inherent in material related to time travel by tackling them in such a direct and up-front manner without getting bogged down in the details that often gum up stories along these lines. While the plot-oriented scenes are as cleverly written and performed as anything Johnson has done before--the big diner scene between the two Joes is especially brilliant in its conception and execution--but he also shows a heretofore unsuspected flair for staging scenes involving complicated special effects with as much ingenuity as anyone else working in that field these days.If you or I were to make a list of the truly great and truly original sci-fi films of the last decade or so, my guess is that those lists would probably be in the short side--mine would include "A.I." (which I know is technically based on a short story but only in a very tenuous manner), "Primer," "The Fountain," "Southland Tales" and "Inception." These were all films that came from filmmakers who had the nerve to take enormous risks and the skills to pull them off. "Looper" deserves a place of honor among those films because like them, it has humor, intelligence and vision to spare--it is alive in a way that most efforts of its type simply aren't these days as a result of laziness and/or timidity. Hell, it even pulls off the one thing that even the best movies revolving around time travel have tended to bungle--the ending. For some reason, most time travel epics have never been able to wrestle their creations to a satisfying conclusion--even a film as otherwise excellent as "Back to the Future" concludes on such a jarring and off-putting final note that it actually puts me off of the whole thing to a certain degree. As "Looper" gets to its closing moments, I found myself wondering how in the hell it was possibly going to resolve its numerous story points in a satisfying manner and just assumed that it would inevitably fail to live up to everything preceding it. Instead, Johnson has come up with a conclusion that matches up with the rest of the film--it is clever, logical, immensely entertaining and pretty much perfect.
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