Looper is a movie built on a single punchline. Some have compared it to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but that film wound up a relatively straightforward plot with a genuine (and satisfying) puzzle. Looper’s plot is all over the map and leaves a dozen loose ends, but there’s no doubt about its too-simple conclusion. Whereas Inception’s fun was in deciphering possible meanings, we’re left cataloging Looper’s ungainly apparatus – all the pieces that exist for no good reason except a filmmaker’s whim. (For a start, you might do a web search on “Looper paradoxes.” Many have gone to extreme lengths to make it all work, and still fall short.) There’s something to be said for Looper’s dystopian vision of 30 years hence, but that’s just window dressing in this story, not integral to the message like in Blade Runner. A better version of Looper came out last year – Source Code. See that one instead.
Stories that feature time travel often do so in order to contrast one era against another, or to present a character with events from his or her past and/or future. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Time Machine, It’s a Wonderful Life, Back to the Future, The Terminator… In those, time travel is not the point; it’s a vehicle that spins the plot. To maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief, the writer should maintain internal consistency – mechanics described and hewn to.
There is fun to be had in dissecting the apparatus of a story featuring time travel. The better (or worse) the storyteller does, the more fun. Don’t read any more if you haven’t seen Looper, and don’t want to know what happens. (I can’t bring myself to write “SPOILER ALERT,” which is almost as annoying as hashtags.)
Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) is built around a punchline. The concept is outlined in the opening voiceover: “Time travel has not yet been invented, but thirty years from now it will have been. I am one of many specialized assassins in our present called loopers. So when criminal organizations in the future need someone gone, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future. Loopers are well paid, we live a good life, and the only rule is never let your target escape. Even if your target… is you.” Loopers are required to eventually “close the loop,” meaning they must kill their future selves, 30 years after retirement (which might have made a good black joke, but Johnson ignores the possibility.) Johnson’s punchline is that his protagonist ultimately closes the loop by killing himself in the present, instead of his future self. The apparatus of the plot centers entirely on that final moment, without much concern about tying any of the strands together.
So Looper’s use of time travel, arguably, is the plot – eras are not being contrasted, and comparison between versions of selves is incidental. This means Johnson’s mechanics can be held to a higher standard – they need to be exceptionally consistent. They’re not.
Internet fanboys describe two predominant theories of time travel – 1) The linear theory, in which everything that happens in the past directly alters the future; 2) The alternate reality theory, where every interference with the past produces a new, additional reality going forward. It’s generally accepted that a storyteller desiring internal consistency should follow one of these paths. Johnson uses elements of both, as it’s convenient.
I stayed with the story until Joe fell backward from his apartment window and blacked out. Then we were back at the moment when he’d earlier let his future self escape – this time he blew himself away. Aha! The alternate reality path. Same setup, new outcome. If Johnson had stuck with this, he might have had something compelling – sort of a sci-fi Groundhog Day (and this is exactly what Source Code played with, wonderfully.) Really, Looper has to use the alternate reality structure – how else could Joe live a version of his future where he’d killed himself, and yet then be able to go back in time and prevent himself from killing… himself? All well and good, except other plot points insist (both intriguingly and ridiculously) on a linear theory.
First, the ridiculous. Twice, young selves are used to communicate with older selves by carving messages into their arms. The older selves see the scars and react to the message being sent. (Do they really need an arrow at their wrist, telling them to roll up their sleeves? If this is really a scar, one might assume they’ve been looking at it for a long time, and probably know what it says by heart. Johnson is cheating – he wants the audience to gasp at the reveal.) Even more absurdly, one “future” character gradually loses body parts as his younger self is dismembered. I found myself wondering how the guy with a disfigured face, no fingers and no legs somehow survived another 30 years to be sent back in time…
The intriguing application is when the young version of Joe witnesses something that produces a revelation (the identity of The Rainmaker – more on him in a moment) and the older Joe instantly accesses the memory, changing his plans. Of course, that happens in the midst of a scene where the older Joe is about to kill a second child (movies that arbitrarily kill children are reprehensible – older Joe’s killing of the first child certainly wasn’t necessary. It should have been enough to know that he intended to do it.) The second child is the son of the prostitute younger Joe is in love with. He doesn’t know she has a child. Even after the movie, we’re not clear why she needed to have one, except Johnson thought it would be a cool twist. But he drops it quickly and never picks up the thread again. It’s fine to have a complicated plot, but this is a random complication.
Anyway, the reason old Joe travels back in time is to kill this guy called The Rainmaker – some future guy who is “closing loops wholesale.” Wait a minute – the young loopers all know there will come a moment when they have to kill their future selves, 30 years hence. It’s in the job description! But we’re supposed to be surprised that someone in the future is actually having it done? This future guy is reputed to be mysteriously powerful. Again – why? So Johnson can feature some cool F/X shots of an angry boy (the young Rainmaker) using his mind (his angry eyes) to lift people into the air while lots of objects and dirt swirl around. There really isn’t any other need for him to have telekinetic powers. Maybe he’s the guy who invented the time travel machinery in the future? Johnson doesn’t go there (which would also be weird, because the kid supposedly kills all the loopers because a looper killed his mom and blew off the guy’s jaw when he was little.)
Anyway, Johnson shows an alternate reality where old Joe shoots the mom and blows off part of the kid’s jaw. So old Joe is actually responsible for his own lot in life – even in trying to prevent his misery he inadvertantly caused it! (Which suggests the linear approach to time travel again, or as Johnson would have it, the circular.) Young Joe “truly” closes the loop by killing himself, instead of his older self. So the moral is, suicide is the best way to avoid screwing up your life, and everyone else’s. First killing kids, and now a pro-suicide treatise – Johnson is nothing if not a morally ambiguous artist. (Maybe the dead child returned to life after young Joe killed himself? Johnson doesn’t say.)
But let’s return to the premise. Supposedly, the mob finds it convenient to send targets back in time to be killed, because identification technologies are so good in the future that killers don’t want to leave any evidence at all. And those who do the killing eventually kill themselves, leaving no trace and no witnesses. Except that the witnesses live another 30 years! (They don’t tell anyone during all that time?) Why 30 years? It seems to be a limitation of the time travel device – everyone goes back precisely 30 years (although the device can place people in different geographic locations – convenient.) That explains why old Joe is a bit late when he arrives for his own execution – there was a scuffle that delayed things in the future.
The big problem is, in order to get the future loopers, the mob seems entirely willing to kill other people in the process. This is old Joe’s motivation – they killed his wife! But they didn’t send her back in time to be killed, they shot her and let her die in the future. Huh? Likewise, we see a shootout in the future, where a resistance fighter calls old Joe and gives him the code that will allow old Joe to go back in time and kill The Rainmaker. A shootout? Apparently these guys ALSO weren’t going to be sent back in time to be killed. And what about that code? It’s a birth date and address for the hospital where The Rainmaker was born. How the hell’d they come up with that? (Maybe The Rainmaker’s minions throw him a birthday party, and someone caught a glimpse of his birth certificate. Again, Johnson’s not saying.)
Early on, we see the loopers performing their work. They are mostly successful, only failing to kill when in two instances the target turns out to be their future selves. Easy managerial solution here – have the loopers kill someone else’s future self, not their own. Problem solved, movie over.
And now that I’m quibbling… Young Joe is shown learning French. He’s told by Jeff Daniels’ mobster that he should learn Chinese instead. Old Joe later says he never regretted learning French, except we know that he’s married to an Asian woman. (Did he meet her in France?) Then old Joe says something amusing in French, young Joe doesn’t understand it (we get the subtitle), and that’s the end of it for Johnson. And what about Jeff Daniels? He’s a scary guy from the future who runs the loopers in the past, but he doesn’t seem to have any connection to The Rainmaker. He’s presented as a father figure to young Joe, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. When old Joe finally has a showdown with Daniels, we see the buildup, we see old Joe approach, and then Johnson cuts away to another scene. That’s it – Johnson never returns to Daniels, and we’re left to surmise he’s dead because old Joe tells young Joe that he’s off the hook now. Then there’s Kid Blue the sharpshooter (loopers carry powerful weapons that are only accurate at short range; Kid Blue is established as a mob enforcer with a long-range weapon.) He’s always one or two steps behind young Joe and old Joe, but in the end all he does is fire a few ineffective shots at young Joe then gets blown off his floating motorcycle. Rian Johnson isn’t a very good writer.
All of this might imply I hated this movie. I think it’s morally reprehensible, but I did have fun dissecting the plot. It’s not quite bad enough to become a classic, like Rocky Horror or Showgirls (and too many already think it’s pretty good, which spoils the fun.) There are some decent special effects shots, and a few good action scenes. I liked Emily Blunt’s character, whom I haven’t even mentioned yet (she belongs in a different movie.) Some of the bleak futuristic details are neat (drugs ingested via eyedrops – no more needle marks!) But on the whole, it’s pretty bad. Would I watch it again? Probably.