We’re entering a golden age, my friends. For sci-fi nerds like myself, the last 15 years or so have been a harsh climate; perhaps not a desolate wasteland but certainly a less-than-hospitable, arid landscape. The 90s were fairly painful for the genre and while the early-to-mid-2000s weren’t awful, the number of good sci-fi films was far exceeded by the number of bad ones. For every Memento there was a 6th Day, for every Matrix there were two Matrix sequels, and so on and so forth. But over the past few years, we’ve seen the resurgence of smartly written, ingenious science fiction films, from low budget surprises like Moon to the biggest film of 2010, Inception. Looper, then, only serves to further my belief that the sci-fi genre is coming back in a big, big way.
In the future, time travel has been invented and subsequently prohibited to the point that only the mob has the means to use it. When they want to eliminate someone, they send the person back in time 30 years to 2044, where an assassin, known as a Looper, kills the target and disposes of the body. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a prominent member of the Looper society and he enjoys the life he’s carved out for himself in the midst of a bleak society. But when Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) shows up as his target, he fails to complete his kill, forcing him to go on the run to avoid the wrath of his boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), as his future self sets out to complete a gruesome task.
There is so much more to Looper than what I just set forth but this is one of those times where I believe the less you know going in, the better. To this end, writer/director Rian Johnson and the studio behind him did a remarkable job of preventing the trailers and advance buzz from letting too much out of the bag, to the point that a significant member of the cast is nowhere to be found in any of the previews. That’s quite rare and the studio deserves some real credit for heeding Johnson’s pleas and playing it close to the vest. Looper unfolds brilliantly and quite unexpectedly, bringing a number of surprises to the table even when you think you have the whole thing pegged. None of this is done in a, “HAHA! GOTCHA!” sort of way (see: every M. Night Shyamalan movie since The Sixth Sense) but rather as a natural part of the film’s progression.
This is an extremely well-written film from both a conceptual and a narrative standpoint. Far too many sci-fi films die almost at conception because the writer had a great idea and no understanding of how to develop it. There are a dozen places where Looper could have fallen apart but in these moments you can see the painstaking steps Johnson took to pave over the pot holes that tend to pop up on the time travel highway. This begins with limiting the scope of what can and cannot be done with time travel and who has access to it, a stroke of brilliance that keeps Looper on track at all times. It is a very focused film and one that doesn’t waste time on lesser sub-plots or the pointless display of cool new technology that you usually see in futuristic films. Everything is handled with an almost earnest sense of purpose and Johnson weaves every character and every aspect of his film together so that everything matters. Johnson also displays an exquisite understanding of time management. Looper runs just under two hours and yet, as a result of its unerring focus, it is able to accomplish far more in that time than I would have expected. The film feels much longer and much more immense than it really is and I mean that in the best way possible. You feel like you know the characters, know the concept, and know the stakes better than you really should in a movie of this length.
Johnson’s incredible work behind the camera is equaled only by the rich performances in front of it. To be sure, Looper is filled with great supporting work from Emily Blunt, Garrett Dillahunt, and especially Jeff Daniels among others. But the bulk of the load is handled by Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Pierce Gagnon (whose name I would implore you not to look up if you haven’t see the film as it could ruin a significant plot point), all of whom come through magnificently. What Willis does here isn’t much different than what we’ve all come to expect from him over the last decade but this is a weightiest role he’s had in quite some time and I felt like he treats the material with a seriousness you don’t always see from him. Old Joe is a haunted, determined man and Willis exemplifies that quite well. Gagnon is simply a scene stealer of the highest order and I will say no more about him so as to avoid a spoiler. And Gordon-Levitt brings a boat load of nuance and subtlety to his role, making it clear why he was the perfect choice for this role. Joe is hard and dangerous but also insecure about his place in the world and Gordon-Levitt hits that mark over and over. In addition, he does a remarkable job of looking like Bruce Willis. Yes, there are prosthetics, makeup, and special effects in play here but his striking resemblance to Willis has far more to do with Gordon-Levitt’s mastery of Willis’ facial expressions, mannerisms, and behaviors. If you knew nothing about Willis’ presence in this cast and sat down to watch the movie, you would almost immediately note the Willis-isms that Gordon-Levitt slyly displays. It’s uncanny, really, and it makes Looper all the more enjoyable.
In the end, Looper is a tremendous achievement, a sci-fi film that hits the mark on virtually every level. The concept and plot execution is fantastic, the visuals are gorgeous, and the action is well-paced and efficient. Moreover, Looper rewrites the time travel handbook and sets the stage for Hollywood to officially enter a new golden age of sci-fi.