Looper is one of those films that’s designed to start arguments in pubs after a screening.
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It’s great to see a twisty, smart and violent SF movie in 2012 that isn’t just a cowboy or cop film in tinfoil. Time-travel and post-human ideas collide with themes of age, revenge and identity to make up a film that I’m sure will be on a lot of people’s best-of-year lists. It’s probably going to make it onto mine. But hoo boy, it’s an infuriating piece of work.
The story is a spin on the time-travelling assassin bit, only here the killers stay put and the victims come to them. In a sharply-realised, grimy and collapsing 2044, Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, a guy that works for a mob from the future that send the guys they want erased back down the line to him and his blunderbuss. Apparently, it’s tough to get rid of bodies at the tail end of the 21st century. Also, time travel is only available to the mafia of the future because it’s illegal.
You see my problem? As soon as you start thinking about the plot, and its central premise, questions start popping up. Like, how come it’s so hard to dump someone down a chute into a furnace in 2088? If you can’t shoot them, couldn’t you just knock them out and dump them into the flames while they’re still alive? Why go to all the time and effort of setting up a force of assassins forty years in the past that it would be near-impossible to monitor? There has to be an easier way than using technology that’s so heavily proscribed that not even the government use it – because it’s illegal, and the government don’t ever keep stuff like that for themselves. Nu-uh. Doesn’t happen. No sir.
So, the thing about these assassins, these loopers, is that at one point they will end up shooting themselves. Their older selves, anyway, sent back in time once they’ve, I dunno, used up their usefulness or something. The bodies come with an increased pay-off, gold instead of silver, and an agreement that your shootin’ days are done. In thirty years, you’ll be bundled up, shoved down a time-hole and vanished. Up until then, your time is your own. It’s a retirement plan with a very definite expiry date.
But… why tell the loopers in the first place? Their victims are masked and bound, and for the most part Joe and the gang don’t bother to peek. So what’s stopping the mob from simply throwing the loopers down the hole when they’ve worn out? It seems like a lot of time, money and effort, and also gives you a potential thirty-year troublemaker. Is it a way of keeping them loyal and hopefully, quiet? Are you telling me that no ex-looper has ever run out of cash and gone to the feds with a great story about what the mob are using to vanish people these days?
Looper is chock-full of moments like this, where core questions are half-explained or hand-waved away. It’s to the credit of everyone involved that the story motors along at such a manic clip that you buy into the set-up, and don’t actually get a chance to sit and think about the plot-holes until after the credits have rolled. The dialogue crackles and pops. The cast is uniformly excellent, although you will spend more time than is entirely healthy looking at Joseph Gordon Levitt’s prosthetic chin. It’s supposed to make him look like a young Bruce Willis. It makes him look like Joseph Gordon Levitt post-botched plastic surgery.
I’m still unconvinced about a film that relies so heavily on voiceover to get across the important points of the story. I’m not a fan of voiceover, full stop, to be honest. It feels like tell not show to me, a criminal act in any screenplay. Rian Johnson’s first film, Brick, was similarly voiceover-heavy. But there it served as a dry commentary, a counterpoint to the action. In Looper, if you didn’t have the voiceover you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on. That feels like a flaw to me.
All of which makes me sound like I didn’t like Looper. But I did. I really did. I was reminded time and again of the clever, ferocious SF of Alfred Bester, and that’s high praise in my book. We need more films like Looper. They may be infuriating. They may spark arguments. But at least they make you think while you’re being entertained. And that, Readership, is something that’s been sorely missing from Hollywood’s SF for a long time.