Every so often, there comes a film from left-field that takes cinemagoers by surprise; back in 2012, this astonishment came in the shape of a science-fiction movie from a little-known director named Rian Johnson. With that same director having recently released another sci-fi adventure, now seems as good a time as any to discuss the legacy of Looper.
In the year 2044, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is working as a contract killer for a local crime syndicate in Kansas City. Joe’s job is a very peculiar one, as he doesn’t assassinate anybody in the present – his victims are sent from the future via time-travel. The thought is that if these crimes are committed in the past, then the authorities of the future have no evidence to form a conviction. When a contract has been fulfilled, then the assassin’s future self is sent back to the past to be killed, which brings with it a healthy retirement fund.
Once Joe’s contract comes to an end, he decides to fly across the Pacific to China, where a much-older Joe (Bruce Willis) falls in love with a beautiful woman (Summer Qing). Eventually, the day comes when Joe is to be sent back in time; as he resists being taken away, his lover is killed by a trigger-happy gang member, an act that leaves Joe devastated. Seeking revenge, he decides to send himself to the past in the hope of altering his future. But with the gangs and his younger self chasing him, Joe’s task won’t be easy.
Looper is a real oddity of Hollywood – released to muted fanfare in the “dump month” of September, its commercial success relied almost solely on the billing of Willis and Gordon-Levitt; but as critics began singing its praises, the public started to take interest, and it wasn’t long before the film made an impact at the box-office. Within weeks of its premiere, Rian Johnson had gone from being an indie darling to one of the industry’s most talked-about directors, and with good reason.
What Johnson so effectively does with Looper is tell his story visually, despite it housing a rather complex premise. For example, one of the earlier scenes has Seth (Frank Brennan) trying to flee the authorities, only to have his body parts disappear as he does so. Shortly after, it is revealed that the younger Seth (Paul Dano) was having his own limbs removed, with those dismemberments affecting his older self. So masterful is the storytelling that no amount of dialogue or written text could ever better it.
As baffling as the unique premise is, there isn’t any point in Looper where one feels confused – it does an excellent job of introducing and developing its world. Additionally, there’s quite a bit of moral ambiguity in the picture, with no character being wholly good or evil. This is especially the case for Joe, who is constantly feeling conflicted about his actions, both as an older and a younger man. Another impressive element is Pierce Gagnon, a child actor introduced late in the movie who puts in one of the better performances.
Conversely, the two leads look as though they could be doing more. Both Willis and Gordon-Levitt have proven themselves to be brilliant actors in movies past, so to see them look and sound bored as they deliver their lines is insulting not just to the audience, but also to the director, and their respective careers. The other major issue with Looper is the resolution to the conflict, which isn’t quite as satisfying, nor as epic, as the rest of the movie, succeeding only in leaving the audience slightly underwhelmed.
Even without the presence of lasers, aliens or spaceships, Looper remains one of the most interesting and creative science-fiction movies to be released in this decade. While it could do with more effort from its leads and a tenser ending, the film’s fascinating world and fabulous storytelling are ultimately what make it worth viewing.