A time travel movie? Set in the future? An original concept? Any of these things is enough to get a project thrown out, but all three together… that’s gotta be a doozy of a script. Sony Pictures is taking a huge gamble with the latest from Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon Levitt, the kind of story that could be as divisive as it is engaging, an almost unmarketable concept with a lead actor who purposefully doesn’t resemble himself. Does the gamble pay off?
If you feel like you’ve been waiting ages since the last good sci-fi movie, you’re not alone. For fans of the genre, many expected Prometheus to be a galvanizing lightning rod, a masterpiece that would spark a new era of sci-fi Hollywood epics and a return to form for the dormant eras of spaceships and alien makeup. However, that was not to be, and with this summer’s Total Recall remake also bombing out, there was very little hope left on the horizon.
Then comes Rian Johnson, a member of a new crop of talented, stylish, and forward thinking directors who have been making waves in halls of power. His debut film, Brick earned him a lot of extremely positive buzz, and his follow up The Brothers Bloom, though less critically successful, has still become something of a cult hit. His new movie, starring his Brick lead Joseph Gordon Levitt, is going to put him on the map in a big way, and that’s because it may be one of the greatest time travel movies ever made.
Looper isn’t just a sci-fi film. It’s a tale about a man searching for meaning at two completely different moments in his life, moments which, through a clever storytelling mechanism, occur simultaneously. You see, a Looper is a name given to a group of specialized assassins, men who murder people that future crime syndicates send back in time, disposing of the bodies in the past and keeping the future clean of loose ends. When it’s time for a Looper to retire, their future self is sent back to them, and upon murdering themselves, they have “closed their loop”, earning themselves 30 years to live the high life before they inevitably get sent back in time to meet their own demise at the hands of a younger them.
A complicated premise to be sure, but there is such a confidence throughout the film, from the narration, to the acting, to the directing, that as an audience member, you’re never confused by what’s going on. There’s an almost beautiful level of simplicity working underneath it all, and the conceits that are used to justify certain paradoxes result in wonderfully inventive and occasionally downright disturbing moments. Originality abounds, and that’s part of what makes the film feel so balanced. Having never seen a story told in quite this way before, we’re not pre-conditioned to expect one structure or set of arcs, allowing the narrative to move of its own volition, and set up some genuinely powerful moments of surprise and awe throughout. The grounded dialogue and intriguing characters, not to mention wonderful performances pretty much across the board, keep this one on solid ground, even when you feel it starting to pull away into a land of disbelief.
Given all that, what doesn’t work? Getting through this much plot in a single sitting would be a challenge for any screenwriter, and sometimes it feels like the filmmakers take the easy way out. Even if it’s something like Bruce Willis being able to share memories with his younger self, and therefore knowing where he is or what’s happening to him sporadically, or just bad guys who conveniently know exactly where their targets are without any real explanation of how they came upon that knowledge, you let a lot slide. It is basically a chase movie after all, and there has to be a certain amount of leeway given in the interest of telling an exciting story, regardless of whether it might make total sense. All of the time travel head scratching is very well explained, so I’m fine with having to make the jump with some of the real-time vagueness in the interest of keeping the story moving. The editing is handled quite artfully, knowing when to let things breathe and when to step on the gas. It’s more of a rollercoaster and less of a sprint, something a lot of current action movie editors could learn a lot from. Some of that comes from the interesting coverage choices made on set, but you can’t deny how well paced of a final project they managed to deliver.
For many, Looper will be exactly what they were waiting for. It’s a breath of fresh air for the genre, and one of the strongest examples of single-vision filmmaking in quite some time. Given the right amount of control, the work speaks for itself, and hopefully studios are coming to realize that betting big on truly talented filmmakers can pay off huge in the long term. I’m glad this one didn’t get buried in the onslaught of summer fare, as it may have gone unnoticed, but now it stands pretty much without competition in the early days of the fall season, and with a little luck, will prove to be the kind of smash hit we all desperately need it to be. This one’s worth your hard earned cash, and I’ll be lined up to see it again at midnight on opening day i.e. my earliest opportunity. A huge congratulations to the cast and crew, you guys earned it.
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