Looper doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the minutiae of time travel – as Jeff Daniel’s aging gangster notes, thinking about it “just fries your brain like an egg”. Several of the finer points relating to being able to jump backwards in time are glossed over or barely acknowledged – indeed, if you can’t stand the violation of causality for cinematic effect, then perhaps this movie isn’t for you. But you’ll be missing out, as Looper is comfortably the best science fiction film to reach our screens this year.
Sci-fi it may be, but nonetheless the future shown in Looper is still in many ways recognisably our own. Cars look very similar to those of today, although external pipes suggest that conventional fuel is no longer available, whilst buildings, weaponry and even clothing seem fairly familiar. One character rides a hoverbike, but it doesn’t work very well. In all, it’s not a vastly exaggerated depiction of life in thirty years’ time, and this careful approach balances the less believable plot elements. It also provides a suitably seedy-looking background for the dystopian elements of the film, in a city where organised crime is everywhere, and most citizens seem to carry guns for protection. Even the hedonistic nightlife doesn’t seem extreme compared with today.
Fortunately, this restraint is also demonstrated in the plot: except for one rather generic scene in which Bruce Willis (playing old Joe) might as well be in Die Hard, the action sequences never feel unnecessary or overworked, instead usually playing out fairly quickly and with suitable tension. This leaves all the more time to get to know Joe, whose seemingly cocksure younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spends his time taking drugs and partying but also learning French for his eventual retirement and befriending a waitress in a café he frequents.
Joe works as a Looper, a hitman responsible for killing and disposing of unfortunates sent back in time from the future by crime bosses who want no trace left of their misdeeds. When he recognises himself as the target to be killed, things predictably go awry: this is a situation every Looper faces at some point, and the consequences of failure have already been made graphically clear in one earlier scene, one of the most disturbing in recent cinema. Watching Joe trying to cling to the belief that everything can still turn out well, even as the situation dissolves around him, makes for compelling viewing. Sara, played by Emily Blunt, is a single mother living on an isolated farm with her young son: Blunt’s depiction of living under the stresses of life in the future adds interest to the film, as unlike the self-interested younger Joe, she and her son are almost the only relationship in the movie.
This, then is the film’s strong point: in watching Joe interact with Sara, her son Cid, his older self and even the other hitmen, much of what happens becomes believable and engaging, not in terms of the plot or the premise but in terms of human reactions and the way the characters interact. It means that the denouement, when it comes, is not trite or pedestrian – by the end, it matters what happens. No single aspect of Looper is truly groundbreaking, but it is more than the sum of its parts, and definitely worth seeing.