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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Looper

Ignore the hogwash about Looper being this decade's Matrix... everyone knows it's this decade's Terminator (minus the robots and the Arnie and in reverse, but otherwise...)!


Taking its cue from Austin Powers, there's a scene in the middle of Looper where the central character tells his younger self that "I'm not going to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it, we're going be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws," which serves as both one of the film's few truly funny moments and as a smart warning to its audience. Like all time travel movies - especially the great ones, oddly enough - it's better to simply go along with the story the film is trying to tell than to do your head in trying to work out the intricacies of its take on traversing the limits of space and time.

And actually, to be fair, Looper's internal logic might not make a lick of sense, but it is at least consistently nonsensical. It makes no sense that changes made in the present should affect the future in "real-time" or that it ignores the "butterfly effect", though only up to a point, but the film remains true to its own non-logic to the bitter end. More importantly, massive lapses in logic or no, the film's success has less to do with how it implements this very familiar sci-fi trick, so much as in how it uses it to tell a truly engaging story. 

Interestingly, Looper is actually a film very much of two halves. The first half of the film introduces us to the idea of "Loopers", a group of criminals who earn their pay by murdering people who are sent back to their time period from 30 years in the future, just after the advent of time travel. It's introduced as a fairly efficient way for criminal organizations in the future to get rid of the bodies of those they want murdered, but the true drive of the first half of the film comes from Loopers in the present murdering their future selves - a process that is smartly called "closing the Loop."


It's a smart and fairly complicated idea and the first half of the film is mostly about our central character, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), being unable to close his own Loop as his future self (Bruce Willis) outmaneuvers him before he gets a chance to kill him. Because of the rather grizzly subject matter, the first half of the film is a fairly bleak affair, with fairly horrible characters doing horrible things to one another and it's a gripping, challenging watch that is as violent as it is nihilistic.

Some might argue then that giving the film an emotional core and moving it away from unrepentant nihilism towards something that involves both an exploration of destiny and a possible redemption, is a betrayal of its own brutal premise for something more crowd pleasing and optimistic. It's a fair viewpoint, but it's not one that I share. Aside for my not having much time for nihilism, I found the second half of the film to be even more emotionally involving and intellectually engaging than its opening hour.

Without giving too much away, the shift in the film involves its moving away from the lives of the Loopers themselves towards a plotline that involves Future Joe going after the ruthless and unfeasibly powerful crime lord of his era when he is just a child. As Future Joe narrows down his hunt to three young children, Present Joe uses one of these children as bait to catch his future self. Unsurprisingly, his forced interactions with the child and his young, attractive and clearly troubled mother (Emily Blunt) introduce a whole new dynamic to the action and force both versions of Joe to confront who they are and where they're going.

It's not much of a surprise that it is the introduction of Emily Blunt that is the precise turning point of the film, but it is and her character changes the dynamics of the film entirely and gives us a chance to actually care about the characters on screen and it changes both the tone of the film and, in many ways, its genre as it moves from being a full on action thriller into a more cerebral and more emotionally engaging thriller-drama. It also introduces us to a crucially important subplot involving telekinesis that not only changes the dynamic of the film, but also had me once again wondering what it is about telekinesis and telepathy that they are constantly used as parts of so many different branches of science fiction.    

Though this shift does admittedly mean that the pacing of the film is rather wonky, it's a testament to writer/ director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) and his skills as a filmmaker that the two halves of the film still feel of a piece, even as he fairs equally well at bleak nihilism as he does at an almost spiritual sense of optimism. Johnson is no stranger to strange genre mixes but this is many ways a step up from brick as its script is even sharper and his direction even more tightly controlled.

The three (though actually four - young Pierce Gagnon is a vitally important part of the film) main actors of the film are no less impressive, though at this stage, does anyone expect anything less than pitch-perfect performances from Gordon-Levitt, Willis and Blunt? Gordon-Levitt comes out especially well though, as he has the not-so-enviable task to play a younger version of Bruce Willis, aided only by some occasionally distracting make up effects, and he does it brilliantly. And lets also not forget about the great Jeff Daniels, who is tremendously fun as a deceptively benevolent bad guy.

Looper may not be quite as original as some might suggest and its rather complicated time travel mechanics might throw off some viewers, while its massive tonal shift and bleak first half might throw off others, but it's a smart, emotionally gripping time travel story that does something fresh with its familiar sci-fi elements. And, however much I might love the many superhero films, literary adaptations and franchise films that have all but taken over mainstream Hollywood cinema, it's still something of a treat to see a genre film this personal and this creative.


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