Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Goes Around Comes Around: LOOPER

Time travel is tricky for both characters and filmmakers, a gambit filled with potential plot holes, paradoxes and butterfly effects well known to anyone even glancingly familiar with this sci-fi subgenre. These kinds of movies generally litter their runtime with unanswerable questions. With Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson (he of the great high school noir film Brick) has given the time travel picture a jolt of smart intensity, embracing the concept by making unanswerable philosophical time travel questions into an advantage. It joins the classics of the subgenre (from Chris Marker’s La Jetée to Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, from Shane Carruth’s Primer to James Cameron’s Terminator series) as a film that, rather than getting overwhelmed by a need to explain and explain, simply uses its time travel rules, at once utterly simple and dizzyingly complex, in the service of a great story.

Johnson knows that great science fiction starts not just with world-building or dazzling effects, although Looper does both very well, but with ground-level characters, recognizable personalities who happen to find themselves in fantastical scenarios. Take for instance the man who will be both protagonist and antagonist in this film, sometimes even at the same time. His name is Joe. He kills people for a living. More accurately, he kills people from the future. The year is 2044 and although time travel has yet to be invented, it will be soon enough. In 2074, time travel is illegal and thus only used by a crime syndicate for the sole purpose of disposing bodies. That’s where Joe and his co-workers come in.

Known as Loopers, their job is to take their guns out to the middle of nowhere, kill the future people, and collect a paycheck until the time comes that their future employers decide to “close the loop,” forcing them into retirement by killing their future selves. It’s a complicated conceit that plays out with stunning simplicity, effortlessly explained and immediately the stuff of high stakes when the time comes for Joe to close his loop. He finds himself caught off guard by his older self, who fights back and escapes. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) is now on the run from his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with makeup and prosthetics that convincingly creates an approximation of young Willis) and both are forced to flee their fellow Loopers (Jeff Daniels, Garret Dillahunt, and Noah Segan among them) who are determined to set the future straight by closing up this temporal loose end.

By the time this happens, the world of the film feels sturdy, convincing. High-tech embellishments create a world that feels almost like our own, close enough to recognize, advanced enough to feel foreign. The characters are all world-weary men, doing a messy job with professionalism. This new wrinkle in their day-to-day grind of violence by day and hard partying by night is treated with a tired tension, an urgency that is both intense and unsurprising. Something like this was bound to happen. Indeed, we’ve seen that it has at least once, but that time clean up was relatively easy. Both Joes are hard to catch. The older Joe roams the cityscape – Johnson imagines a future with both hoverbikes and pervasive homelessness – on a mission to change his fate. The younger Joe hides out with a tough farm woman (Emily Blunt) and her little boy (the adorable Pierce Gagnon).

At first, I thought I had the film pinned down as simply a fantastic man-on-the-run picture with sci-fi influences, a sort of doubled, time-shifting version of The Fugitive. But suddenly, the movie slips away and grows deeper, darker, sadder, and more beautiful. To even suggest the shape the story takes from here would be a disservice to you, reader. This is most definitely a film that plays even better with a joyful sense of discovery. Let me just say that the film finds surprising, upsetting, exciting, and rather moving ways to circle its main thematic concerns about what makes a person become the person they will ultimately be. This is a thriller with plenty of gunplay, chase scenes, cold-blooded murder (most shockingly of total innocents), and seamless special effects, but Johnson treats these developments with a weight and seriousness.  The performances are completely convincing and, through the characters and the style, which is flashy and distinct without once overwhelming the driving story, the film feels grounded in a way that many films of its ilk don’t. Looper contains notes of deep darkness that are treated without sensationalism. Here, violence hurts. Injuries have consequences. Scars linger.

This film thrillingly skirts past all the usual pitfalls and creates an exciting and cohesive film that is violent and cynical, but romantic and humanistic as well. Johnson embraces these apparent contradictions to follow loops of plot to the kind of climax that feels at once startling and wholly inevitable. Looking back on its entirety, it’s easy to see how fully and neatly Johnson has led us to this point. This ingeniously structured movie, neat and tidy by the end, is skillfully complex, a movie that operates from a set of rules that seem fully thought through, inhabiting a world rather than using it as narratively convenient. With Steve Yedlin’s warm yet precise cinematography of great pictorial beauty, from the steel-and-concrete, graffiti-covered streets of downtown to the dusty fields of farmland, recalling the casual gracefulness in the down-to-earth sci-fi of early Spielberg, it’s a story of imagination and emotion set against a detailed futuristic environment that feels detailed in compelling ways that nonetheless remain in the background with minimal fuss. This is a world, not merely a stage.

And on this stage, inner conflict exploded outwards. The central drama of the film is nothing less than a man fighting to become a better man by changing his circumstances, an older man literally drawn into combat with his younger self. There’s a tense, funny scene between the two versions in a diner that brings new meaning to the phrase “talking to yourself.” Whether one realizes it or not, each second takes a person away from the person one is now and towards the person one will become. For Joe, time travel has brought this process into sharp focus. Both versions have a chance to regard the entirety of his life to date and decide how best to get out of this situation with their life (and maybe even the world) better off. But is this even possible with outside forces and circumstances crushing in on them (him)?

Johnson patiently complicates the scenario, sketching details of plot with camera moves that silently reveal new information and shot compositions that cement tension and power dynamics. He off-handedly introduces concepts that will come roaring back into focus later. Here is a movie about fate that feels inevitable but vibrant, a movie about choices that feels carefully designed. Like all the best time travel movies, when it ended I felt the pleasant confusion that made me want to see it again, to diagram the timelines and figure out what, in the end, remains real and what has been cancelled out. Best of all, I felt confident that I very well could do just that. Looper is a film so emotionally engaged and technologically accomplished, so confident in the rules of its universe, that there’s a feeling its implications resonate far beyond any given frame, beyond the focus of this particular story. Johnson has created the rare film that seems to expand.

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