Looper Makes Time Travel Thilling Again

Keep New Times Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Phoenix and help keep the future of New Times free.

Early on in Rian Johnson's time-travel thriller Looper, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sits at a diner and chats with his self from 30 years in the future (Bruce Willis). When the younger Joe asks the older one about the specifics of temporal displacement, the latter dismisses the question, telling his interlocutor what a waste of time it would be to sit there all day drawing "diagrams with straws."

Johnson would agree. His is a mind-fuck movie less interested in geeking out on the details of how exactly past and future intermingle than in investigating the moral implications of a charged situation grounded in character. No sooner does the film lay out the ground rules of its time-travel setup in almost didactically precise voiceovers than it turns its characters loose to make their own life-altering choices.

In short, for all its affectionate pastiche, Looper is a humanist movie, and is all the better for it. Taking place in the year 2042, it establishes a new type of underworld figure, the eponymous practitioner of dirty deeds, among whose number is Joe as played by Gordon-Levitt, heavily made up to resemble a younger Willis. Joe tells us, "Time travel has not yet been invented, but 30 years from now, it will have been." As such, the gangsters who run the world in 2072 use the quickly outlawed practice to send people they wish to assassinate back in time to 2042, at which point loopers are poised to drop them the moment they appear and then dispose of the bodies.


Looper Makes Time Travel Thilling Again

But because time travel is illegal in the future, the loopers themselves must be eliminated, and so the criminals ultimately send these hired assassins back in time to be offed, oftentimes by their past selves. Such is the case when "future" Joe (Willis) appears in the crosshairs of his younger counterpart's gun, before the latter botches the hit and allows his older incarnation to run wild. Old Joe searches for the child that will become the future mob boss in order to kill him before he takes power and institutes his system of eliminating loopers, while his younger self hides out on a farm owned by a tough-talking single mother, Sara (Emily Blunt), who is raising a kid whose tantrums and telekinetic powers seem to indicate that he might grow up into that very kingpin. Meanwhile, the organization sends out its men to track down both versions of Joe.

Johnson first made his name with 2005's Brick, which transported the plotting, mood, and speech patterns of a classic noir to a contemporary high school. The director followed that with 2008's The Brothers Bloom, which wore its Wes Anderson-derived quirk on its perfectly manicured sleeve. With Looper, the borrowings are no less obvious, whether in the plotting (recent sci-fi mind-fuckers like Primer and Timecrimes vie with elements of noir and Bad Seed-style bad toddler behavior), the settings (the dystopian city of the future is drawn from countless cinematic models), or specific touches (the hired thugs in 2072 dress like spaghetti Western bandits). But Looper isn't about its references. Instead, they're firmly woven into the fabric of the work. As Joe's boss (Jeff Daniels) explains to his style-conscious hireling, dismissing the latter's emphasis on superficial image-making, the movies he's copying in shaping his physical appearance are themselves copies of other movies.

Does this amount to self-critique? If so, it's a gentle one. But as Gordon-Levitt ages into Willis, he trades his youthful obsession with flash for a more satisfying relationship to the adult world. As the film evolves into an ethical quandary, it raises questions about what people will do to protect both their loved ones and their own happiness and wonders what value individual happiness merits when placed against the fate of the world.

If the ending seems a little too hedge-betting, Looper nonetheless satisfies wholly on the level of dramatic necessity. Thrilling in its deft juggling of complex narrative elements, utterly clear in its presentation, and unfolding with what feels like serious moral purpose, Looper still can't help suggesting that its larger ambitions are something of a put-on, a nice thematic polish to set off its interpersonal drama. But there's no shame in a film that favors the human scale over abstract philosophizing or meta-cinematic frippery. For Johnson, the inveterate pasticheur, it qualifies as a significant step forward.

Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.