In the year 2044, a twenty-five-year-old man named Joe works for a Kansas City crime syndicate. People in his link of work are called loopers. They could be considered assassins except for one key difference: they don’t seek out victims; they’re sent to them. Because tracking systems in the future make disposing of a body nigh impossible, the syndicate uses time travel to send the condemned to the present for the loopers to kill. Joe’s life reaches a decisive moment when his older self appears before him.
The immediate praiseworthy aspect of Looper would be its premise. Whereas Rian Johnson’s peers in the realm of science-fiction were beginning to use the genre as a means to preach to their audience, he drew from its cinematic golden age. Indeed, with its imaginative premise and stripped-down special effects, Looper wouldn’t feel out of place in the company of David Cronenberg’s The Fly or Terry Gillham’s Brazil. The only aspect that could be said to date it to 2012 is its depiction of United States, which largely resembles the Soviet Union shortly after its dissolution or China as the world’s leading superpower. Even then, it’s easy to say that Mr. Johnson is merely following in the footsteps of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in how he incorporates film noir elements in his science-fiction narrative.
Indeed, the aesthetics of Looper bring to mind the grunginess of many classic cyberpunk films. The technology in Looper isn’t as advanced as what you would expect out of your typical cyberpunk feature, yet you’re constantly exposed to the seedier aspects of future. Joe and his fellow loopers lead hedonistic lifestyles, constantly getting high off of drugs present in eye drops, and it’s clear that they have no real ambitions beyond getting the next fix.
One would assume based on the trailers that the main character’s future self appearing before him is a source of intrigue for the rest of the story. In that regard, it’s not unlike how Tom Cruise’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is accused of a future murder in a world where the police can perfectly predict major crimes. This isn’t exactly what occurs, though. While there is indeed intrigue to be found in this film, every looper knows that their future self will be their final victim. The syndicate sends the looper’s future self as a preemptive measure to prevent as many unnecessary connections to themselves as possible. These targets are identifiable by the gold bars strapped to their person, allowing the past self to live the next thirty years however they want in effective retirement. Once those thirty years are up, the syndicate recaptures the looper and sends them back, thus “closing the loop” – so to speak.
Furthermore, the real intrigue actually begins when the future self of Seth, Joe’s friend, is sent back in time. Seth then learns from his older self that a person in the future known as the Rainmaker will overthrow the five crime bosses and close all of the loops. The reason Seth knows all of this is because, violating the loopers’ rules, he did not kill his future self. Old Seth arrives singing a childhood song, which results in Seth releasing him.
This turns out to be quite a fatal mistake for Seth – and one he will experience for an excruciatingly long time at that. Realizing that the syndicate is after him, Seth asks Joe to hide him. The latter agrees, but eventually reveals his location to Abe – the syndicate’s manager who hails from the future. What follows is a rather harrowing scene where the syndicate mutilates Seth. Impressively, this manages to be accomplished without overtly spilling a single drop of blood. This is because you don’t see the effects of the torture on Seth, but rather on his older self.
During his escape attempt, Old Seth notices a curious scar on his right arm resembling an arrow – one that did not exist before. Looking further down his arm, he sees more scars, spelling out an address for him. He initially ignores the message only to notice his pinky finger disappear. It doesn’t stop there as more fingers are deleted from existence along with his nose. Realizing it would be unwise to ignore the message further, Old Seth makes his way to the address while, quite literally, falling apart at the seams. By the time he arrives, his tongue, one ear, and all four of his limbs have been removed. He is shot dead for his troubles when he knocks on the door. It is at that point you realize the syndicate had to keep his younger self alive in such a state for thirty years in order for this paradox to resolve itself without breaking reality. Old Seth may have finally found release, but his younger self shall experience a fate worse than death until then. It is safe to assume this is the fate that befalls anyone who fails or refuses to kill their future self.
The story begins in earnest shortly thereafter. Unlike most victims, Old Joe is unhooded and unbound when he appears before Joe. Without anything to restrain him and knowing himself better than anyone, Old Joe easily escapes. To have reached that point, Old Joe did indeed kill his older self thirty years ago. Being a drug addict at the time, he wasted a majority of his earnings on drugs and other frivolities, though he eventually moves to Shanghai and marries. His wife is then killed as the syndicate captures him, although he is able to overpower his captors. He then willingly sends himself back to 2044 in order to kill the Rainmaker, thus preventing his loop from being closed and saving his wife.
Another thing I enjoy about the film is that it successfully channels the offbeat energy present in many independent features from the 1990s by featuring a lot of black comedy. Old Joe eventually sees an arrow scar similar to the one that appeared on Old Seth’s arm. It even begins with “Be at”, thus mirroring the message that was sent to Old Seth (“Be at 75 Wire Street in 15 minutes”). This can scare an audience into believing Joe’s younger self was captured, but it is a fake out; the message actually says “Beatrix”, which refers to a waitress at a diner frequented by Joe. It was the only way his younger self could think of to get his attention, though Old Joe wryly points out that another woman, Jen, works on the weekends when they finally meet.
One of the members of the syndicate, Kid Blue, seems to only exist in order for the world to constantly dunk on. He is to the loopers’ syndicate what Vincent Vega was to Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction – that is to say, worse than useless. He tries to act like the big man on campus by twirling his guns as though he is in a Western only to nearly drop it. While he does successfully pull off the stunt after shooting Old Seth, it’s hard to find it impressive given that his target was completely defenseless. Indeed, every fight he gets into that involves an able-bodied person ends with him getting badly humiliated. His incompetence is hilarious to watch in the same way Vincent Vega’s was.
So, with an interesting premise and a clear sense of intrigue, Looper would appear to be a triumph for independent filmmaking in the 2010s. Even so, I can imagine in the wake of the possible time-crushing paradoxes that many people would be skeptical as to how it could possibly work. The answer is that it does – if you don’t think about it too hard.
The specific thing to bear in mind when examining time travel in this film is that it only ever makes exactly as much sense as it needs to for a given scene – no more and no less. While the mutilation scene is frightening, its implications are more than a little bizarre. Old Seth would have needed functioning legs and a tongue in order for him to escape in the first place, which his younger self should not possess by 2074 considering they, among other things, were removed in 2044. Does this mean his missing limbs magically reappear once his effectively paralyzed body is sent back? Or is there a new timeline in which the limbless mass is indeed presented to Seth? If so, then there wouldn’t be a need to mutilate Seth in the first place; that version shouldn’t have qualms killing someone who is effectively already dead.
Not helping matters is that the story has a bad habit of pointing out problems with its premise only to not lift a finger to fix them. Joe asks his older self how time travel works. It’s a reasonable question because Old Joe did indeed kill his older self thirty years ago – something the present Joe has not done. Logically, these two realities shouldn’t coexist, and yet they do. Old Joe responds to his younger self’s inquiries by not discussing time travel, reasoning they would be there all day drawing diagrams with straws. What makes this line especially frustrating is that it is the writer telling his audience not to think about the premise he wants his audience to think about. It’s par for the course as far as paradoxes go in this film, but to see it extend to a metatextual level is downright surreal.
Fittingly, I find a majority of these problems stem from the fact that Looper acts as though there is both only one timeline and multiple timelines. Once again, which one it is depends on what is the most convenient for a given moment. As the present Joe cannot possibly live his life the way his older self has due to the latter’s interference, Old Joe shouldn’t exist as he is now. In fact, that is what starts to happen as Joe, after gaining information from his older self, finds himself in the company of Sara and her son, Cid. There are hints that the two will end up together, which causes Old Joe’s memories of his own wife to fade.
Old Joe’s quest to kill the Rainmaker then crosses moral boundaries when he resorts to killing the children who will potentially grow up to be him. The Rainmaker is eventually revealed to be none other than Cid. An unexplained phenomenon within the past few years has caused certain people to be born with telekinetic powers – the mutation itself referred to as “TK”. For most people, the TK mutation merely allows them to perform parlor tricks. Cid’s powers, on the other hand, allow him to be a living weapon. When the syndicate arrives at his house, he tears its representative is torn apart from the inside out.
This ties into a comparatively minor flaw with the film – it’s decidedly overstuffed. The TK mutation does eventually have a significant impact on the plot and makes Joe’s motivation to kill the Rainmaker as a child more understandable. Had the Rainmaker been a completely normal person, Old Joe’s extremist actions would have been nigh-impossible to sympathize with. As it stands, his reasoning raises the question of whether someone as powerful as Cid can safely exist in this world. The problem is that up until it becomes relevant, the TK mutation barely has an impact on the plot, meaning its only purpose is to make Cid more intimidating. In other words, it’s only important when the plot demands it to be so, and not due to a strong, diegetic reason.
In the end, however, the decision is eventually taken out of Old Joe’s hands. Joe realizes that his older self will kill Sara and lose Cid, causing the child to become the vengeful Rainmaker later in life. To prevent this reality from coming to pass, Joe commits suicide, thus erasing Old Joe from existence. Sara and Cid are reunited, and Joe’s actions may have stopped the Rainmaker from rising to power.
While the ending is admittedly powerful, it does continue to demonstrate how little time travel makes sense in this universe. Just like with Seth, someone would had to have sent Old Joe back in time in order for the events of the film to pan out the way they did. However, the syndicate would have even more of a difficult time doing so this time around, as there is nothing to send back at all. Or do they find Joe’s remains, send that back in time, and he suddenly becomes alive again aged thirty years? After all, the events of the film assume that an Old Joe existed up until the point where he ceased to be, which can’t happen if he died at age twenty-five. If the film definitively decided whether it has one or multiple timelines, it wouldn’t have raised any of these questions. So, while the premise is imaginative, Seth’s ultimate fate could be seen as a metaphor for its integrity, as it too falls apart the moment you begin dissecting it.
If it is one thing I will give Looper credit for, it’s that it does not revel in the excesses of its era. By 2012, science-fiction writers tried to take cues from the masters of old by turning every other premise into a cautionary tale whether it was via the technophobic Black Mirror or the misanthropic District 9. While one could argue the creators thereof wanted their audience to question the world around them, it was, in practice, an incredibly passive method of creating art – one that inspired followers, not leaders. Mr. Johnson didn’t fall into that trap when making Looper. To an extent, he did successfully channel the raw visionary energy from the genre’s cinematic golden age and delivered a premise that managed to be equal parts fresh and memorable.
However, there is no getting around that, in spite of Mr. Johnson’s ambition, Looper is the kind of film one has to turn off their brain in order to enjoy. The central premise seems very awe-inspiring in the moment, yet makes absolutely no sense when you’re trying to parse it in hindsight. It doesn’t help that said premise exists in a state of quantum entanglement in how it wants its audience to think about it, yet thinking about it is exactly what causes its integrity to crumble into dust. Regardless, it was a decent effort – especially for an independent project. While anyone seeking out a pensive science-fiction piece should focus elsewhere, it does manage to be a perfectly serviceable if you’re seeking something light and easy to digest.
Final Score: 6/10