Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Controls the Past, Controls the Future

"It's a precise way of describing a fuzzy process," says Looper's Bruce Willis about time-traveling and its implications for the future. He's actually being quite modest. Most time-travel stories must wrestle with the creation of a time paradox, the most elegantly simple of which may be that of the original Terminator (in which Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Conner to protect his mother Sarah Conner, and in the process falls in love with her and fathers John Conner, who sends Kyle Reese back in time...). Looper rather cheerfully dispenses with such complications, even as it shares much with such films as The Terminator and Twelve Monkeys, yet it still manages to be one of the smartest and most exciting sci-fi films to come around in some time.

The year is 2044, and American society is in a state of long decline, with mass poverty and  violence pervading the streets. Everything in this (well-realized) world, including the minor advances in technology, seems to be in a state of disrepair or dysfunction. Even humanity's one significant forward step, the development in a minority of the population of low-level telekinesis, is only good enough for guys to use it to pick up chicks at the bar.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seemingly one of the few people around with money to burn. Joe is a Looper, whose job it is to kill and destroy the bodies of the undesirables of an organized crime syndicate from thirty years in the future, when time-travel has been invented and outlawed. Loopers are so named because they agree from the start that their final target will be their future self--the bosses don't want any evidence or witnesses--at which point they get a severance package and are free to waste their next thirty years. Closing the loop, they call it. Lately, though, Loopers have been getting closed with increasing frequency, and sure enough, Joe's future self (Willis) arrives for execution. Joe recognizes him and hesitates long enough for his quarry to get away.

Director and writer Rian Johnson demonstrated with his 2005(!) debut Brick that he knew how to conjure worlds, but his work here is impressive all the same. The concept could all too easily have become a dumb, violent chase, but in Johnson's hands it becomes so much more. Even when dispensing with heavy exposition, the movie is always grounded in its characters, with the two Joes developing side-by-side: as we learn more about Old Joe and his maturation we see the selfish, cold-hearted Young Joe himself begin to thaw. Many of the best moments, accordingly, are not guns-blazing setpieces, but smaller business, like an amazingly tense scene that just involves characters maneuvering around a small house trying not to be spotted. There is quite a bit of gear-shifting in the plot, particularly with the film's second half, but the developments are seeded early on and are a welcome change of setting and pace.

Besides being well-crafted, the script comes with a dry wit that at times positively slays. (The name "Shanghai," super-imposed, got one of the biggest laughs in the theater I was in; you'll understand when you see it). The visuals are uniformly excellent, contrasting the plainness and uniformity of a sugar cane field with the cramped, chaotic squalor of the city, and the imagery becomes, rather surprisingly, more distinct and striking as the movie gets further into its scenario. There's an image of a boy in a leveled cane field that, especially in the context of the movie, is straight-up eerie.

Good writing and production values can only take you so far, but fortunately Johnson has assembled a stellar ensemble to bring his world to life. Levitt does excellent work channeling Willis' coolly brutal  persona, while Willis becomes truly unhinged and menacing when the nature of his mission is finally revealed. The two are bolstered by a supporting cast that ranges from good to mind-bogglingly astounding. Paul Dano is well-used in his brief appearance as an excitable fellow Looper, and Jeff Daniels shows great range, initially coming off warm and funny and going stone cold at a moment's notice. Emily Blunt comes in relatively late, about halfway through the movie, yet as farm girl Sara she holds her own against Levitt, with whom she shares the most screen time. Yet far and away the most astonishing performance comes from five year-old Pierce Gagnon, who frighteningly inhabits his character. To say anything about said character other than that he becomes critically important to the story would spoil too much; suffice it to say that Gagnon's is a "child actor" performance the caliber of which audiences haven't seen since The Sixth Sense (incidentally, another film starring Bruce Willis).

As mentioned, the film is upfront about the murkiness of its time-travel mechanics. Contrary to the suggestions of its title, it avoids creating an endlessly recursive paradox, as well as anything like a splintered-off parallel dimension, in favor of an approach similar to Back to the Future, where the changes in the future--and the changes in the protagonist from the future--happen gradually, in keeping with the rhythms of the "present." In essence, Future Joe doesn't receive scars and memories until Present Joe does. It's kind of a cheat, honestly, as it was in Back to the Future, but it is both creative and consistent in the application of its rules. 

This counts for more than one would think. The Butterfly Effect, the most recent high-profile Hollywood time-travel flick that immediately comes to mind, suffered severely from a repetitively-applied plot device and a tawdry obviousness (it worked child pornography and prison sex into its story) in its approach.
That Looper manages in spite of its occasionally shaky logic to be fun and high-minded and never insulting is a rare treat, for which we should thank our lucky stars.

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