(directed by Rian Johnson, 2012)
The year is 2044. As the voiceover at the beginning of the film tells us, time-travel hasn’t been invented yet, but in thirty years’ time it will have been. Having been invented, it will immediately be made illegal, with such high penalties that only the largest and most powerful criminal organisations dare to use it. For them, time-travel becomes the most efficient way of getting rid of their victims: they simply bundle them into time-travel capsules and beam them thirty years back in time. No bodies, no mess: the people simply disappear.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper in 2044. That means he is an assassin, hired by criminal bosses from the future, and overseen in the ‘present’ by the avuncular godfather Abe (Jeff Daniels), who has come from the future in order to run this convenient operation. The condemned people pop into existence at a prearranged location, where Joe is waiting with a blunderbuss to blow them instantly into oblivion. He collects his fee in the form of bars of silver which line the victims’ coats; then he destroys the bodies (which officially don’t exist) and spends his fee on cars, women, and drugs.
But then this cosy scenario starts to go sour. Joe’s fellow loopers begin to report that they’ve been ‘closing their loops’. When the bosses in the future tire of using a particular looper, they signal the end of his contract by sending his future self back to be executed. Hooded and dressed in nondescript clothes, these future selves are indistinguishable from any other poor man arriving to be executed. The looper only realises what has happened when he rips open the victim’s coat to find it lined with gold bars rather than silver. From that moment, he’s living on borrowed time. The gold makes him rich, but he has only thirty years to enjoy it, knowing that at the end of that time he’ll be arrested and sent back for his younger self to murder. Still with me?
Joe and his colleagues discover that there’s a new boss in the future, codenamed The Rainmaker, who has decided to hunt down all the loopers and close their loops once and for all. And so, one day, Joe is waiting in the field and his future self (Bruce Willis) pops into existence before his eyes. Here Joe’s life diverges. In one tangent, he executes old Joe, pockets the gold and sets off to spend thirty years living his life, before 2074 rolls round and he finds himself transported back to this same moment. That’s when the second tangent kicks in. Old Joe makes a bid for freedom, determined to track down The Rainmaker (who is only a child at this stage) and kill him, to prevent all the suffering inflicted on him in the future. Young Joe is fully conscious that in allowing his loop to escape he’s made himself fair game for Abe’s henchmen, and panics, desperate to prove his loyalty to Abe and his bosses. There’s nothing for it: old Joe has to go.
The studio is making a big thing about comparisons with The Matrix and it’s true that Looper is one of the more original and clever science-fiction films in recent years. It presents a very plausible vision of the near-future: a world which isn’t so very different from our own and which is distinguished mainly by its hover-bikes and by the desperate gulf between the haves (with their cars, guns and drugs) and the have-nots (a vast underclass referred to as the ‘Vagrants’). Occasional throwaway references suggested that there was a rich fictional history underlying the story, but fortunately the writer didn’t feel obliged to bury his audience beneath a landslide of unnecessary context. Not knowing the full story made the characters feel more convincing as inhabitants of a world they knew very well, but which we could only glimpse.
I was especially impressed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who turned in another strong performance and who also submitted to prosthetics in order to look as much like a young Bruce Willis as he could. If I had one criticism, it’s that there were moments where this clever, imaginative story suddenly went all Die Hard on us, largely thanks to Willis’s role as old Joe, which allowed him a bit of emoting but which largely required him to run from the authorities and handle lots of guns. It felt as if the director had suddenly panicked that there weren’t enough guns and explosions to satisfy the teenage-boy demographic. However, apart from that, the film as a whole was very enjoyable. In my own hall of modern sci-fi fame, it doesn’t quite reach the same level as the first Matrix film and Inception, but I can only be thankful that writers and studios still have the courage to bring out original stories like this, rather than just another of the interminable comic-book reboots.
I have one final question about this film’s treatment of time-travel and changing the past, which is spoilerish in nature, so please beware. Something is still irritating me about the final explanation of the film and if someone else can make it clearer for me, I’d be grateful. We see that, first time round (let’s call it Reality A), young Joe initially does kill old Joe. He goes on to grow old with his gold, in a world which comes under the thumb of The Rainmaker (we’re still in Reality A here). How can the film argue, therefore, that The Rainmaker’s murderous spree in Reality A depends on old Joe having gone after him as a child? In Reality A, old Joe didn’t go after him because he was killed as soon as he was sent back. It’s only second time around, in Reality B, that old Joe gets free and is bent on revenge. Therefore old Joe’s suffering in 2074 in Reality A is based on something which hasn’t happened yet. How does that work?
Answers on a postcard, please…