Director Rian Johnson is, if nothing else, an expert self-promoter.  He’s gotten a lot of good press by interacting with various film blogs and podcasts and has also boosted his pop culture image with cool side-projects like stints as a guest-director on the ubiquitous AMC drama “Breaking Bad.”  Everything seems to have fallen in place perfectly for this guys… except for the fact that he’s never really made a truly exceptional movie.  His debut film, Brick, was a slickly made high concept indie which showed his skills behind the camera but which was ultimately empty and kind of pointless.  His sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, wasn’t much more substantial and it also had the baggage of being a Wes Anderson rip-off, albeit one that is more skillfully made than most Wes Anderson rip-offs.  Still I like this guy and wish the best for him, and that’s why I’ve still been looking forward to his newest film, the time-travel thriller Looper.

Being as this is a time travel film, it’s not going to be easy to summarize, but here goes.  Looper is (mostly) set in the year 2044, and while time travel hasn’t been invented yet, it will be in thirty years.  Pretty much the only people with the will to use said time travel devices in the 2070s are organized crime syndicates who use the technology to send their enemies into the past for purposes of body disposal.  To accommodate this, they’ve hired a variety of people in 2044 called “loopers” who wait by the spot where these victims are to be transported and then shoot them as soon as they cross over and destroy the body.  It’s good work for the amoral crooks they hire to do this, but there’s a catch: if the loopers are still alive thirty years later they’re kidnapped by the mafia and sent back to be killed by themselves in 2044, a sacrifice many of these loopers are willing to make.  One such looper is a man named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s been in this business for a while and has plans to one day escape to France in hopes of avoiding the eventual fate of most loopers.  One day though, the man sent into the past for disposal isn’t tied up like most of the future-mafia’s victims and it quickly becomes clear that this middle aged man is the Joe from the future (Bruce Willis) and he’s not going to go quietly.

Looper is in many ways a look at what Back to the Future would have been like if it had been an action thriller rather than a teen comedy.  Like that seminal time travel blockbuster, this script dives into the “time paradoxes” inherent to the genre head first and doesn’t look back.  This film will almost certainly produce internet study guides which dissect the various strengths and inconstancies of the film’s time travel scenarios, but I made a concerted effort not to get too bogged down in plot-hole hunting during my initial experience with the film, a mindset which I knew would only needlessly distract from the film.  The paradoxes that the film brings up certainly are worth thinking about, namely the film’s central concept which essentially has people committing indirect suicide, but people who take the notion of a “butterfly effect” too seriously may seriously question the plausibility of the whole enterprise.

I was less intrigued by the film’s basic vision of the future, which seemed rather… boring.  I suppose that living in a world that’s filled with high tech gadgets but which otherwise looks pretty similar to 1992 has made filmmakers a lot more conservative in their visions of the near-ish futres, but I still feel like Johnson could have done more with 2044 than he did.  This future looks a lot like modern America, except poorer and with a handful of extra gadgets which pop up occasionally.  In particular I found the weapon of choice in the future, a sort of less efficient shotgun called a “blunderbuss,” to be both silly looking and not overly useful to the film’s action scenes.  Speaking of the actions scenes, I wouldn’t expect a whole lot from them.  The film isn’t My Dinner With Andre or anything, a lot of people do get shot and there are number of well-made set pieces, but if you go in expecting it to be competing with something like The Matrix you’ll probably be disappointed.

Prior to 2005 Joseph Gordon Levitt had earned himself steady work starring in the sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” but it was Rian Johnson’s film Brick that really launched his career as a respected film actor, which likely influenced his decision to star in this film.  His work here is good, but he’s not doing a whole lot in the film that will surprise anyone who’s been following his career, he continues to be a serviceable young film star.  Bruce Willis was an interesting choice to play Gordon-Levitt’s older self; he doesn’t necessarily look all that much like the younger star and he sort of has a different way of carrying himself too.  In many ways he looks more like Levitt’s father than his older self and this does give the film a certain added dimension because, like a father, he tries to give “young Joe” life advice only to be disregarded by a younger generation (of sorts) that has no respect for the kind of life experience that must have shaped said advice.

On the downside, Willis’ presence does bring to mind his 1995 film 12 Monkeys, which was a superior time travel film in a number of ways.  The thing is, Looper is a very well made film.  I couldn’t help but have a lot of respect for Rian Johnson’s skill as a filmmaker, but once again it feels like that skill is in service of a film that is ultimately empty.  It brings up some interesting moral quandaries, but fails to explore them in any kind of real depth: it’s a film that is clever rather than smart.  I feel like it’s a film that would have impressed me a lot more if it was among the first three or four time-travel films I’d seen rather than among the first fourteen or fifteen.  Still, I don’t want to come off too negative on the film.  It is going to serve audiences better than most of the cookie cutter actions movies that populated the summer season, and I suspect that I would have been a lot more excited about it if it had come out then rather than on the cusp of award season.

***1/2 out of Four

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