I watched Looper two nights ago, and since coming out of the movie theater I've been trying to work out just why this film left me feeling so unimpressed. It's not that there's anything wrong with Looper, which in fact wears the crown of intelligent, thought-provoking SF filmmaking better than almost any other claimant to that title in the last few years. It's well-made, intelligent, and handles its time travel premise in brave and interesting ways. But it's also an almost airless work, one whose pieces never managed to engage me enough to make me care about its whole.
A lot of this comes down to the kind of filmmaker Rian Johnson is. Johnson's breakout film Brick was a pastiche that drew its power from a gimmick--that its high school age characters spoke like characters out of classic noir--but it elevated itself above a mere mash-up through its dedication to its style, and with the help of a magnetic, soulful central performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In his follow-up to Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Johnson seemed to be struggling with the questions of artifice and gimmickry raised by his previous effort. The heroes of that movie were con men whose method was to impose a narrative on their marks' lives. They were men steeped in artifice but desperate for something real, and yet the events of the film were as artificial as anything they might have concocted. Though a flawed film, The Brothers Bloom at least showed that Johnson was aware of the problems inherent to his storytelling approach and looking for a way to defuse them. In that respect, Looper feels like a step backwards. It lacks the raw emotional core of Brick, or the prevailing sense of self-awareness that permeated The Brothers Bloom, and yet it is as much a pastiche as either of these movies, this time of multiple genres. The premise may be SFnal--in 2044, Joe (Gordon-Levitt again, this time buried under distracting facial prostheses) is a looper, an assassin who kills people transported from thirty years in the future--but the setting, with its seedy clubs, hopeless partying and drug use, and kind-hearted but defeated prostitutes, is pure noir, and when Joe's "loop," his older self (Bruce Willis, the reason for those distracting prostheses), shows up from the future and announces his intention to track down and kill the future crime boss known only as the Rainmaker, who will send all the loopers back in time to be killed and in the process kill old Joe's wife, young Joe--whose own survival depends on killing his future self--plants himself at a farm belonging to Sara (Emily Blunt), the mother of one of the possible Rainmakers, and the film becomes a Western. There are even references to specific SF works--when Sara's young son Cid turns out to possess dangerous telekinetic powers that can erupt into murder when he's frightened or angry, the isolated farm with its seemingly endless surrounding fields of rustling cane recalls nothing so much as the classic Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life."
When Joe's boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), himself a traveler from the future, needles him for his old-fashioned (which is to say, contemporary to us) dress sense, he points out that Joe is merely mimicking movies that were, themselves, mimicking other movies, so it can't be said that Johnson isn't aware that he has, once again, created a work that is primarily occupied with referencing other works. And yet that self-awareness doesn't run very deeply through Looper, which for the most part takes itself and its story quite seriously. This is perhaps because Johnson has taken Abe's advice to Joe and tried to "do something original" with his SFnal premise, but unsurprisingly, this bit of invention is where Looper is weakest and least persuasive. That the mechanics of time travel and its implications for the timeline don't hold together was perhaps to be expected--when do they ever?--and it might have been possible to handwave this, as well as the use of time travel as a means of assassination, which just barely hangs together if you don't think about it too much. But Johnson tries to justify such an elaborate method of corpse disposal by having Joe tell us that in the future it's impossible to disappear a body, which hardly tracks with the lawless, poverty-stricken world of 2044, in which most of the non-criminals Joe encounters live on the streets or roam the countryside in vagrant gangs, and law and government appear to be nonexistent; perhaps we're meant to understand that there's going to be a movement towards law and order and greater government oversight in the next thirty years, but this clashes with the film's noir tone in a way that Johnson doesn't acknowledge, so that his attempt to create a coherent future world that includes time travel only calls attention to that world's thinness.
Even if you accept Looper's premise, however, Johnson's attempts to shade in this premise with invented SFnal idiom are awkward and unconvincing. Terms like "gatmen" (the mob's enforcers, named after their gat guns), blunderbuss (the gun loopers use to kill their victims, which, even with an entire scene devoted to justifying the name, doesn't feel like the sort of thing that a 21st century person would call their gun, and is anyway an unattractive mouthful that makes the characters look ridiculous when they say it), and even looper itself are cumbersome. When Joe's friend Seth (Paul Dano) loses his future self, Joe's ponderous voice-over tells us that "this is called 'letting your loop run'" as if this were a turn of phrase rather than a literal description of what has happened. At no point does any of this language feel like an organic slang that might have emerged from this technology and the criminal lifestyle it had created (I actually found myself wishing for Andrew Niccol's relentless time-based puns from In Time, which were at least a little witty) and the fact that the characters use it dehumanizes them in a way that the noirish language in Brick didn't--it's not believable that people would talk this way, but it's also not artfully unbelievable either, just awkward and distracting.
All that said, once the scenario of an escaped future self roaming free in his past, and the challenges facing both him and his younger self, are established, Looper does some very interesting things with the concept of time travel and the questions it raises that, even if they don't quite elevate the film to a complete and satisfying work, certainly justify its existence and make it worth discussing. There is, for example, a horrifying but extremely inventive scene in which old Seth is forced to report back to be executed by lopping off limbs and appendages from young Seth, keeping him alive to prevent a paradox even as old Seth's body parts disappear (that this represents as much of a paradox as killing young Seth would have--if his legs were chopped off, for example, how could old Seth have arrived in the past whole?--is yet another one of the points on which Looper's construction of time travel doesn't hold together). More high-minded, and more interesting, is Looper's handing of predestination. Time travel inevitably raises the question of free will vs. predestination--if the future is a place that exists and that we can travel to, doesn't that mean that our choices are set in stone in order to lead us to that future? Hollywood filmmaking, with its emphasis on the individual as not just a hero but the prime mover and shaker of their story, can't quite accommodate this notion, so films dealing with time travel, like Back to the Future 3 or Terminator 2, will often plump for the crowdpleasing but intellectually bankrupt conclusion that yes, time travel exists, yes, we've seen the future, but no, our characters are not bound to that future for reasons that can't be articulated.
Looper rejects not only this simplistic take on time travel, but also the stark division between free will and having your entire life laid out for you. The question, the film seems to be saying, isn't whether we have free choice or no choice at all, but how much free choice we have, how limited the options before us are, and how few of the choices available to us are good ones. Joe, we learn, was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother and taken in by Abe as a child. Technically, he has free will, but in reality, his becoming an assassin was inevitable, and the choice to get out of that life all but impossible--emotionally and practically--to make. When they discover Cid's powers, both old Joe and young Joe insist that his becoming the Rainmaker is inevitable, but Sara believes that with her influence he can grow up a good person. But as young Joe realizes (and mirroring Abe's description of looking at Joe as a child and seeing the path of criminality he was set on if he weren't saved--by which Abe means, turned into a looper), it's old Joe's murder of Sara that will set Cid on the path that makes him the Rainmaker. So the inevitability of time travel is folded into the cycle of violence and of victims becoming victimizers, both a metaphor for it and a literal extension of it.
This is a very clever and original use of time travel, but it has darker implications that I'm not sure Johnson has fully appreciated. By paralleling the limited options of people born into poverty and crime with the predestination implied by time travel, Looper essentially denies the very possibility that a person might choose to change their life. Change, in this film, is only ever something that happens to us at someone else's instigation, and as a result of their choices. Joe is who he is because of his mother's abandonment and because Abe took him in. Old Joe changed because his wife, as he puts it, saved him. Cid will either become a crime lord or a good person, depending on whether Sara is in his life. People are changed, they do not change themselves--even old Joe, who insists that he is a more evolved person than his younger self, proves otherwise with his actions; though Joe tells him that the best way to save his wife is to give her up, he is so insistent that he can save her and still have her that he is willing to kill children who might become the Rainmaker, but who might also be completely innocent. The only examples of adults choosing to change their lives take the form of self-abnegation--realizing that he can't stop old Joe from killing Sara, young Joe kills himself in order to cancel out his future self's existence, and former party girl Sara, who initially left Cid with her sister, has only managed to change her life by making it entirely about another person. Looper depicts a world in which our path in life is determined by our parents or the people who act as our parents, and in which people are either children--and thus molded by the choices of their parents--or parents--and thus fully occupied by molding their children--but never individuals who might make their own choices and live to deal with the consequences. Changing your own life and then living that change is hard and, for most of us, impossible, so I wouldn't have objected to this moral if Looper had chosen to face the bleakness of its conclusion head on. But the film, preoccupied as it is with the neatness of Joe's having closed both his loop and Cid's (and with the Western style ending of Lonely Widow Sara riding off into the sunset with her son and Joe's ill-gotten fortune), doesn't entirely acknowledge its own implications, which is part of why, despite being impressed with Johnson's twist on the time travel premise, I found Looper underwhelming.
That a film that is all about limited choices feels, as I said in this review's opening sentences, airless is perhaps to be expected, but Looper's sense of inevitability is never as affecting or as tragic as it needs to be to turn that airlessness into claustrophobia. A lot of this is down to the characters and the fact that they are, as I've said, either children or parents. Young Joe is the former, and he spends large portions of the film in a fug of moral and emotional incomprehension. But his transformation occurs along such familiar lines, straight out of the Western story about the anti-hero turned around by a tough widow and her cute young son, that not even an actor of Gordon-Levitt's caliber can bring it to life. Sara, who actually becomes the film's central character in its second half, is the closest that Looper comes to a compelling, complicated figure, but she's hobbled by the fact of being a female character in a Rian Johnson film, and thus anchored to the axis between savior and seductress. She never quite escapes being a mommy. Old Joe should have been the film's saving grace, since he's the only character who complicates the divide between parents and children. He thinks of himself as an adult, but his unwillingness to make the sacrifice that young Joe finally does at the end of the film belies that claim and shows him to be, fundamentally, as immature and self-absorbed as he accuses his younger self of being. But apart from one scene in which the two Joes meet at a diner (one of the film's highlights) there is hardly any direct interaction between them, and old Joe is seen mostly at a distance. He doesn't have a Sara or a Cid who can bring him out of his shell, so we don't get to know him as well as we do young Joe, and by the end of the film his role is more to move the plot--to kill Abe's goons, and draw closer to Sara's farm--than to shed more light on the questions at Looper's core.
"I remember it after it happens," old Joe tells young Joe, explaining how their shared memory works. Before young Joe makes a choice, old Joe sees his options as if they were in flux, but after it's been made, old Joe sees it as inevitable. That feels like a very accurate description of the experience of watching Looper. It's not a predictable film--there are two many genres at play here, too many references to specific works, and even a twist or two--but once every step of the plot occurs, it feels inevitable and unsurprising. The reference coalesces, our realization of the genre we're in at this moment crystallizes, and the film once again fails to emerge from these as its own entity. While watching Looper, I found myself comparing it to Twelve Monkeys, another film that bravely owns up to the inevitability implied by time travel, but in a way that is even more hopeless--not only does free will not exist, but as a consequence of that, the human race is annihilated. And yet Twelve Monkeys is more lively and more affecting than Looper, and not just because of its humor (a trait that the po-faced Looper lacks entirely--even the seemingly inescapable joke about young Joe realizing that he will one day go bald is absent). Unlike Looper, Twelve Monkeys lets its characters breathe, lets them be people rather than delivery systems for its ideas about inevitability and the cycle of violence. It's a film with a heart, albeit a bleakly cynical one. Well made as it is, and for all its interesting ideas, Looper lacks that heart, which is why it never rises above its component pieces.