Movie Reviews
3:12 pm
Thu September 27, 2012

'Looper': Time-Travel Nonsense, Winningly Played

I adore time-travel pictures like Looper no matter how idiotic, especially when they feature a Love That Transcends Time. I love Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, The Time Traveler's Wife, even The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in different years sending letters through a magic mailbox. So terrible. So good. See, everyone wants to correct mistakes in hindsight, and it's the one thing we cannot do. Except vicariously, in movies.

Oddly, though, it took me a while to warm up to Looper, an unusually arty time-travel thriller that evokes bits and pieces of 12 Monkeys, The Terminator and Blade Runner — good models, but not when they're blended so haphazardly. Yet there's something in Looper that gets to you.

It's the year 2044 — cars can fly — and the protagonist and narrator, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), explains in one gob of exposition that time travel exists in the future, but is illegal. Yet for some reason, organized crime finds it expedient to send people back to the past to be murdered by "loopers" like Joe. For some other reason, aged loopers in the future are now also being sent back to be killed by loopers, who'd seem, on reflection, the least reliable assassins, given their ties to the people they're supposed to shoot — including, on occasion, their older selves.

That's what happens to Joe: There he is, gun drawn, waiting for a looper to materialize — poof! — and it's him, Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis. No, the two Joes don't meld in your head: Bruce is always Bruce. But you go with it or you leave, so you go with it. Old Joe escapes, which in the peculiar logic of Looper means Young Joe is in the toilet. So Young Joe sends a message by carving a meeting place on his hand, leaving a scar on Old Joe's hand. Painful, but very cool.

If they talk about time-travel, they're "gonna be here all day makin' diagrams with straws" — that's writer-director Rian Johnson giving himself a Get Out of Jail Free card, telling us, "Don't think so much." Looper has been acclaimed by some critics for stylishness and narrative invention, a testament to Johnson's greatest talent: making clumsy storytelling look tricky and sophisticated.

I haven't mentioned the MacGuffin: Old Joe is hunting someone in 2044 who'll grow up to be the "Rainmaker," a future crime boss with supernatural powers who's killing all the loopers. That's when we get the telekinesis stuff, which feels like a different genre, like Carrie or Firestarter. Young Joe stumbles onto the farm of Emily Blunt, who points a shotgun at him in the wheat field and threatens to blow him in half. She has a strange little boy with pouty lips, a big head, and temper tantrums that force her to tuck herself away in a steel cabinet.

The actors hold you through the loop-de-loops, Emily Blunt in particular making emotional transitions that would trip up lesser actresses: Her face is incapable of registering a banal emotion. As Young Joe's boss, Jeff Daniels creates the year's most hateful bad guy by gazing on unfortunates with moist, sympathetic eyes before maiming them with a ball-peen hammer. Gordon-Levitt purges all trace of his puppy-dog persona to play a cynic and drug addict who lives for today, not for the future — until the notion of consequences hits him for the first time ever.

It's a big emotional payoff, happy and tragic in the right measure. And so Looper, frustrating as it is, pulls safely into dock, leaving you to play out all the "what ifs" and "if onlys" as you mull it over with friends or lie in bed. That's the beauty of even semi-coherent time-travel movies: You're making diagrams with straws long after the characters move on.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Writer and director Rian Johnson had an Indie hit with "Brick," a film noire parody set in a high school starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Now, the two have reteamed for "Looper," a futuristic time travel thriller in which Gordon-Levitt plays a hit man hunting his older self played by Bruce Willis.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I adore time travel pictures like "Looper," no matter how idiotic, especially when they feature a love that transcends time. I love "Somewhere in Time" with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. "The Time Traveler's Wife," even "The Lake House" with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in different years, sending letters through a magic mailbox. So terrible, so good.

See, everyone wants to correct mistakes in hindsight and it's the one thing we cannot do, except vicariously in movies. Oddly, though, it took me a while to warm up to "Looper," an unusually arty time travel thriller that evokes bits and pieces of "12 Monkeys," "The Terminator" and "Blade Runner," good models, but not when they're blended so haphazardly.

Yet there's something in "Looper" that gets to you. It's the year 2044. Cars can fly and the protagonist that narrator Joe played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt explains in one gob of exposition that time travel exists in the future, but is illegal. Yet, for some reason, organized crime finds it expedient to send people back to the past to be murdered by loopers like Joe. For some other reason, aged loopers in the future are now also being sent back to be killed by loopers, who'd seem, on reflection, the least reliable assassins, given their ties to the people they're supposed to shoot, including, on occasion, their older selves.

That's what happens to Joe. There he is, gun drawn, waiting for a looper to materialize. Poof, and it's him, old Joe played by Bruce Willis. No. The two Joes don't meld in your head. Bruce is always Bruce, but you go with it or you leave, so you go with it. Old Joe escapes which, in the peculiar logic of "Looper," means young Joe is in the toilet. So young Joe sends a message by carving a meeting place on his hand, leaving a scar on old Joe's hand, painful but very cool. They meet in a diner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOOPER")

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (as Joe) So do you know what's going to happen? You've done all this already as me.

BRUCE WILLIS: (as old Joe) I don't want to talk about time travel because, if we start talking about it, then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Joe) We both know how this has to go down. I can't let you walk away from this diner alive. This is my life now. I earned it. You had yours already, so why don't you do what old men do and die?

WILLIS: (as old Joe) Why don't you just take your little gun out from between your legs and do it, boy?

(SOUNDBITE OF PUNCHES)

EDELSTEIN: If they talk about time travel, they're going to, quote, "be here all day making diagrams with straws." That's writer/director Rian Johnson giving himself a get out of jail free card, telling us, don't think so much. OK.

"Looper" has been acclaimed by some critics for stylishness and narrative invention, a testament to Johnson's greatest talent, making clumsy storytelling look tricky and sophisticated.

I haven't mentioned the MacGuffin. Old Joe is hunting someone in 2044 who'll grow up to be the Rain Maker, a future crime boss with supernatural powers who's killing all the loopers. That's when we get the telekinesis stuff, which feels like a different genre, like "Carrie" or "Firestarter."

Young Joe stumbles onto the farm of Emily Blunt, who points a shotgun at him in the wheat field and threatens to blow him in half. She has a strange little boy with pouty lips, a big head and temper tantrums that force her to tuck herself into a steel cabinet. The actors hold you through the loop-de-loops, Emily Blunt in particular, making emotional transitions that would trip up lesser actresses. Her face is incapable of registering a banal emotion.

As young Joe's boss, Jeff Daniels creates the year's most hateful bad guy by gazing on unfortunates with moist, sympathetic eyes before maiming them with a ball-peen hammer. Gordon-Levitt purges all traces of his puppy dog persona to play a cynic and drug addict who lives for today, not the future, until the notion of consequences hits him for the first time ever.

It's a big emotional payoff, happy and tragic in the right measure, and so "Looper," frustrating as it is, pulls safely into dock, leaving you to play out all the what-ifs and if-onlys as you mull it over with friends or lie in bed. That's the beauty of even semi-coherent time travel movies. You're making diagrams with straws long after the characters move on.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, FreshAir.NPR.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at #NPRFreshAir and on Tumblr at NPRFreshAir.Tumblr.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.