Looper is an ingenious and original time travel noir from writer/director Rian Johnson, who made a splash back in 2006 with his similarly noir-inspired and stylish debut Brick. Here he is reunited with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, starring as a futuristic hitman who is forced to contend with his future self, played by Bruce Willis, as both fight for survival. The film marks an impressive step-up for the already promising young filmmaker, who sheds his tendency toward too-clever-for-its-own-good dialogue and delivers one of the most thought-provoking, ambitious and cleverly conceived entries in the high-concept science fiction canon in recent memory — not to mention one of the very best films of this year — and elicits stellar performances from his two leads as well as the talented supporting cast which includes Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano.
Set in the economically-dire Kansas of 2044, the film’s central conceit is this: “Time travel has not yet been invented. But 30 years from now, it will have been.” This is explained in noirish narration by Joe (Gordon-Levitt), a hired gun — or “Looper” — who coldly assassinates hooded-and-bound targets sent back in time by the mob (who apparently have problems disposing of bodies in the future, and are the only ones with access to the outlawed technology). Joe is paid well and lives the good life — he indulges in futuristic designer drugs, hangs out in fancy clubs with fellow Loopers and a nice high-class prostitute (Piper Perabo), and plans to retire to France with the savings he has accumulated — but this comes at a cost: Loopers operate with the knowledge that one day they will have to kill and dispose of their future selves (“closing the loop”). Joe is put on the spot when his friend Seth (Paul Dano) makes the mistake of allowing his future self to escape (“letting his loop run”), which results in a tense intervention from their cranky syndicate boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) — aided by an eager yet incompetent lackey (Noah Segan) — and we discover in a rather disturbing scene how any damage done to the body affects their future selves.
Soon enough Joe is faced with the same situation, and a moment’s hesitation results in his future self (Bruce Willis) getting the better of him and escaping. Thus begins a desperate and conflicted fight for survival for the two, with Joe determined to make things right and eliminate Future Joe, who is on a mission to find and kill a child who will eventually become the mysterious and monstrous crime lord known as “the Rainmaker”. Both have to navigate the inherent problems involved with existing in the same period as each other, with the syndicate on their tails. To reveal any more would be to court spoilers for a story which is clearly best enjoyed going in cold. To his credit, Johnson gets the potentially convoluted time travel set-up out of the way quickly — as Abe sardonically notes, “This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg” — and Looper is wisely more invested in its dynamite characters and contemplative theme of self-perpetuating violence than it is in sci-fi gimmicks.
Gordon-Levitt obviously looks nothing like Willis in real life, so to get around this potential problem Johnson decided to bridge their physical gap by altering his appearance with prosthetics on the lips and nose as well as blue contact lenses, and these seemingly minor adjustments are enough to make The Dark Knight Rises star almost unrecognisable. It was a risky move, but one which is remarkably effective thanks largely to Gordon-Levitt’s committed performance, which is one of the best of his career. Not only does he ably mimic Willis’ mannerisms throughout, but he brings real depth and emotional complexity to a character who is essentially unlikeable — a nihilistic junkie and two-bit gangster — and certainly unlike any we’ve seen him play before. Willis could no doubt play this kind of self-assured yet wounded action hero in his sleep, but he brings his A-game and considerable presence to the table and gives another fine performance, following his atypical turn in Moonrise Kingdom, and it’s another great reminder of how terrific the man can be when given the right material. The scene in which he and Gordon-Levitt sit down at a diner and size each other up is particularly electric, as the brash younger Joe hisses “Why don’t you do what old men do, and die?” and Future Joe wearily dismisses his time travel questions and mockingly calls him “Boy”.
The reliable and stunning Emily Blunt appears around the half-way mark as Sara, a solo mother whose isolated farm provides a hideout for Joe. Along with her inquisitive and troubled son (Pierce Gagnon), she provides some much needed warmth and suggests a possible alternate future for Joe. Following a rather relentless first act, Johnson slows things down and allows tensions to simmer in the somewhat lagging midsection, but the pieces of the puzzle come together assuredly for the inevitable confrontation and its clever resolution. The script is otherwise tight and garnished with plenty of great lines — many from the amusing Daniels, such as when he berates Joe for wearing a tie (“a 20th century affectation”) — and even though Johnson is occasionally guilty of relying too much on expositional narration, the noirish dialogue is so cool that it’s hardly an issue.
While you can certainly draw parallels to such influential time travel classics as La Jetée, The Terminator and 12 Monkeys, Johnson’s film is equally influenced by classic noirs like Casablanca (the bar the Loopers frequent is named La Belle Aurore) and perhaps unexpectedly by Peter Weir’s terrific 1985 thriller Witness, which similarly starts off in the city before moving to the farm without losing any of its tension and noirish atmosphere. Visually, the film achieves a great deal on a modest budget, showcasing some dazzling effects work, stylish cinematography, and impressing with several grimy and fully-realised futuristic locations in multiple periods, including a Blade Runner-esque retro-future Shanghai. One particular sequence, which offers a fast-paced glimpse at what Joe’s future holds, is one of the most stylish and bravura of the year, and Gordon-Levitt’s gradual transition into Willis is expertly accomplished. As a piece of high concept science fiction, Looper is right up there with such recent cult classics as Shane Carruth’s Primer and Douglas Jones’ Moon, although it’s elegiac, even cold, tone often recalls the work of Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Inception).
Looper is the rare time travel film that manages to tie-up all its tangled loose ends neatly, but it also supercedes its narrow subgenre by forgoing twists and gimmicks and instead favouring engaging characters as they realistically react to their extraordinary circumstances. Johnson manages to skillfully blend a wide array of influences into something extraordinarily fresh and vital, and this immensely satisfying film is one of the very best to hit multiplexes this year. While he’s been criticised for being self-consciously clever in the past (particularly on The Brothers Bloom), Johnson is firing on all cylinders here with an intelligent and well-executed premise, a terrific cast all on the top of their game, dazzling visuals, exciting action setpieces, and a unique futuristic vision which all ads up to one hell of a film and should rightfully place him on the same level as Douglas Jones and Christopher Nolan. In a climate where uninspired remakes, sequels and adaptations dominate science fiction (and Hollywood in general), an original vision like Looper is rarefied, refreshing, and utterly necessary, and I urge audiences to go out and support it.
Looper is out today worldwide. Watch the latest trailer below.