It was last summer when I watched the trailer to Looper. It was a promising time for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he seemed to be picking up gigs left and right. At the time it looked like another cash-in on this new A-list figure before Daniel Radcliffe is old enough to not be associated with wand jokes. I wondered whether JGL was taking it all in to quickly without learning to say no. Premium Rush had just come out and JGL was the lead actor as a NYC bike messenger being chased around by cars due to a package he was in charge of delivering (?). At least that was what the TV spots led me to believe. Let’s not forget his role in The Dark Knight Rises, his second work with Christopher Nolan (and hopefully many more to come between the two). Not surprising, I was waiting for JGL’s first bad casting decision because it seemed all too inevitable.
My initial reaction to Looper was the complication with time travel plots. Ever since Terminator 2, there hasn’t been a film that involved time travel and pulled it off (12 Monkeys probably comes the closest). The setback with time travel on film is you need to base the plot on it while fully aware of the complicated paradoxes that emerge. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban struggled with this and to this day it’s a well known joke around the fan base. Terminator 2 succeeded by never quite focusing the story on time travel but rather the consequences of time travel events. Looper seemed to take the second and dirty road. The trailer allowed just enough to know that the film will be completely engulfed with paradoxes. Why do they send these guys back in time to die? We get it, you need someone else to do your dirty work, but surely the writer could’ve used better story devices. Is time travel worth the risk? Why would you risk your audience over-thinking while watching the film?
How wrong I was. Looper knew its audience. And it did answer my first question rather early. When 30-year senior Joseph Simmons (Bruce Willis) from the future and the present Joseph (JGL) sit in a diner, they tackle this issue head on. Let me allow the dialogue to explain my case:
Old Joe (Bruce Willis): It’s hard staring into your eyes. It’s too strange.
Joe (JGL): Your face looks backwards.
Old Joe: Yeah.
Joe: So, do you know what’s gonna happen? You done all this already, as me?
Old Joe: I don’t wanna talk about time travel shit. Cause if we start talking about it, then we’re gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.
Joe: If I hurt myself it changes your body. This is what I do now, change your memory.
[suddenly old Joe snaps in anger]
Old Joe: It doesn’t matter!
Looper screamed at us to shut up. It knew that we are looking for answers that don’t matter and wouldn’t solve the current problem. Just like the young arrogant Joe, we wanted to find a fault with the logic used just so he could dismiss the entire plot. It’s a form of composition/division fallacy that is quite common with audiences. I have been guilty of this quite a fair number of times.
On the subject of self awareness, let’s not forget Jeff Daniels’ character that mocks JGL. He smirks, “The movies that you dress like, are just copying other movies. Goddamn 20th century affectations. Do something new!” Could the film be any clearer? And he, too, clears up on the confusion of time travel paradoxes, “On top of which, a man from the future runs free long enough — [in a disgruntled and frustrated voice] — this time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” It is quite clear the film knows it stands on pillars that might or might not exist (Schrödinger’s pillars?). But the fact it’s not falling, makes it pointless to worry about the pillars.
One of the classic rules of cinema is simply “Show, Don’t Tell”. Sci-fi as a genre benefits a lot from this. Blade Runner is a renowned Sci-fi film and I can vouch that its accolades stem from respecting this rule. Looper took lessons from this. The Mise-en-scene is full of interesting bits that we never quite fully explore. Here is where Sci-fi gains an advantage over other genres. Directors and writers get to take us on a tour in their worlds and allow us for the 2 hours to explore as much as we can. Minority Report allowed us to wonder whether targeted advertising was appealing or creepy. Blade Runner was filled with police paranoia and their omnipresence. These anecdotal memories are what stick longer than the actual plot. Looper introduced telekinetic characters who constantly played with lighters. It introduced eye-drops as recreational drugs. To some extent, it felt like the film didn’t even need a plot. The mere fact I get to live in the world for 2 hours suffices. A plot, however interesting, seems to act like a gateway into this magical world. The plot shouldn’t be there to hold together the fictional world. Quite contrary, the world should be large enough to hold up the plot and several others too. This applies to any fictional world whether in film, book or any other work of art. I caught myself imagining the despondent revelation of the telekinetic characters on their seemingly promising powers yielding disappointing results. The eye-drops drugs seemed to have an interesting story as Joe was quite addicted to them. These were heavy elements with equally interesting stories when compared to our main plot. Looper exposed these elements but never said a word about them. Leave it for the imagination.
In a time when the genre seems to be replaced by “comic-book sci-fi” Looper loudly reminded Sci-fi, “Do something new!” Ironically, ‘new’ involves going back 20 years and learning the core elements of classic Sci-fi. I would go as far as claiming that Looper would fit in any of the past 4 or 5 decades. It has easily established itself as timeless.