Rian Johnson’s “Looper” has the distinct feeling of being a classic even as you’re watching it. It’s set in a dystopian future — two, in fact — one that is 32 years in the future and another 30 years beyond that. In the way it unfolds two parallel universes recalls Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine “Inception,” and the vividly detailed portrayal of a dysmal future brings to mind the gritty detail evoked by Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men.” And in its characters, themes and brooding tale of justice and morality through a sci-fi neo-noir landscape, it’s hard to not call it a new version of “The Matrix” and “Blade Runner” for this generation. Best of all is that in capturing the essence of each of these films, Johnson’s “Looper” triumphs in being something wholly original and breathtaking that would be a shame if it didn’t get remembered for awards season.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a man who was hired as a looper for the mob. He lives in the year 2044 when time travel hasn’t been invented yet. Thirty years later, however, it will be, and it’s only used by an illegal crime syndicate. They kidnap, throw a hood over their victim and send them back in time to be assassinated and disposed of. In this fully-realized universe, loopers carry a weapon called a blunderbuss which looks like a streamlined shotgun. Loopers have their blunderbuss while the Gat Men carry a long-barreled revolver called a gat which they cherish. The Gat Men are mafia-types who skulk around in trench coats and are led by a haggard crime boss named Abe (Jeff Daniels).
In the future, drug use has simplified to using eye drops to get a fix, and some citizens have been affected with the power of telekinesis, referred to as TK. Those who have the power, however, only twirl coins in the air and use it as a pick-up line. The exception is a man called the Rainmaker who in the future, year 2074, is apparently using his power toward evil. He’s doing what’s called “closing the loop,” which is when the older version of a looper is sent back in time to be executed by none other than himself. A friend of Joe’s, a reckless man named Seth (Paul Dano), realizes he’s about to close his loop and lets his future self go, a selfish act that Abe cannot let stand.
As if foreshadowing Joe’s own predicament to come, he comes face-to-face with a thirty-year-older version of himself, played by Bruce Willis. It’s interesting to note how Gordon-Levitt doesn’t look like himself — thanks to subtle makeup work, his face is ever so slightly transformed to resemble Willis’. The younger actor deadpans, smirks and scowls just like his veteran counterpart, too. And playing the older Joe gives Willis his best performance in years. There’s a scene where the seemingly impossible happens. Joe sits at a rural diner sitting across from himself, thirty years in the future. Having a conversation with yourself opens a door of endless possibilities, and Johnson is smart to only focus on what’s immediately important to the characters’ dire situation. He leaves all else the scene implies for us to decipher and question on our own.
Also artful and intelligent is the way Johnson’s screenplay employs the use of time travel. It isn’t so much the forefront of action but instead a backdrop to create unexpected thematic intricacies. The ingenuity of Johnson’s writing really shines when young Joe finds himself on a desolate farm. It’s a stirring contrast between the grime of the city where either the mob or destitute vagrants reside. On this farm Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt), a tough single mother who doesn’t shy away fending off late night intruders with a shotgun. Her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), becomes an extremely important element to the well-being of both young and old Joe alike.
In sci-fi action blockbusters, women characters are generally used for sexual intrigue and eye candy. In the case of both farm girl Sara and old Joe’s loving wife (Summer Qing) with whom he spends a new life in China, “Looper” has elements of a rather profound love story, something that may come as an added surprise. That again speaks to Rian Johnson’s finesse as a filmmaker. In 2005, he debuted with “Brick” giving us a high school noir narrated by a newly re-branded Joseph Gordon Levitt. After an underwhelming second feature, “The Brothers Bloom,” Johnson is back announcing himself firmly as a new commanding presence in the industry worth recognizing.