From the way it’s been promoted, you’d be forgiven for thinking Looper is a slam-bang sci-fi action film in the vein of Total Recall, where a futuristic conceit is at the center of a twisty cat-and-mouse game. No one would blame you for assuming your sympathies are supposed to rest with Bruce Willis, playing the future version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s time traveled hitman, sent back in time to wrap up the loose end he represents. What makes Looper so thrilling is that you’d be wrong on both those counts. Not to say that it’s not an exciting film, or that Willis is unsympathetic. It’s just how it goes about generating that excitement and sympathy, and what it uses them to say.
Looper‘s intentions become clear by the rather lackadaisical way it dispenses with the details of how mob bosses in the future send people they want killed back in time to be taken care of the titular hitmen. The specifics aren’t really dwelt on, and really, they’re not all that important. All we need to know is that a looper is supposed to kill whoever shows up from the future, no questions asked, and there are severe consequences if they fail. Whereas some films would fall in love with this concept and mine it with multiple scenes of talking heads going over ramifications and possibilities, or numerous time travel shenanigans, Looper accepts it as given and gets down to the business of exploring just how much of our fate is in our hands, and whether we have the right to selfishly pursue that fate.
Because Old Joe has seen how his story ends, and wants to change it so that he gets a happily ever after. Traditional storytelling tropes have us conditioned to accept that this makes him the hero of the piece. But his plan involves killing the child who in the future will become the mob boss who sent him back to his death. That definitely clouds any heroic perception, as does the fact that his desire for his own version of the future selfishly denies Young Joe any say in the matter. They’re both men who have seen the last chapter of the book of their life, but while Young Joe argues for the chance to re-write the whole thing, Old Joe just wants his ending to come to pass. It’s a fascinating contrast between fluidity and rigidity, set courses and unknown paths. The irony is that Young Joe’s future arrives and essentially tells him he has no future, or at least not one of his own choosing. If Old Joe has his way, Young Joe will lead a predetermined life simply so his older self can return to his happiness. And one in which he knows that happiness came at the price of the death of a child.
There’s also the matter of that child. In a way, his story is a rumination on nature versus nurture, on whether we’re destined to become what we become from birth, or whether we can shape ourselves into something different. Old Joe sees no redemption, despite the fact that the boy he seeks to kill has not yet done anything wrong. Young Joe thinks under different circumstances, that malevolent future can be avoided. Again, Old Joe is solely focused on changing the nature of the outcome itself, while Young Joe is more concerned with altering the causes of that outcome. Fittingly, it’s the man who knows he has no future who’s the short-sighted one, while the one with his life ahead of him takes the longer view.
All this might make Looper seem like it’s some dry philosophical debate. But this conflict plays out over the course of an engaging sci-fi crime story. One of the best decisions director and screenwriter Rian Johnson makes is to present a subtle form of futurism. The worlds of 2044 and 2074 look much like our current world, with just a few technological flairs around the edges. Sure, we’ve got gadgets and processes that people in the 1950s and 1960s would picture coming straight from Buck Rogers, but the basic trappings of society aren’t all that different than they were forty or fifty years ago. We still drive cars to work, we still wear essentially the same kinds of clothing, we still live in houses. That’s the future of Looper, aging tenement buildings equipped with state-of-the-art touchscreens, burned-out gas guzzlers sharing the road with hovering motorcycles, a farm where an axe is just as common a sight as the rocket-powered crop duster. Keeping the futuristic elements modest helps focus the film on its ideas rather than its setting. And when the sci-fi elements do come to the fore, they’re all the more effective because of it.
I’ve been deliberately obtuse about some of the story details, because there are some places Looper goes that I totally didn’t expect, and would hate to rob anyone of the pleasure of discovery. That it’s intelligent doesn’t mean it’s not exciting. That it has thrills doesn’t mean it’s dumb. Like the best literary sci-fi, its genre trappings serve a larger purpose than mere entertainment. We’re meant to question our future just as much as both Joes question theirs, to ponder our own fates, and what we’d be willing to do to change them. Or preserve them. And whether we have the right to do either.