Published on September 28th, 2012 | by Padraic Coffey0
A common drawback with futuristic science-fiction cinema is the propensity for ominously forewarned dates to pass with little, if any, of the predictions about them proving accurate. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York saw Manhattan Island converted into a maximum security prison by 1997. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, while aging better than many comparable films, was still overambitious in its depiction of a sentient, pernicious computer like HAL 9000. And it seems less and less likely that the rain-soaked Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its escaped human ‘replicants’ and hovering cars, will have come to pass by 2019. Rian Johnson’s Looper partly avoids these pitfalls by presenting us with a 2044 not too far removed from the present day.
While the prerequisite floating motorcycles and advanced drug-taking techniques are present and correct, Johnson spends little time indulgently hypothesising. The cityscapes of Kansas City are more or less as you would expect them to be three decades from now. Obvious differences are the vast increases in the number of homeless people, formally referred to as ‘vagrants’, and the ability among 10 per cent of the population to perform telekinesis. The looper of the title is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former vagrant who assassinates hooded victims sent from the future by a large criminal conspiracy, removing any trace of their existence. The role of a looper is to continue this until their own future-self is transported back and terminated by their younger self, thus ‘closing the loop’ and allowing the looper to retire.
If a synopsis of Looper suggests and melding of Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run and Blade Runner, it is not entirely inappropriate. Looper is particularly reminiscent of Scott’s film, thematically if not stylistically. Both are centred on hired killers, and explore the issue of morality as well as mortality, and the extent to which one is willing to go for survival. As in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, early exposition is provided via narration from Gordon-Levitt, briskly surmising the set-up. And as in Scott’s film, one cannot help but wonder if a ‘show, don’t tell’ policy might have resulted in a subtler work.
Without divulging too many of the plot machinations, when Joe’s doppelganger (Bruce Willis) returns to be erased, all does not go to plan. It is here that Looper escalates into a chase movie, without ever losing its cerebral edge. The presence of Gordon-Levitt and the mind-bending plot structure will no doubt invite comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, though Looper seems positively low-key next to that film’s flamboyant imagery and budget. A more apt association from Nolan’s oeuvre is Memento, with its reflections on how personality is shaped by memory, a common motif for science-fiction (see, again, Blade Runner, Total Recall and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Another, less obvious, precursor is John Woo’s Face/Off. Woo’s film dealt with Nicholas Cage and John Travolta swapping identities, and permitted both actors to imitate each other’s behavioural tics and traits. Gordon-Levitt’s cautious verbal delivery and understated tone in Looper are a clear take off of the kind of performances Bruce Willis has given throughout his whole career. Interestingly, Johnson goes one further than Woo by having Gordon-Levitt fitted with prosthetic makeup in order for his character’s transition into Bruce Willis to be all the more plausible. Though this is unobtrusive, the real strength in connecting the roles lies in Gordon-Levitt’s performance, more than any gimmicky cosmetics.
Looper marks Rian Johnson’s third film, and his first foray into science-fiction, after detective mystery Brick and caper movie The Brothers Bloom. Though it is not a comedy, Johnson’s self-deprecating sense of humour is present throughout. Brick’s anachronistic dialogue, a common talking point among critics, is referenced in the ornate but oddly archaic weaponry brandished by Joe and his colleagues, ‘Blunderbusses’ and ‘Gats’. Joe’s fashionable attire, buttoned shirts and neckties, are decried by his employer Abe (Jeff Daniels) as “twentieth century affectation”. “Those movies you’re copying off are only copying other movies”, Abe quips, perhaps a pre-emptive defence of those who may accuse Looper of pilfering from the back-catalogue of science-fiction cinema.
If Looper is ultimately an amalgam of science-fiction tropes (to the aforementioned list of titles, add Twelve Monkeys, X-Men and the Terminator franchise), it proves that an entertaining and thought-provoking work can still emerge.