I cannot overstate this enough: Rian Johnson’s Looper is the diamond in this year’s sci-fi rough. To say that Prometheus left much to be desired would be putting it lightly, and let’s not even pause to think about Battleship and the superficial Total Recall. Looper is a sci-fi film that emphasizes science over explosions and thinly defined character types. Here is a sci-fi film that does what the genre does best—it forces us to confront the philosophical and ethical dilemmas that are created in the fires of technological evolution. Don’t waste your time and $1 Redbox rental on the under-cooked, unanswered, and superficially philosophical limericks of Prometheus when it comes out on Blu-Ray this month. To borrow a line from the original Total Recall, get your ass to the multiplex and see Looper.
Looper takes place in the not-so-distant future in the middle of Kansas. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) informs us that time travel will be invented in the 2080s and will be quickly outlawed. Despite the crackdown, criminal organizations will utilize the technology to eliminate the competition by wiping them off the temporal map, rendering them nonexistent by sending their targets back in time. Once the target is beamed back in time, hit men, or “Loopers,” like Joe eliminate the target and burn the body. The one catch to this profession? In order for the criminal organizations in the 2080s to continue functioning under the radar, the temporal loop that the Loopers function in will eventually need to be closed. Essentially, every Looper will have to kill his older self at some point. Thus, when Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis) makes the leap home and young Joe accidentally lets him get away, mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) wants them both(?) dead.
A turn of the screw occurs when old Joe informs young Joe that all the loops are being closed off by a new kingpin nicknamed “The Rainmaker” who, in young Joe’s timeline, is a 5-year-old boy. Old Joe’s mission is to kill the potential Rainmaker candidates while young Joe takes it upon himself to protect one of the candidates (Pierce Gagnon) and his mother (Emily Blunt) from the mob and his older self so that he can take his life back. This complication begs a variation of that oft-debated time travel ethics question: If you could go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler, would you? For old Joe, the answer is an absolute yes (although he does not take his duty lightly). For young Joe, the answer is more complicated. What if, by trying to kill the younger version of the Rainmaker and failing, you simply feed his eventual motivation for world domination?
Thus, while Looper begins as a sci-fi neo-noir, it eventually finds itself in the corn fields and farm houses of futuristic Kansas as a variation on the Westerns that came out of the mid-1950s. As perhaps best exemplified by John Ford’s The Searchers, this evolutionary stage of the Western was marked by moral ambiguity. Cowboys and Indians were no longer forces whose motivations could be correlated to the colors white or black. In The Searchers, the antagonist is the paradigmatic cowboy himself—John Wayne—whose contempt for the Native Americans has given him a faulty moral compass and has driven him off the reservation. By the end of The Searchers, Wayne’s psychopathic actions alienate him from the seedlings of civilized society sprouting up around him. Looper takes that same character reversal and, using the time travel conceit, loops it back around to where the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person, separated by 30 years. While the film may cheat a bit in its third act (I cannot be more specific for fear of spoiling parts of the film), running those loops under Johnson’s direction is one of the most intellectually stimulating Hollywood experiences that you can have this year.