Bruce Willis seems to have a thing for meeting up with younger versions of himself. In 2000’s The Kid, his looming mid-life crisis gets postponed, or perhaps resolved, when he meets a kid who turns out to be himself as a 9-year old. In that saccharine Disney movie, the kid looks at his future and gets disappointed by what he sees — he grows up to be cranky, lonely and lost. Things are pretty much the same in Looper. When a time-travelling assassination attempt gets horribly awry, he meets himself as a twentysomething and the person looking back is terribly confounded at who he has become. As it turns out, no one really wants to grow up to become Bruce Willis.
Looper is a sci-fi thriller set in 2044 about killers called “loopers” who execute people sent to them from the future by a criminal organization with access to illegal time travel technology. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the young Willis, a looper named Joe who goes through the motions of dispatching whomever the future zaps back to him. He whiles the time away by doing drugs, which in this dystopic universe come in the form of eye drops, and going to clubs with other loopers as a sort of fraternity of mercenaries. But he also dreams of escape: he studies French and saves half of the silver paid to him to prepare for a life beyond being just an assassin.
But breaking free from this job comes at a cost. They will never know when the exact day is, but inevitably a looper would kill a victim and open the sack containing their payment to find that instead of silver, they were rewarded with bars of gold. This means that the loop has been closed: the lifeless corpse in front of them is themselves, three decades older. They are free to retire comfortably and live out the remainder of their life in relative peace, until the time comes when they get abducted and sent back to the past to get killed by their younger selves. This first happens to Joe’s best buddy Seth (Paul Dano), and it soon happens to him as well, but the Joe from the 2070s has something different in mind. He evades Young Joe and warns him of a future ran by a terrorist named The Rainmaker who causes universal havoc, and he is hell-bent to do whatever he can to stop his rise to power even if it means killing the tyrant as a child.
While the main plot may remind you of The Terminator 2, writer and director Rian Johnson has done just enough to make it a distinct, memorable sci-fi movie, the kind that basks in its own cleverness and asks it audience to join in its self-worship, no questions asked. It dabbles in moral philosophy 101 and the never-ending nature versus nurture debate, but Johnson eschews exposition: when Joe asks his future self to explain how time travel works, all he says is “Time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” There is no need to explain the logic that guides how this alternate universe operates, Johnson just expects you to accept it and enjoy the ride. On one hand, this has led the film to be unburdened by what could have been a cumbersome explanation of the nitty gritties of time travel, which despite his best efforts could still have produced holes that will be nitpicked by legions of sci-fi geeks. But on the other hand, some unanswered questions that linger throughout your head can get distracting, such as “Why does it have to be the looper who has to kill his future self?” or “Why exactly was time travel declared illegal?” or “Why does Joseph Gordon Levitt look like a wax figure?” Alas, only the latter question has a definite but unsatisfying answer. The decision to apply make-up on Levitt to make him look more like Willis was an unnecessary, laughable device that was put in to make the movie seem more realistic, but really Johnson should’ve trusted his audience’s ability to tell that they are both playing the same character.
Clumsy prosthetics aside, both Levitt and Willis turn in a pair of commendable performances made fascinating by the way they incorporated qualities of each other into their acting. Despite the high stakes for each of their characters, Johnson was able to insert slices of clever humor into the script’s crisp dialogue, and their relationship that is both strangely paternal and often times adversarial plays out with a sophistication that escapes most modern sci-fi movies (In Time, anyone?). The entire movie is a testament to Johnson’s skill of crafting together a refined narrative with satisfying twists, something he displayed to a lesser extent in his earlier feature Brick. But what’s most impressive about his latest feature is how cathartic the ending is and how beautifully pieced together the final product was, like an elegant jigsaw puzzle with every part in its right place. You might not be satisfied with the science but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Looper is a wonderfully imagined movie.