Among the many great scenes in “Looper,” one of the best moments consists of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe sitting across from his older self in a diner, played by Bruce Willis. With an impressible make-up job and performance, Gordon-Levitt feels like he could be a past version of Willis, and Willis a future version of Gordon-Levitt. It’s uncanny.
Joe is a highly trained killer called a “Looper” in the year 2044. When the mob wants to get rid of somebody 30 years into the future, they send the person back in time to people like Joe, who kill and dispose of the body so there is no longer any trace of the individual in the future.
But like most contracts, Joe’s eventually expires, a process called “closing your Loop”—in which Joe is asked to kill his future self, collect a generous payday, and enjoy the next 30 years of his life. But Joe’s slight hesitation upon Old Joe’s arrival leads to the latter’s escape, and the former’s desperate pursuit to ultimately kill his older self and close his loop, while Old Joe has completely different plans entirely.
But let’s get back to the diner. In one of the rare moments “Looper” gives its audience a chance to breathe, it also makes us laugh. Just the dynamic back-and-forth between Gordon-Levitt and Willis is grand, but their dialogue is even better. “I don’t want to talk about time travel,” says Willis as Gordon-Levitt questions his presence. “It doesn’t matter.”
And it is perhaps this understanding of time travel’s trivialness—a sci-fi fantasy, ripe with imaginative possibility and void of reality—that makes “Looper” one of the best science fiction films to ever deal with the topic. It explains just enough, and leaves just enough for the viewer to take with them on their own. Unlike many films of this genre, “Looper” actually trusts its audience to think on their own.
And my, there is a lot to ruminate on here. When “Looper” isn’t wowing with its remarkable visual effects, slick style, and electrifying pace, the film also rises to the occasion of being the smartest blockbuster of the year. Big, bold, brainy, and ultimately brilliant, “Looper” is confident filmmaking that knows which targets to set its sights on from the get-go. It strikes them all—bull’s-eye, dead center.
Writer/director Rian Johnson, whose impressive 2005 debut “Brick” was one of my favorites of the decade, creates a landmark science fiction film in “Looper”—something that will accompany discussion of the genre for years to come, possibly even decades.
In its approach to time-travel, “Looper” is as smart and developed as something like Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” and has the weighty, futuristic emotion of something such as “Children of Men.” It has its influences, but this film sticks the landing primarily for being awe-inspiringly original. With every minute that passed, “Looper” continuously served up cinematic moments of which I had never experienced. Through and through, this is a movie drenched with innovation.
“Looper” has the capacity to floor you, suck you in, and most surprisingly, move you into a meditative state. Like most great science fiction, the film is layered with subtext, thought, and a lot to say about time, inherent good and evil, and the possibility of change. Many science fiction films have the brains, but “Looper” masters the winning combination of both intelligence and heart.
The latter drives the film—from every pulse-pounding moment, to the downright dedication of Johnson’s visionary, directorial eye. This movie doesn’t just have heart. It has soul.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.