Looper (2012)

Mitchell

Looper
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt. Directed by Rian Johnson.

It’s 2044, and time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but in thirty years it will be invented and prohibited. Crime syndicates do it anyway, and rather than killing people in their present, they send victims back to 2044 to be killed by employees called loopers, who shoot them on sight and dispose of the bodies. It’s an interesting way to handle murder, because loopers are killing people whose bodies and lives still exist in their present, so how are they guilty of murder?

When Looper is at its best, it lets its talented actors crawl around in the moral crevices of a reality rich in ethical dilemmas. The metaphorical minefield has been trod before in other time-travel films, including Minority Report, Hot Tub Time Machine, and even The Final Countdown: knowing what’s going to happen in the future, how far is it okay to go, if at all, toward stopping something horrible? Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play Joe, thirty years apart, and what the older character hopes to alter is both personal and universal. Emily Blunt is a single mother who finds herself in the middle of Joe’s situation, offering her own spin on the moralizing the film doesn’t indulge in so much as encourage its audience to roll around in its consciences.

I thoroughly enjoyed just about every moment of this film, at times begging things to slow down so that I could poke my brain around in the choices confronted by the main characters, wishing I could consider alternate actions for them, like those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. I wanted Joe to linger with his acquaintances so we could get their stories; I wanted to stick a bookmark between its pages so I could flip to the glossary in the back and get explanations for the everyday objects and interactions the film doesn’t take time to explain. It’s a well-thought-out world this movie is set in.

The acting is solid, both lead actors taking advantage of the droopy-eyed weariness I never before noticed they each carry in several films. I have a particular fondness for Emily Blunt, but her performance is uneven in Looper, and her character seems the least developed. At times Blunt seems to change the way her character speaks and gestures from one scene to another, and at least once I could swear she changed her character’s accent in the middle of a sentence. There is also a child character, and I try to cut child actors some slack, but I couldn’t stand this kid, either as an actor or as a character.

The pacing is excellent, and the length seems exactly right, but although (no spoiler here) the ending is the correct ending, there is one nagging question for me that I hope will be answered by a second viewing: while it is probably the best choice for the characters involved, does it really solve the problem? I’m left pretty unsure.

Looper is excellent science fiction that relies not on special effects or space ships, but on thoughtful development of its characters and consideration of the implications of the fiction it creates. Don’t take the kids (it’s bloody and violent as heck), but do take yourself.

8/10
81/100

7 Responses to “Looper (2012)”


  1. Reid

    Joel said he liked the film, although he said he had problems with it. I suspect that many of you would react the same way. Still, I suspect Marc, Chris, Penny, Jill and Grace would find enough to like about the film that they would enjoy the film overall. I’m not sure about Don, but I’m guessing he would give this three stars at least. I’m not sure about Arlyn. Larri didn’t want to see this, but I think she would have thought it was OK at least.

    **
    (I’m not going to describe the film, because I’m assuming Mitchell already did that in his review.)

    ***
    My feeling is that the film is basically character-driven–or at least I believe it could have been much better if the writing, acting and directing–with regard to the characters–were a lot better. One of the main themes seems to be the notion of being lost and then eventually found–a woman’s love being the principle saving agent.

    In the character of Joe, we also have a character arc involving a move from egocentric and selfish approach to life to a realization others can be unselfish (represented by the Old Joe’s rehabilitation via his wife’s selflessness and love). Young Joe seems to sense that Cid could also be transformed in this way–especially since he lacked parental love–so he sacrifices himself to save Cid, the other loopers and Old Joe’s wife.

    The film seems to be shooting for this, but the dramatic impact isn’t so strong because of the fimmaking–specifically, the writing, acting and directing fall a little flat.

  2. Reid

    …knowing what’s going to happen in the future, how far is it okay to go, if at all, toward stopping something horrible?

    You’re referring to Old Joe hunting down the three children who could be the Rainmaker, right? This is an issue, but I guess the film didn’t entirely draw me into its universe and characters–to the point where I really cared about them. So I felt sort of indifferent to this ethical question.

    One thing I forgot to mention is that the construction of the plot was the strongest part of the film for me. There are satisfying ways the film ties together events, and I also liked the resolution of the film (i.e., Young Joe’s decision). But the film is all plot, and very little heart for me.

    It’s a well-thought-out world this movie is set in.

    What are some of the details that make you say this? My mind starting wandering about certain questions with regard to time-travel and the world they lived in, but I stopped myself from pursuing these questions very far because I feared that this would ruin the experience. Plus, I rationalized that all time-travel films have these inconsistencies, so if you’re going to watch these films you have to give the film some leeway.

    The acting is solid, both lead actors taking advantage of the droopy-eyed weariness I never before noticed they each carry in several films.

    This has been part of Bruce Willis’ MO for a long time, I think. Sometimes he combines this with a silent tough-guy schtick (which he’s never been great at in my opinion).

    but although (no spoiler here) the ending is the correct ending, there is one nagging question for me that I hope will be answered by a second viewing: while it is probably the best choice for the characters involved, does it really solve the problem? I’m left pretty unsure.

    You mean, does Young Joe’s act prevent Cid from becoming the Rainmaker? Does it save Old Joe’s wife?

    …but on thoughtful development of its characters and consideration of the implications of the fiction it creates.

    Obviously, I feel almost the opposite–at least the thoughtful development of the characters. You mentioned the lack of development for sara (Blunt), and I agree, but I think that’s true for Joe as well.

  3. Mitchell

    SPOILERS

    You’re referring to Old Joe hunting down the three children who could be the Rainmaker, right? This is an issue, but I guess the film didn’t entirely draw me into its universe and characters–to the point where I really cared about them. So I felt sort of indifferent to this ethical question.

    Interesting. So as a viewer, you yourself had no issues with killing three children, one of whom might grow up to be the Rainmaker, one of whom is the son of someone you sort of have a friendship with, and the other a total stranger? I think you would have to not care about the main characters at all in order not to care about whether or not Old Joe’s plan works or is ethical. What were you thinking when Old Joe sobs after killing the first child? When it became clear that he was saving Cid for last, were you hoping Joe could stop Old Joe, or were you hoping that Old Joe would succeed?

    I kept thinking about Hitler and other horrible human beings, even during the film. If I could go back in time to when Hitler was a child, before he’d had a chance yet to do anything, would I kill him? I don’t think I would.

    Joe’s only hope for stopping the Rainmaker without allowing Old Joe to kill Cid is that somehow, something Sara does can alter Cid’s course. I have no confidence (none at all!) in Sara’s ability to do this. I know she wants to, but that is one hateful child. I might go so far as to call him evil. He has a power only he can control, and what is Sara going to do in Joe’s present that she didn’t do in Old Joe’s past?

    My conclusion, in the moments leading up to Joe’s killing himself, is that I wanted Old Joe to do the job, and I was going to feel terrible about myself for rejoicing in his death, but I couldn’t help the fact that this is what I wanted. Grown-up, do-the-right-thing me then held out hope that the one big difference here could be that Sara and Joe together, and perhaps with other outside help (now that Joe knows Cid’s likely future) might be able to counsel Cid so that he uses his powers constructively and not destructively. It was a slim hope, but that was the only way I could see something positive coming out of letting Cid live.

    One thing I forgot to mention is that the construction of the plot was the strongest part of the film for me. There are satisfying ways the film ties together events, and I also liked the resolution of the film (i.e., Young Joe’s decision). But the film is all plot, and very little heart for me.

    This is one of those rare cases where I think a solid plot is good enough. Once you accept its premise, you sort of sign up to be involved, because Joe’s future is our future. Most other movies have the burden of making us care about its characters, but that’s because we’re not riding the Titanic or blowing up the Death Star. In this case, all we have to do is accept that this is what our world is going to be, and we sort of automatically care.

    What are some of the details that make you say this? My mind starting wandering about certain questions with regard to time-travel and the world they lived in, but I stopped myself from pursuing these questions very far because I feared that this would ruin the experience. Plus, I rationalized that all time-travel films have these inconsistencies, so if you’re going to watch these films you have to give the film some leeway.

    I’m not just talking about the reality of time-travel, but the actual world of America in 2044 (and China in 2074) according to this movie. If only a small number of people have telekinesis, and if those people have developed it only to the point of levitating quarters, how does the hover-bike work? And what’s a quarter? Why does 2044 have an almost post-apocalyptic feel to it, like everything’s run-down, even the neighborhood surrounding Joe’s nice apartment? And sugar cane? So close to what’s clearly an urban setting? Clothing looks pretty much the same, but why does weaponry seem to have gone back in time rather than forward? The film seems to be teeming with little predictions about what the not-too-distant future is going to be like.

    This has been part of Bruce Willis’ MO for a long time, I think. Sometimes he combines this with a silent tough-guy schtick (which he’s never been great at in my opinion).

    I was speaking specifically of the physical droopy-eyedness of Gordon-Levitt and Willis. I know you’ve spoken before about Willis’s “quiet talking,” but I’m talking about a physical characteristic I never specifically noticed before.

    You mean, does Young Joe’s act prevent Cid from becoming the Rainmaker? Does it save Old Joe’s wife?

    That’s exactly what I mean. I knew Joe was going to kill himself as soon as that scene went into slow-motion; it was the only way to keep Old Joe from doing what he was going to do, and it was the only way to stop Sara from taking the bullet. But that only solves the immediate problem of Old Joe trying to kill Cid. Does it really do anything toward keeping Cid from becoming the Rainmaker? One can hope. but that’s a flimsy hope.

  4. Reid

    I think you would have to not care about the main characters at all in order not to care about whether or not Old Joe’s plan works or is ethical. What were you thinking when Old Joe sobs after killing the first child? When it became clear that he was saving Cid for last, were you hoping Joe could stop Old Joe, or were you hoping that Old Joe would succeed?

    Two comments:

    1. I mentioned that the characters and the drama involving these characters didn’t work so well for me. As a result, I experienced the film at arm’s length.

    2. What was I thinking about these questions? I had a more clinical, analytical view of the situations–i.e., how will the filmmakers resolve the various problems posed by the plot? So I was more interested if the filmmakers could resolve these issues in a clever and satisfying way, more than thinking about the serious ethical implications of the situations.

    3. I didn’t really see the movie as one that posed serious ethical questions–partly because I don’t think the film worked so well on a dramatic level, partly because I saw the film as lite entertainment more than something serious. We’re talking about a film here, not real life. In real life, I think we’re faced with some serious challenges–e.g., terrorism, torture, the President’s secret assassination list, etc.

    I know she wants to, but that is one hateful child. I might go so far as to call him evil. He has a power only he can control,…

    I didn’t get the sense that he was evil. He’s very precocious and has an awareness that’s beyond his years. At the same time, he’s still has limitations of understanding. This results in him denying that Sara is his mother. (I’m assuming that this is what makes Cid evil to you.) Other than that, I didn’t see him as hateful or evil.

    …and what is Sara going to do in Joe’s present that she didn’t do in Old Joe’s past.

    Well, Sara now knows that Cid can become this terrible person, so she can make an extra effort to make sure he’s not “lost.”

    This is one of those rare cases where I think a solid plot is good enough. Once you accept its premise, you sort of sign up to be involved, because Joe’s future is our future. Most other movies have the burden of making us care about its characters, but that’s because we’re not riding the Titanic or blowing up the Death Star. In this case, all we have to do is accept that this is what our world is going to be, and we sort of automatically care.

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean about “Joe’s future is our future.” You imagined that the future was the future we’re going to live in? ?

    For me, I think you really had to care about the characters because their stories and the themes matter more in this film than in conventional action-sci-fi. I also think this could have made the ethical dilmmenas more poignant.

    If only a small number of people have telekinesis, and if those people have developed it only to the point of levitating quarters, how does the hover-bike work? And what’s a quarter? Why does 2044 have an almost post-apocalyptic feel to it, like everything’s run-down, even the neighborhood surrounding Joe’s nice apartment? And sugar cane? So close to what’s clearly an urban setting? Clothing looks pretty much the same, but why does weaponry seem to have gone back in time rather than forward? The film seems to be teeming with little predictions about what the not-too-distant future is going to be like.

    Don’t these questions suggest that the world isn’t so well thought out? I didn’t think the world was well-thought out or designed, but I just sort of accepted that. (I don’t see the connection between telekinetic levitation and hover-craft.)

  5. Mitchell

    SPOILERS

    I didn’t really see the movie as one that posed serious ethical questions–partly because I don’t think the film worked so well on a dramatic level, partly because I saw the film as lite entertainment more than something serious. We’re talking about a film here, not real life. In real life, I think we’re faced with some serious challenges–e.g., terrorism, torture, the President’s secret assassination list, etc.

    If it had starred two actors you’d never heard of and were told in Romanian, would you still have seen it as light entertainment? I’m kind of playing around, but I wonder if the fact that it’s a Hollywood movie made you predisposed to not taking it seriously. And yes, I know that in real life we’re faced with serious challenges, but the dilemma posed by the main characters seems like the kind of thing worth considering, at least for the duration of the film and at least in the world in which it’s set.

    I heard an interesting story on NPR a couple of weeks ago about a well-known geneticist (now retired, I think) who volunteered his DNA to be mapped under one condition: if his DNA revealed that he was probably going to get Alzheimer’s Disease, he didn’t want to know about it. Anything else was fair game. It turned out that the evidence pointed to an enormous likelihood that he should have diabetes by now, but none of his vital signs indicated that he had it. He asked a doctor to check him regularly after that, and in weeks the telltale numbers skyrocketed and he was diagnosed with diabetes. I mention this because the time when we (or someone else) might know what’s going to happen to our mental and physical health before it happens seems already to be upon us. And we’ve already gone to war in recent years because of what we believed other leaders might do to us before they even did it. I think a film like Looper is just trying to nudge us in the direction of considering some of these issues.

    If you think it fails along those lines, I can totally accept that, but it seems uncharacteristic of you not to consider some of a film’s more serious ambitions.

    I didn’t get the sense that he was evil. He’s very precocious and has an awareness that’s beyond his years. At the same time, he’s still has limitations of understanding. This results in him denying that Sara is his mother. (I’m assuming that this is what makes Cid evil to you.) Other than that, I didn’t see him as hateful or evil.

    You’ve been around children much more than I have, so I’ll defer to your experience on this one. But those couple of times when Cid’s face contorts with rage frightened the crap out of me. I’ve seen kids get mad, but not like that. It was freaking demonic, what comes out of his mouth and what shows on his face.

    Well, Sara now knows that Cid can become this terrible person, so she can make an extra effort to make sure he’s not “lost.”

    Yeah, that’s what we’re supposed to accept, but I’m just not convinced.

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean about “Joe’s future is our future.” You imagined that the future was the future we’re going to live in?

    Within the framework of the movie, yes. It’s America in 2044. I plan to still be living in America in 2044 (in fact, I hope still to be living in America in 2074 too), so within the framework of the movie, the world Joe lives in is the world I’ll be living in.

    For me, I think you really had to care about the characters because their stories and the themes matter more in this film than in conventional action-sci-fi. I also think this could have made the ethical dilmmenas more poignant.

    More poignant, for sure, but the plot is so interesting that I found myself playing along the whole way, trying to figure out what the characters were going to do and asking myself if I’d do the same thing.

    Don’t these questions suggest that the world isn’t so well thought out? I didn’t think the world was well-thought out or designed, but I just sort of accepted that. (I don’t see the connection between telekinetic levitation and hover-craft.)

    On the contrary, a movie that only bothers to color its world with the stuff it plans to explain is the kind of thing we usually get. Remember, the 2074 we see is in China, and the filmmakers actually went to China to film that. Why bother, if they weren’t going to actually explain why China would be like that, and why Joe would live there, and why the China of 2074 was so much nicer than the USA of 2044? It could have been set somewhere more convenient, but someone decided on China. Tolkien didn’t explain everything in his worlds (at least, not in the actual narrative), but everything in that world was well-thought-out too. The art directors for Looper color the world with all kinds of stuff the narrative doesn’t bother to explain, but that hints at more thought, not less thought.

    As for telekinesis and those hoverbikes, the only gravity-defying stuff we see are those quarters in some peoples’ hands. Yet someone has developed the technology to make a bike do that, and apparently anyone can ride it. That’s where I connected the two thoughts.

  6. Reid

    I’m kind of playing around, but I wonder if the fact that it’s a Hollywood movie made you predisposed to not taking it seriously.

    As I mentioned, I think my reaction stems from the film’s execution. Also, I approached the film as a clever plot-driven film–versus a serious drama or exploration of ethical situations. As long as the filmmaker worked with the premise in interesting ways, I could enjoy the film. Had I tried to evaluate the film beyond this, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as a much or judged it as favorably.

    And yes, I know that in real life we’re faced with serious challenges, but the dilemma posed by the main characters seems like the kind of thing worth considering, at least for the duration of the film and at least in the world in which it’s set.

    You’re referring to the question of killing a bunch of children–some of whom would be innocent–in order to kill someone who would be really awful? I don’t know why this question isn’t more interesting to me. Maybe this issue has been brought up in other stories and films?

    OK, let me try and answer this question seriously. My answer would depend on several things. First, how bad would this person turn out to be? If we’re talking someone like Hitler, then it might be worth it. But then there’s no guarantee that someone else like Hitler would take his place. Also, you can’t know the unintended consequences of killing that person. While the individual may have been terrible, maybe their existence prevents even more terrible things from occurring. So to try to change the future in this way is an attempt to play God–or at least it suggests that one knows enough about the way one person or one event affects and is interconnected with other people and events. You’d need god-like knowledge to know that. And if people can jump back in time to change the future, that would seem to leave the future in a constant state of flux.

    But let’s suppose that if we kill an individual that would both prevent a lot of bad things from happening (e.g., prevent the Holocaust), without any negative side-effects (e.g., say the non-existence of Hitler prevents the formation of Israel and leads to greater persecution of Jews around the world). Would killing a some innocent children to kill this individual be worth it? I think the answer would have to be yes–as awlful as that sounds.

    I mention this because the time when we (or someone else) might know what’s going to happen to our mental and physical health before it happens seems already to be upon us. And we’ve already gone to war in recent years because of what we believed other leaders might do to us before they even did it. I think a film like Looper is just trying to nudge us in the direction of considering some of these issues.

    Wait. Are you referring to the issue of having some knowledge about the future and whether we should use that knowledge? I’m not sure how Looper really gets us to think about that question.

    Within the framework of the movie, yes. It’s America in 2044. I plan to still be living in America in 2044 (in fact, I hope still to be living in America in 2074 too), so within the framework of the movie, the world Joe lives in is the world I’ll be living in.

    So when you say “Joe’s future is our future,” you mean that you and I will probably be living in 2044 or 2074–not the details and nature of Joe’s future will be the same as ours. Right? I guess I didn’t feel like there was any reason to believe that the Joe’s future would be anything like ours.

    More poignant, for sure, but the plot is so interesting that I found myself playing along the whole way, trying to figure out what the characters were going to do and asking myself if I’d do the same thing.

    I hear what you’re saying. I guess I just didn’t lose myself in the film (and I mostly blame the film for this). So I kept thinking about the film from a more abstract position–as if I were analyzing the narrative challenges Johnson set up for himself and focusing on how he was solving them and putting the pieces together.

    The art directors for Looper color the world with all kinds of stuff the narrative doesn’t bother to explain, but that hints at more thought, not less thought.

    Maybe I just missed the type of richness and complexity that the art direction suggests. What did you have in mind?

    By the way, I’m not saying that the filmmakers had to explain everything. You’re right. Tolkien doesn’t explain everything, but you can tell there is a richness to his world–making it resemble a real world. But part of that has to do with details–e.g., using made-up languages that seem authentic; referring to specific historical events. That’s not the level of detail in this film.

    Plus, when I say the world of the film doesn’t seem well-thought out, I’m thinking of details like the time machine. Governments might outlaw time machines, but would all of them really get rid of them and not use them? And how could the Mob actually get a hold of them, while the government not knowing about this? Moreover, is using time machines for hiding “hits” really the best use of time machines they could come up with? Answering some of these questions might make the world more real and satisfying.

    But I didn’t penalize the film for this. I accepted it as a condition for the premise the film really wanted to use and explore–namely, having loopers kill their future selves. So I think the film has a set-up, a problem that occurs and some resolution. Johnson has to provide pieces and put them together in a way to resolve these things in a satisfying way. From the point of view of the plot, he does a pretty good job of that–but along the way, he’s not really putting enough time developing the dramatic narrative, the characters or the themes very well. For example, you mentioned that you weren’t convinced that Sara would save Cid. And you could be right. The filmmakers would have to do more–probably with the characters and the dramatic undercurrent–to make this more convincing. But as a solution to one of the problems in the film–i.e., Cid is “lost” and a woman’s love can save him–it’s a somewhat satisfying answer. But to make it really work, the filmmaker has to make the characters and drama really work as well–which is something I don’t think the film really does.

    So let me try to articulate what I mean (because I don’t think I’ve done a great job so far). I imagine Rian Johnson writing the script to the movie and thinking something like this: “What’s going to happen to Cid and Sara? Is Sara going to have to sacrifice her life? Well, that might not be so satisfying. Oh, how about if Young Joe kills himself which prevents Old Joe from killing Sara and Cid. Cid would then be saved because of Sara’s love.”
    On this level, I think the film works fairly well. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. In terms of the execution–the acting, drama, themes, issues, etc.–it’s just passable.

    As for telekinesis and those hoverbikes, the only gravity-defying stuff we see are those quarters in some peoples’ hands. Yet someone has developed the technology to make a bike do that, and apparently anyone can ride it. That’s where I connected the two thoughts.

    So when you asked about how the hoverbikes worked, you were wondering if people with TK powered the bikes? (No, you couldn’t have meant that.)

  7. Arlyn

    I didn’t care for this movie and I was a little restless for the first hour. Yes, it was original but, at the same time, confusing.

    Mitchell said:

    I have a particular fondness for Emily Blunt, but her performance is uneven in Looper, and her character seems the least developed…There is also a child character, and I try to cut child actors some slack, but I couldn’t stand this kid, either as an actor or as a character.

    It was when Blunt appeared that my restlessness went away. I liked her here. And I liked the kid.

    Reid said:

    The film seems to be shooting for this, but the dramatic impact isn’t so strong because of the fimmaking–specifically, the writing, acting and directing fall a little flat.

    I thought the filmmaking was great but this film wasn’t for me. As with Memento and Inception, movies that were well regarded by both critics and moviegoers, I felt disappointed in the end.

    I have seen two other films by Rian Johnson, Brick and The Brother’s Bloom. I didn’t care for Brick but did like Brother’s Bloom, for its quirky plot and cast (Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi).

    Brick 39/100
    The Brothers Bloom 68/100
    Looper 60/100

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