Time travel has always been a fascinating subject in popular culture. It is notoriously hard to make a time travel movie whilst keeping an eye on all the various paradoxes that will undoubtedly appear. Somewhere around the ’80s two seminal pieces of film making changed all that – The Terminator and Back To The Future.
What directors James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis showed us was that if they make a movie fun enough we, as an audience, would be more lenient towards the plot holes. This allowed for a slew of excellent films that ranged from the dark 12 Monkeys (more on that later) to last year’s whimsical Woody Allen comedy Midnight in Paris. The fact we are less pedantic about loopholes is what allows the new Rian Johnson movie Looper to be such a triumph.
Rian Johnson is a director I have admired greatly ever since I saw the absolutely excellent low budget indie Brick. He has that extra vision that elevates him from just an ambitious director to an absolutely accomplished one.
Here he teams up with the star of his debut film – Joseph Gordon Levitt and the ever reliable Bruce Willis. The main plot is set between the year 2044 and 2074 where time travel has been invented but immediately outlawed. The mafia use this technology to send anyone they do not like to be disposed off in the past effectively making the murder traceless. When they get sent to the past blindfolded to the year 2044 they are met by assassins like Joseph “Joe” Simmons (Gordon-Levitt). These guys are called loopers because after 30 years they have to close the loop by killing the older version of themselves who also get sent to the past hence erasing all links to the mafia in the future.
Got it yet? Don’t worry, Johnson’s masterful opening scene and Gordon Levitt’s purposeful narration explains it all. He is employed by Abe (Jeff Daniels enjoying a resurgence post The Newsroom) who has a strict policy about letting the hooded men from the future getting away. The only problem is that the man with the hood is the ‘older’ Joe (Willis) who gets away and sets off a chain of events. It is a lot to take in, but once you do the payoff is truly immense.
I have seen some critics refer to this film as ‘this year’s Matrix’ and that tagline couldn’t be more misleading if it tried. Rian Johnson crafts a film that certainly pays homage to older classics, just simply not The Matrix. There are shades of 12 Monkeys (which starred Bruce Willis alongside Brad Pitt) and even The Omen. Having said that, what truly elevates this film is its completely fresh approach to a tried and tested genre.
As is always the case with this genre, if you slowed down and thought about it, the plot will have some paradoxical questions [which culminated in what will be an iconic cafe scene where the young and old Joe sit and talk together] but Johnson doesn’t give us a second to breath with excellent set pieces and quite frankly some superb performances even from the support.
From fellow looper Seth [played by Paul Dano; another excellent rising star who I hope will be paired with Gordon Levitt again as they both represent possibly the future of character actors in Hollywood] to the wonderful Jeff Daniels to the chilling child actor Pierce Gagnon. Gagnon is 10 years old but delivers a truly memorable performance that belies his age. Ebert once said that the most honest portrayals are usually by children as their minds are yet to be sullied by what they consider ‘acting’ to be.
The script is a potent mix of sci-fi and action laced with some dark humor but also always asking tough questions. Johnson expects you to invest in his film and to pay attention because it can get complicated but in return he has given you a truly remarkable film with an ending not many saw coming.
This is exactly the type of film that should be cleaning up at the Oscars, but sadly it wont. The Academy never seems to honour fresh approaches or anything with even a hint of sci fi regardless of its quality as we have seen with the wonderful Inception.
I also kept thinking throughout this film as to why very few big releases these days are not original. The accepted wisdom is that if a film is too complicated it will not be popular outside of the art house scene, hence not worth huge investment, but I think that is an absolute cop out. Films like this and Inception have proven that we don’t give the average cinema-goer enough credit. If studios and filmmakers were bolder and more original than making rehashed sequels, remakes or squeezing out every possible comic book character, the people would come and pay.
Cinema is an artform and as such should be subject to credible discussion, sadly most big releases simply don’t warrant discussion. Once in a while, an exciting, engaging and thought-provoking film will get a big release – this time it is Looper. An absolute must see.