Looper is two movies wrapped in one. The first of these is a fantastic time-travel story that’s both incredibly exciting and works well as a reasonably original slice of sci-fi (as far as that’s possible in this day and age), recalling films like 12 Monkeys, whereas the second half is much more of a supernatural piece akin to something like The Omen and Children of the Corn with perhaps a touch of Signs thrown in for good measure. It’s a shame then that the latter of these halves is just kind of dull, sapping all the energy and momentum that had been established in the stellar first half.
Set in the year 2044, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) plays Joe, a specialised hitman called a looper. Joe narrates that by 2074 time travel will have been invented and instantly outlawed. We learn that in the future it’s apparently almost impossible to kill anyone without the authorities finding out, so the mob has established a certain monopoly on time travel. The idea is that when the mob wants to murder someone in 2074 they capture them and send them back to 2044 where a looper, like Joe, is waiting to do the dirty.
One day however, Joe is sent his future self to get rid of – let’s call them Young Joe and Old Joe to avoid confusion. Old Joe is played by Bruce Willis (The Expendables 2) and obviously isn’t in the mood for a mouthful of blunderbuss. He escapes and the chase is on, as every minute Old Joe is allowed to interfere with the past is bad for the space-time continuum or something like that. Meanwhile, Young Joe also has fellow mobsters after him for failing to ‘close his loop’. They’re being led by Abe (Jeff Daniels; The Newsroom), a grumpy mob boss sent from the future to manage the loopers. Writer-director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom, Brick) is well aware that time-travel plots can often be hard to follow so includes a terrific one-on-one conversation between the two Joes in which Old Joe basically turns around and directly tells the audience not to think about the convoluted time-travel mechanics too hard.
Up to this point the film is absolutely captivating, pulling you in with its intriguing premise and masterful worldbuilding. Indeed, the world of 2044 feels like a realistic extrapolation of contemporary society, being part grungy, part sleek and all believable (so they’re probably up to around about the iPhone 50). There are also plenty of small touches that really help to add depth and credibility to the world that Johnson creates. At one point Young Joe says he wants to go to France when he retires but Abe tiredly tells him, “I’m from the future. You should go to China.” Fantastic!
What’s not so fantastic is the complete turnaround that the film does at the halfway point. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to talk about too much without spoiling what happens, so I’ll refrain from doing so. That said, while I’m usually all for a film going in an unexpected direction I found that the direction Looper took was one that didn’t take advantage of its premise and the momentum that had been built up to that point. The movie also slows to a crawl, as Young Joe is left waiting around with farmhouse owner Sara (Emily Blunt; The Five-Year Engagement) for the action to come to them. Similarly, the time-travel element is replaced by a fresh plot that would feel right at home in a Stephen King story featuring scary children (take your pick!). Don’t misunderstand, it’s not bad in and of itself but I felt that this direction prevented the film from capitalising on its full potential.
At least even in these slower parts Levitt is still utterly convincing as a younger Bruce Willis – he’s mastered the whole squinty eye, tight-drawn lips thing that Willis does, as well as many of his other mannerisms. Of course, Willis himself brings his best to the role of Old Joe but it’s really Levitt who’s the star of Looper. Moreover, it was good to see that Young Joe and Old Joe don’t see eye to eye, as both men have their own motivations for doing what they do. It’s this dichotomy and the time-travel premise that are the most interesting tidbits of Looper, though I can’t help but feel the whole thing was compromised by the story’s disappointing bait and switch.
The first half of Looper is a stunning sci-fi tale of time travel but the second half sadly changes tact by slowing things down in order to start the plot up again. But hey, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis always make for fine viewing.