Amid a year of superhero-starring blockbusters and the reinvigoration of much-loved franchises, Rian Johnson’s Looper will have slipped through the net for some. Yet, for those who perhaps felt let down by the likes of Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, this could be the supplier of what the former two arguably lacked.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has to be fast approaching go-to leading man material, plays Joe, a member of an elite band of assassins called Loopers who specialise in offing people sent back in time by the mob and then discretely disposing of the evidence. The catch? Sooner or later the Looper will come across their future selves – effectively certifying their status as the engineers of their own fate, and with it their ultimate doom.
The myopic nature of their career choice is alleviated somewhat by the wealth it affords, giving them time to indulge in fast cars, top-of-the-range (albeit still imperfect) hovercars and extensive drug use, with hallucinogenics via the eyes being the order of the day here, all the while the rest of the populace struggles in abject poverty, reduced to a state of semi-lawlessness as they subsist in shanty towns and tent cities amid a world that has taken two steps backward to reflect any tentative forward strides. This is the world the 99 percenters feared.
Despite the stark portrayal of the world in the opening minutes, Johnson avoids posing any kind of political agenda, instead positing the bulk of the focus on Joe as a series of events (including one particularly grisly, time-bending-induced death scene) throws his world off kilter, before it finally all comes crashing down when, during a routine assignment, his future self (Bruce Willis) evades capture, bringing the not inconsiderable force of his employers down on his head (led by Jeff Daniels, essentially playing a bearded, crankier version of The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy).
Aided by a remarkably natural-looking mixture of CGI and prosphetics (take note, Prometheus and Guy Pearce), Gordon-Levitt is eerily uncanny as the younger Willis, a point hammered home in the best coffee-shop-meeting scene since Al Pacino and Robert De Niro locked horns in Heat. However, Willis’ part cannot be understated; drawing the audience’s sympathy as he reveals the extent of his trials one moment, and throwing it back in viewers’ faces the next by virtue of his – at times unexpectedly horrific – actions.
For all its glossy sheen, however, Looper seems more intent on drawing on action flicks of yore; Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and James Cameron’s The Terminator are clear sources of inspiration for Johnson as he interrogates time-travel based conundrums, most clearly via the older Joe, appearing to ask whether by attempting to change the future, how far would you go? Moreover, by doing so, do you risk becoming the embodiment of that you are seeking to destroy? Transposed against the ideas of choice and fate, both of which played such prominent roles in Johnson’s previous features Brick and The Brothers Bloom, Looper gives the grey matter plenty to work with.
Yet, by the final third, this house of cards looks in danger of crumbling under the weight of its own ambition. Having shown its hand, it appears at times uncertain of where to go next, settling for a half-hour of thumb-twiddling punctuated by telekinetic evisceration and one of the most randomly inserted sex scenes (involving Emily Blunt, who makes up for her late introduction with seldom-until-now-seen gusto) you’ll see this millennia, before a finale that functions as a fitting if not wholly satisfying resolution.
Like all the best works of sci-fi, Looper feels like a story set in a wider, living and bustling world, and as such stands a better chance of weathering the test of time than, say, Inception. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the lofty ideals that it so ardently seeks to expound, but makes up for this with the sheer thrill of the journey Rian Johnson takes us on. And we can’t wait to see where it’s heading next…