Be Thrown for a Loop: Steve Highly Recommends Looper

Time travel is tricky, but tripping through the twists of Looper is time well spent. The trouble with time travel is that there is always the nagging question of how the time traveler will change history and what rippling effects that will have. It can be enough to make your head spin, or, as Abe, a mob boss played with delightful, quiet creepiness by Jeff Daniels, says, “This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.” My advice is don’t think too much, just enjoy the journey, and incredibly enjoyable it is. The movie itself offers similar advice as Old Joe tells Young Joe that they are not going to talk about time travel because, if they do, they will end up spending the whole day making diagrams with straws. Writer/director Rian Johnson clearly did his homework with those diagrams in order to craft a movie that tells us enough, but not too much, about the implications of time travel within the scheme of the film’s world. Any movie, but especially a sci-fi movie involving time travel, needs a clearly defined set of rules and it needs to play fair within those rules. Looper does. Numerous folks seem obsessed with the mechanisms of the time travel, but I think they are missing the point. The movie is not about time travel. The time travel is there to serve a story and a compelling story it is. At the heart of the story we find an ethical question well worth pondering.

I’m not going to say much about the story itself, because its twists and turns are what make the story such a delight. Mentioning even a few plot points would give too much away. I’ve re-watched the trailer and I’m impressed with how, again, they were able to reveal enough, but not too much. In fact, a key character isn’t even hinted at in the trailer, even though the movie turns on the fate of this character. The trailer does reveal the basic premise of the movie. Loopers are hit men in 2042 who execute people sent back in time by the mob after time travel is invented in 2072. Occasionally, the mob sends the hit man back from the future to be executed by his younger self. This is called closing the loop. Obviously, this creates a moral dilemma. Would you kill your future self? The movie shows that the consequences for letting your future self run are severe, indeed. This dilemma is played out in the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis), but it actually serves to point to a deeper ethical issue. Without giving too much away, the issue is this: is it morally defensible to kill innocent people in order to stop someone who is truly evil? Beyond being a marvelous viewing experience, the presentation of this question make Looper a valuable movie. That question plays into many justice issues, including, of course, just war theory. When is war justified? How dangerous must the enemy be and dangerous to whom? How many innocent lives can be lost before an action is no longer justifiable? Does it depend on how many lives will be saved? Does the end justify the means? (These issues were also presented in The Bourne Legacy earlier this year, in which Edward Norton’s character says that their actions are morally indefensible, but that they lead to a greater good.) The movie also gives us one, two, maybe three, instances of self-sacrifice for the good of others. Jesus said there is no greater love than laying down your life. That, too, is well worth thinking about. As is the whole notion of playing God. If we had the ability to travel back in time to change things, wouldn’t there be the temptation to make things right and in that sense to play God? Notice, too, that I said temptation and not desire to make things right. Who determines, finally, what is right? Such questions are swirling in this intriguing film, but it is to Johnson’s credit that he doesn’t hit us over the head with them, turning this into a lecture or diatribe. He simply lets them swirl.

Time travel is tricky, but creating an entertaining movie set in a complex system with deep questions at its heart is trickier still. For instance, I am not a big fan of Inception. Christopher Nolan certainly created a complex system with his dream world and he clearly had deep questions in mind, but I felt the movie lacked heart. I never cared about the characters. In Looper, I did care about Joe and Old Joe. The bottom line is always the story and here the story is riveting and well told. Then the story must be brought to life and that is done with solid directing and acting. The cast is stellar, led by knockout performances by Gordon-Levitt and Willis. When I saw the prosthetics used to make Gordon-Levitt look more like Willis, I thought they looked strange in the trailer, but they work well in the movie. However, I’m not sure they were even needed because JGL does an incredible job of capturing Willis’ mannerisms and voice inflections. I’ve already mentioned the creepy cool performance by Jeff Daniels. Emily Blunt brings a nice blend of vulnerability and strength to her role as Sara, a women dealing with a number of issues (although, her character did occasionally act in ways that were remarkably stupid…one of the few weaknesses in the script). Speaking of issues, can anyone play a tortured soul better than Paul Dano? Unfortunately, he was only actively involved in a few scenes and his role got progressively smaller as time went on. (If you have seen the movie, you may realize that is a joke deserving a Sheldonesque snicker, if not a bazinga.)  The movie is certainly violent, but Johnson shows restraint in presenting that violence. In the hands of many other directors (Tarantino!), this would have been much bloodier. A prostitute is shown topless, there is drug use and some “language” (again, more restrained than many R-rated films), but if those things don’t bother you, I highly recommend Looper, a highly entertaining film, as well as an opportunity to ponder some important questions. Do yourself a favor and see Looper. It will be time well spent. Personally, I plan to live through it again and again, with or without the aid of time travel.


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