Time travel doesn’t make sense. Once a moment has passed, it’s gone. It’s not a place you can go back to, no matter how much plutonium or Gallifrean technology or the sun’s gravitational pull you use.
But as a concept, time travel is one of the greatest tropes in science fiction. Be it in Doctor Who, the Terminator movies, or Star Trek, some of the greatest sci-fi stories have involved someone going forward or backward in time.
Looper is not as good as any of those, unfortunately, but it is a damn fine sci-fi movie that uses time travel to great effect.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), the film centers on a hit man named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Except that instead of killing people in his time, which is the year 2042, Joe is a Looper, and kills people who are sent back by the mob from twenty-five years in the future. It’s a good job, if you can get it, but the retirement plan is a bitch: you eventually have to kill your future self. At least, you’re supposed to. When Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) finally blinks in, he manages to escape, leaving the younger Joe to deal with his disappointed employers while hunting down old Joe.
While it’s easy — and appropriate — to compare Looper to The Terminator, it actually plays much more like 12 Monkeys (which, perhaps not coincidentally, also starred Willis). It has a similar approach and tone, in that it takes the subject matter seriously. Yes, there are a couple of funny bits, but there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek or wink-wink about it. If anything, it tries to account for everything, making time travel as plausible as it can.
Credit for that belongs to Johnson, who is as smart a screenwriter as he is a director. Looper has a decidedly noir-ish approach to its dystopian future, but it never lingers on things, or tries to make things too flashy, too futuristic. In fact, both the script and the way its short are actually closer to a real-world thriller than a sci-fi movie, which helps grounds what is otherwise a tale of impossible fiction.
Though it helps that the cast is solid, too. Not only do we (mostly) get Willis the actor (Pulp Fiction) as opposed to Willis the action star (Die Hard), but Gordon-Levitt more than holds his own when the two face off. The same can also be said for Emily Blunt, who plays a woman who has a run-in with the two Joes, though it’s Jeff Daniels who, as a mob boss, really stands out as being effortlessly authoritative.
Sadly, Looper is far from perfect, especially in the latter half. There’s some love shoehorned in for no reason, a momentary lapse of Willis-esque action, and a coincidence that’s way too convenient (and rather unnecessary). But the biggest issue is the logical flaw with the premise. Specifically, why would you ask a hit man to kill his future self, why wouldn’t you get someone else to do it? Admittedly, if someone other than young Joe had been tasked with killing old Joe, this would’ve been a much shorter movie, but given how smart this script is already, it’s hard not to think they would’ve found a good, and plausible, workaround.
Still, Looper is a smart, thoughtful, and ultimately satisfying sci-fi movie that will perplex those who aren’t paying attention, or are expecting Willis to shoot up the place with bullets and one-liners (well, more than he does). But for serious sci-fi fans — or really anyone looking for a smart crime thriller with a futuristic twist — Looper will entertain, engage, and ultimately satisfy…even if there’s no way it could ever happen.