Arts and Culture


Moral quandary. Human destiny. Totally suspend disbelief and this time-traveling thriller has it all.

By Steve Burgess 4 Oct 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Dude -- what if you could, like, go back in time and kill Hitler when he was just a kid? Because here's the thing, dude -- he wouldn't have that moustache. He'd probably be all dressed up in adorable little lederhosen, playing Capture the Flag with the other kinder. Maybe you could just go back in time and give him a time out and read him One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish?

A variation on that favourite dorm room discussion topic eventually comes to the fore in Looper, the new time-travel tale from director Rian Johnson. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a future assassin -- a.k.a. "looper" -- whose victims come from even farther into the future, sent back 30 years in time so they can be safely killed and disposed of. It's an odd premise but just go with it. One day while punching the clock at the ol' shoot-the-time-traveler mat, Joe comes face to face with his older self (Bruce Willis), sent back in time so that younger Joe can kill him. Strange that they would expect young Joe to be the best choice to shoot Old Joe but just go with it. In fact, the studio missed a real opportunity here -- Looper should really have been called Just Go With It. It would save repetition, which can be a real problem with time travel.

Later we find that Old Joe is on a mission, something larger than mere survival. He's hunting for a future villain in hopes of preventing evils yet to come. This is where Johnson's film serves up that moral conundrum that so often threatens the hypothetical survival of tender young Adolf. Looper makes the issue more than just a time-travelling duck hunt. Set in a Dickensian future where Republican values have clearly triumphed, creating a society that conveniently breeds the very kind of vicious men the assassin trade needs, Looper raises the question of just how violence and evil are made.

Thwarted by time travel

Reaction to Looper has been largely positive, but with a definite split between fans and a smaller group those fans disparage as "nitpickers." In such a polarized debate it's hard to have a foot in both camps. But it can't be helped. Looper is a pleasure to watch -- an intelligent, well-made sci-fi thriller that broadens out in its second half to deal with larger questions about human destiny and moral quandary. You've got to be grateful for movies like that, which probably explains the push-back against Looper's critics, currently playing out on Twitter and film chat threads. But Looper has some serious logical issues. That's inevitable with time travel movies -- you can get into more of those dorm room debates about the logistics of Terminator or Back to the Future. But what's a temporal paradox or a flux capacitator among friends? Some of Looper's logical quandaries are harder to ignore.

In at least one lengthy sequence the movie seems to change its own logical rules for the sake of cinematic convenience. A future assassin, sent back in time to be killed, escapes his fate only to be lured to his doom by means both brutal and ingenious. It's a memorable sequence -- so memorable that as you stand in the shower next morning it might suddenly occur to you that the movie's ending makes that earlier sequence pointless and nonsensical.

That ending is genuinely boffo and, in the moment, satisfying. Then you start to think. For some post-viewing fun go to and read discussions of the unexamined ramifications it suggests. Yes, paradox comes with the time travel turf, but Looper's entire premise is enough of a stretch to periodically knock you out of your disbelief-suspension bubble. In this it is reminiscent of 2010's Never Let Me Go, a well-made future fantasy that attempted to wring pathos out of a scenario so implausible that every incipient tear was thwarted.

So -- see it or skip it? I say go and enjoy. Flaws notwithstanding, Looper is a pleasure to watch -- entertaining without being superficial. Tomorrow morning in the shower you may have second thoughts. But that is for a time yet to come.  [Tyee]

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