It’s about time for a changing of the guard in science-fiction, and “Looper” heralds perhaps the sign that the genre is in young, fresh, and good hands. Rian Johnson’s time-traveling tale is an intelligent film that hopefully points to revitalization by the people who grew up on the classics of the 1980s. Its delicate construction and serious contemplation moves Johnson into the league of J.J. Abrams and Duncan Jones in terms of directors moving what was formerly considered kitsch into respectable art.
“Looper,” upon a little bit of pondering, feels very much inspired by James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” Though we still watch that movie nearly three decades later, it’s mainly to be amused by the ex-Governator, not to be wowed by the script or the direction (and most definitely not by the performances). And yes, it’s in the Library of Congress and is unilaterally praised, but “The Terminator” is able to get away with its unabashed Roger Corman, B-movie background now largely because of our fondness for nostalgia.
Johnson takes what worked about “The Terminator,” the time traveling plot device and the thematic weight, and sets it in a frame evoking “A Clockwork Orange” or “Blade Runner.” His “Looper” takes place in a future not blatantly dystopian, but rather cleverly thought out with depth that doesn’t draw attention to itself. Viewers willing to take the plunge into Johnson’s world multiple times will undoubtedly be rewarded by the subtle details he hides throughout the film.
Johnson’s film is not entirely ambiental or oblique as the adulation of his creativity in his treatment of 2044 might suggest. His ingenious script is well-plotted in a way that walks a very fragile line. It introduces a lot of concepts and facts very quickly while allowing events to slowly unfold so that a viewer has time to assimilate them with what is happening. And though the connection might not always be readily apparent, Johnson gives us ample time to piece it together while he successfully accomplishes a very slow burn.
It’s also to the benefit of “Looper” that Johnson lets the characters drive the narrative. A major shortcoming of the science-fiction genre as of late is a reliance on archetypes and stock characters so that the spectacle gets all the spotlight. But Johnson, interested in elevating his film above the typical tropes and trappings, gives us Joe, a character who provides compelling and thoughtful drama that would make sense in any setting.
Joe is played as a young man by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and as an older man coming back to 2044 to fix the future by Bruce Willis. The two feed off each other almost symbiotically with Gordon-Levitt playing the sort of brash, stoic heroes that made Willis famous in the ’80s. And Willis, in a stroke of inspired casting, gets to comment on both the foolish capriciousness of his former characters while also getting to play out the pitfalls of where that lifestyle leads.
We get to spend plenty of quality time with both Joes, giving us a very unique and insightful perspective into his character. He’s fascinating from even the expository portions of the movie, but by the time he meets Sara, Emily Blunt’s mother of a potential monster, we’re all in on Joe. And in the movie’s thrilling conclusion, that investment results in a tidal wave of meditation on love, selflessness sacrifice. Though the finale of “Looper” packs the movie’s big punch, it wouldn’t have worked at all had Johnson not spent so long carefully priming us to expose our sweet spots, the heart and mind. A- /