The run-up of hype for Looper was extraordinary in its length as a rough cut was screened for influential film nerd writers over a year before its release. They took to the Internets and gave other film nerds the heads-up about this great cinematic achievement coming our way. Upon its release it was well-reviewed and is showing up on year-end best-of lists, so once again I'm finding myself wondering if film critics who have to see everything, even dreck they'd skip if they weren't paid to endure it, are just so grateful for something the least bit different that they overpraise it to death. As with last year's overrated not-all-that films Drive and Attack the Block, Looper is an intriguing concept ultimately incapable of living by its own rules.
The premise, as alluded to in the trailer, is that 30 years in the future from the film's setting of 2044 time-travel has been invented and immediately outlawed, only used by crime syndicates to send back people to be killed by Loopers, so named because eventually they have to "close their loop" when their future selves are sent back. It's when Joseph Gordon-Levitt's future self (Bruce Willis) comes back and escapes that the plot kicks in and the usual problems with time-travel movies rear their head. Paradoxes ensue.
The confusion starts when we see Bruce knock out JGL, something we've previously been shown is very bad for the Looper who screws up. (In that earlier sequence that we're shown that Looper is using Back to the Future's rules in which things disappear as the future version of a Looper who screwed up is, um, altered by what's happening to the younger version.) When hunted by the Gat Men, JGL appears to be killed, at which point we're taken back to the scene where Bruce got away except this time JGL does his job and kills Bruce. We're then taken through a Reader's Digest version of the next 30 years showing JGL/Bruce's life leading up to his being zapped back to the past where he isn't killed as we saw before. Confused? It gets worse.
Ultimately the story hinges on Bruce's quest to find the Rainmaker, the Keyser Soze of 2074 who has taken over the crime world and is closing the loops of all the hitmen in the past. He figures if you kills the Rainmaker in the past, he won't be sent back to die and other bad things will be prevented. It's pretty easy to guess who the Rainmaker is, but there's a few other cards up Looper's sleeve which I suppose are meant to seem clever, but only raise more questions as to how the mechanics of time-travel and paradoxes work. If it works as it's shown, then the whole movie should've been impossible because nothing would've happened with one character taken off the board.
Even with the nerd mechanics nagging at me, I just didn't get on board with the other elements of the story involving Emily Blunt living on a farm with her kid that JGL goes to. It just felt poorly motivated and what it would do to the overall timeline wasn't explored. I'm trying not to spoil anything, in case you, dear reader, wishes to see for yourself, but it's nowhere as profound as you've been told. The performances are good, but the simultaneously overly-complex and simplistic story doesn't hang together.
Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.
**** SPOILER ALERT!!! ONLY READ IF YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE! ****
As the scene with Paul Dano getting hacked apart and JGL's carving "Beatrix" into his arm showed, changes made now instantly appear on the future version's body. So when JGL kills himself to save Emily and prevent scary Tetsuo boy from becoming the Rainmaker in the future, thus saving Bruce's wife and negating the mass closing of loops, it raises the loophole (heh) of who drove the truck of silver/gold bars out to the farm since Bruce never came back from 2074 because he died in 2044. Everything that happened couldn't have, though it is sort of allowed for in showing how JGL killed Bruce, grew old, got sent back and didn't get killed and then died in the past meaning none of the future should've happened and WAIT, I'M CONFUSED BECAUSE THIS DOESN'T MAKE SENSE!!!
Come to think of it, I think most of the reviews praising this went out of the way to say the time-travel isn't the important part which in retrospect was their way of saying the rules fundamentally didn't work but rather than hold writer-director Rian Johnson to account because they liked Brick (which I haven't seen yet but I've got the DVD) so much. Or something.
UPDATE: The next day, my g/f and I discussed how disappointed we were and I pitched this as a better plot:
First of all, the initial scene of Bruce coming back has to be cut entirely. Not only does it lead to "WTF is going on here?" confusion, but it tips off what's coming in a manner that doesn't have the impact because we're too busy trying to figure out what's going on. So, lose the first scene and start with the 2nd (after JGL falls) and he closes his loop. We get the montage, the wife dying, and the decision to change things, so when he goes back in time, he has a motive to ambush JGL though he won't know why he's getting pounced upon.
So Bruce is on the loose and things proceed as shown except that with JGL on the farm, getting clean with Emily's help and falling in love with her, that should've erased Bruce's memory of the wife in Shanghai. With nothing to save in the future, and realizing he's made total hash of things in killing Jeff Daniels and the Gat Men, Bruce heads to the farm to help JGL fight off the Gat Men, probably sacrificing himself in the process. It would mean redeeming his selfish motives for coming back, but how selfish is it to have yourself clean up and find love 25 years earlier?
However, as I worked through this storyline I realized that the time paradoxes always resulted in none of this happening because Bruce never would've had a reason to come back and try and change the future and that's the only reason JGL would've ended up on that farm in the first place. Causality loops and paradoxes are the bane of time-travel movies and it's clear they tried to slide by on the inconsistencies by refusing to talk about them, but they remain there, chewing away at the foundations of the story. If they hadn't shown Paul Dano's older self being hacked apart - a cool concept - and Bruce disappearing, they could've avoided most of these questions. By showing the rules, they ended up revealing how badly they were breaking their own rules.
* How many time machines are there? They seem to be fixed to one spot - Dano's is in the city; JGL's is on a farm where no one ever sees him - but there are a bunch of Loopers apparently all over the place.
* Best dialog of the movie was the exchange between Daniels and JGL about the latter learning French culminating in, "I'm from the future. You should go to China." Notice that all the money was red and had Chinese people on them; that's what happens when you re-elect a President in 2012 who doesn't know how to stop spending. Just saying.
* Why are buildings in sci-fi movies always architecturally impossible? I've started noticing this a LOT lately where these giant skyscrapers have skinny midsections then get wider, like this on the right:
They look cool, but can't be built. Look at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai which is over a half-mile tall; it's a pyramid, wide at the bottom and tapering on top.
* The guys from Cinema Sins have really recapped the problems I've had with this video: