Rian Johnson is one of the emerging American filmmakers leading a not-particularly-quiet and yet still somehow wholly disregarded renaissance in American film. Every year, as the number of sequels and Kevin James movies produced grows and people lament that film is dead, dying, over, directors like Johnson turn out well crafted, attentive films peopled with interesting characters that walk and talk in ways that actual people walk and talk, and not like walking exposition dumps or the archetypical beings that fill the lesser, more populous films dominating the landscape. It’s happening on a big-budget studio scale, too, this creeping Kudzu takeover of storytelling, but it’s more easily spotted in the indie landscape. For now.
In 2005, Johnson made his feature film debut with Brick, a crazy good film that he followed with The Brothers Bloom, a more fanciful, ambitious story that achieved some things and failed at others but was certainly interesting to watch. He then dipped into TV with Terriers and Breaking Bad—not a bad resume. And now he’s back in features with Looper, a ridiculously high concept, insanely ambitious sci-fi action movie that has a serious moral conundrum at its heart. If you need evidence that American film is not dead, that it’s so not dead it is in fact practically sprinting to an exciting, new place, look no further than Looper. Know that it got made, that it got a decent budget of $30 million, that it attracted top talent including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, and that it received a major marketing push and a wide release. Looper existing is one thing. Looper getting the big-time Hollywood treatment is something else entirely.
JGL reteams with Johnson (after Brick) to star as Joe, a hitman in the near-ish future. Written and directed by Johnson, Looper’s vision of the future is both recognizable and foreign enough to feel authentically Other. There’s no explanation for how any technology works, nor do we ever learn how the “blunderbuss” gun Joe and the other Loopers use came to be or why it’s popular when we’re told, early on, it’s no use at long ranges (not unlike actual blunderbusses from hundreds of years ago). We are told nothing about this world except that it’s 2044, we’re in Kansas, and time travel exists not now, but 30 years from now, and the Loopers are the assassins who perpetrate the future’s hits.
Yet we know how this world works. Some vehicles are sleekly futuristic, others look like cars of today with a kind of recycling pump system connecting the exhaust and the gas tank, so they can renew fuel. Sarah (Emily Blunt) harvests sugar cane where corn once grew, so we’re living off sugar ethanol in the future (PS: not a bad solution to the fuel problem of today). These are just things we see, yet they tell us everything about this world. This is how good the storytelling is in Looper. Everything is accounted for. There isn’t one wasted moment or word. Every detail has a place and a reason that the characters justify, or that is justified by the characters. It is so insanely elegant I was kind of hyperventilating by the end of the movie. This HAS to be one of the best scripts this year, if not THE best.
But is it too genre for you? No. Like Cabin in the Woods, Looper’s appeal goes beyond its genre. It’s too well made, too well acted, too exciting an action movie to be missed just because you’re “not that into sci-fi”. Except for the time travel part—which Willis’ 30-year + version of Joe dismisses because “we’d be here all afternoon making diagrams with straws”—Looper is only sci-fi in the sense that it takes place in the future. You don’t need a PhD in Klingon to get with this story and follow along. Looper is far too good to miss just because you think it might not be your thing.
Basically Joe is living in the “present” of 2044 Kansas and has to kill his 30-year + self and “close his loop”. If he does kill Old Joe, Young Joe will at least get to enjoy the next 30 years of his life before he’s zapped back to Kansas and killed by Young Joe (oh god, it’s the straw diagram). If he doesn’t kill Old Joe, then his mob boss is going to have him killed in the here and now, good bye 30 year vacation. So Young Joe is hunting Old Joe as Old Joe is trying to find the child version of the crime boss of the future that sends him back to be killed. Basically, Old Joe is trying to eliminate Hitler before he can become Hitler. This is the moral quandary of the film and it is handled with ease, neither overbearing nor obvious. It’s just one more part of the equation.
The moral heart of Looper is what makes it so fantastic. Yes, it’s solid action and beautifully photographed and the acting is very on-point (considering how twee JGL is in real life, his performance in Looper is nothing short of amazing), and Nathan Johnson’s (cousin of Rian) score is gorgeous and deserves special notice, but it’s Looper’s willingness to muddy that water that sets it apart. Last summer Rise of the Planet of the Apes played with such questions but it was like a toddler with Lincoln Logs compared to the thought that goes into Looper. Likewise I now look with pity upon the X-Men movies because this one just did mutation and all its possibilities better IN THE B PLOT than any X-Men film has done yet to date as its central theme. But it’s fun! It’s exciting! You’re biting your nails because it’s suspenseful! Looper never lectures.
Here’s how good Looper is—one of the most horrifying things you’ll see all year occurs early in the film and involves neither blood nor actually seeing bad things happen. But it’s so awful you’ll cringe anyway. See Looper. Trust me.