A popular answer to the question of what one would do if they could go back in time is t0 kill Hitler. It’s an altruistic answer, I suppose, but it underlines humanity’s need to blame one person as opposed to the more disturbing idea of acknowledging that humanity itself may be responsible. I’m not convinced that killing Hitler as a boy or a young man would have prevented World War II or the Holocaust; it’s giving Hitler too much credit to think so. It’s far more likely (and disquieting) that Hitler was the product of his era, not the other way around. I’m being philosophical. However, these thoughts occurred to me while watching Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), a time travel movie that is thrilling and handsome but isn’t particularly interested in examining the ethical questions it raises.
The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a “looper” in the middle of the 21st century. According to the movie, time travel will be invented in the 2070s and is immediately outlawed. Gangsters use it anyway, however, to dispose of bodies, as crime scene investigation has apparently evolved to the point of near perfection. So the mob doesn’t whack people; they simply send their charge back in time where they appear out of thin air in front of an assassin, called a looper, who is waiting to plug them full of holes and get rid of the body. It’s a good gig for the looper, as it’s hard to be a suspect for a murder that hasn’t happened yet.
The only catch is that, eventually, one of the targets sent back in time will be the looper himself, as the gangsters have to remove all evidence. Typically, victims are bound and masked so the looper doesn’t know until after he’s fired that he’s killing his future self. But a man gets sent to Joe with no mask and Joe immediately recognizes him as an older version of himself. Future Joe is played by Bruce Willis (Gordon-Levitt wears a prosthetic nose that makes it uncannily believable that he would age into Willis), and he daringly escapes his younger self, who has no qualms in doing his job even if it means gunning himself down (this commitment will eventually lead to the climax of the movie).
In the thirty years between the day Joe finds himself and the day he gets sent back in time, we learn that he drifts into a drug-fueled haze of a life (Joe is addicted to a new drug called Drops that are taken through the eyes) until he is saved by a woman (Qing Xu) who cleans him up and marries him. When it is time for him to be sent back in time, the mob has been taken over by a bloodthirsty tyrant known only as The Rainmaker, who doesn’t just get rid of the evidence but the evidence’s families, which means Joe’s wife. Keep in mind, that the gangsters kill Joe’s wife in a future where we’ve been told it’s impossible to kill people and get away with it, but a little digression is necessary in this type of movie. When Joe is sent back in time, he escapes for the express purpose of killing the boy who will turn into The Rainmaker and thus save the love of his life.
Meanwhile, the young Joe is on the run from mobsters in his time because he failed to kill his charge. After learning his future self’s plan, he ends up at a small farmhouse, one of the three possible locations of the would-be Rainmaker. The farm is run by Sara (Emily Blunt), who is raising her son, the precocious and disturbed Cid (Pierce Gagnon). The action splits between young Joe’s stakeout on the farm where he knows old Joe will eventually make his way to, and old Joe’s quest to hunt down and kill boys that may become murderers.
The movie spins a pretty good yarn. It, thankfully, doesn’t try to explain the science behind its time traveling, but it uses some deviously clever devices to suggest its consequences. To prepare us for when Joe meets himself, the movie opens with an episode in which another looper, Seth, played by Paul Dano, lets his own future self escape. The mobsters catch young Seth and squeeze him. We don’t see the torture they inflict, but we can figure it out as his future self, on the run, suddenly looks at his hand to see a healed stump where his finger used to be. Also, since the two Joes share the same brain, of course, so when young Joe learns something, old Joe suddenly knows it as well; similarly, if young Joe decides not to do something that old Joe tells him he does in the future, it ceases to exist in old Joe’s memory. As confusing as that might seem in print, the screenplay by Johnson makes it very clear in the movie without simplifying too much.
This is, however, a simple movie. It’s not much more than a thriller, even if it’s a smart and good one. A deeper science fiction like Blade Runner (1982) or Minority Report (2002) would be interested in the ethical ramifications of the technology not just its ability to serve an action plot. For its adult language and violence, Looper has more in common with Back to the Future (1985) than with the hard and serious Primer (2004). It shares most of its DNA with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which was also fun, smart and had a plot that revolved around disposing of a boy before he could become a dangerous man. However, after James Cameron’s movie, I wasn’t thinking of the moral quandries left undealt with; in Looper, they dominate my recollections.
It’s unsettling to watch Willis gun down children. The movie’s explanation for this is that he’s acting out of love for his wife, but not only is that simplistic compared to the rest of the movie, but it also falls flat and feels false. Murdering a 10-year-old with only a 33 percent chance of being the person you’re looking for seems out of character with the Joe, both old and young, we’ve been introduced to. Further, much of the movie is about how one’s path remains unwritten even when someone from the future is telling that someone how it’s going to be, so it’s possible that the boy who will grow up to be The Rainmaker won’t grow up to be The Rainmaker at all, nor does the removal of this child mean that the conditions that created monstrous Rainmaker won’t still exist in the future for somebody else. Looper only cosmetically acknowledges these ideas. The movie has to satisfy its plot and doesn’t resolve these philosophical issues. It asserts that Joe is a man who will do anything for the woman he loves, but it doesn’t concern itself with the ponderous dilemma if that happens to be two different women. Because it doesn’t want to be anything other than a action adventure, it sets up one movie and pays off another.
Still, it’s an exciting picture, driven forward by Gordon-Levitt’s sardonic, Willisian performance. I also like Dano’s manic tweaker and Jeff Daniels’ mob boss, who seems to be working through an undying headache, like a put-upon editor in a 1930s newspaper screwball comedy. When he argues with young Joe about Joe’s decision to retire to France, he dryly implores him, “I’m from the future; go to China.” These, along with Johnson’s subtly noir direction and the unobtrusive but interesting near-future elements by art director James Gelarden, equate to a very good movie.
There is a supernatural mutation subplot that feels tacked on and hokey, as well as a repeated special effect involving hovering motorcycles that never works. But the biggest issue is that as a puzzling time travel story, it implores you to think, but when it introduces its substantial reflective material, it asks you to stop.