From Hollywood confections such as the “Back to the Future” trilogy to such European existentialist studies as “Je t’aime, Je t’aime,” time travel has been featured as a plot device in dozens of movies. So when trailers for Rian Johnson’s film “Looper” began playing a couple of months ago, my immediate reaction was … meh, here we go again.
Then I sat through a screening. And if the me of now could go back to the me of those months ago, I’d pass on the following message: Chill, Dan. You’re in for a pleasant surprise.
As the trailers make clear, “Looper” involves a literal version of time travel. The year is 2044, a near future in which everything looks familiar – just slightly exaggerated. More toys for the well-off, such as gravitron motorcycles. But more obvious poverty for us 99-percenters. Better drugs for those who can afford to live above the grimy streets. But a far worse experience for those condemned to fight there for survival.
Time travel is possible, but it’s illegal, employed only by criminals 30 years in the future who use it as a means of eliminating their enemies. Their agents, living 30 years in the past, are called Loopers, hired killers who intercept those targeted for death, blow them away and then dispose of the bodies.
Our protagonist, Joe – played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – is one such Looper. Like the others, he lives like a “Bonfire of the Vanities” stock broker, driving his sports car, hitting the clubs and enjoying the pleasures of women for hire by the hour. But Joe is different: Oh, he kills on command. But he also studies French, stashes some of his pay and looks toward retirement – the moment that comes to all Loopers sooner or later when their target – surprise, surprise – is their own future self.
Which happens to Joe when his own future version – played by Bruce Willis – shows up late, gets the drop on him and takes off. By now, we already know about old Joe, how he has managed to survive and, as his younger self struggles to escape a now-levied death sentence, what he has come back to do.
Here is where “Looper” the movie becomes something more than a mere time-travel flick. As both Joes investigate – younger Joe looking for his older version, old Joe searching for an as-yet-unknown target – their separate paths lead them to a farmhouse owned by a woman (Emily Blunt) and her young son. It’s there that things get really interesting.
So interesting it would be unfair of me to reveal more. Let’s just say that “Looper,” ultimately, is a study in the power of connection, of the need for affection, of what can drive a person to seek redemption.
In only his third feature film, writer-director Johnson, whose previous efforts include the low-budget independent projects “Brick and “The Brothers Bloom,” gets things mostly right. Despite a heavy amount of makeup, it’s hard to see much of the young Gordon-Levitt in Willis’ weathered features. But the film’s view of the near-future looks appropriately grim, and it’s nice that Johnson’s overall concern is more about people and their consciences than mere sci-fi thrills.
That fortunate fact pleases the mes of past, present AND future.