10 Years on, Looper Is Still the Best Time Travel Film Ever Made
With apologies to Avengers: Endgame, Deadpool 2, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Looper is still the best time travel film ever made. And not just because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Bruce Willis impression.
Maybe it’s been ten years since you last watched Looper. Maybe it’s been a couple of minutes. Maybe both (OK, enough with the time-travel puns). Either way, here’s a primer on how time travel works in near-future America, as told by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s mob hitman, Joe.
“In the future, time travel is outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations,” he explains. Oh, used how? To bet on big matches? Learn the lottery winners? Spend extra time deliberating on which suit and tie combo to wear to the big crime meet-up? Not quite. “When they need someone gone, and they want to erase any trace that the target ever existed,” Joe continues, “they use specialized assassins, like me, called Loopers.”
Joe is good at making it like someone never existed. Twenty five years old, he hangs out at a swanky futuristic bar where narcotic eye-drops have replaced alcohol and cocaine as the tough guy stimulant of choice. He drives a cherry red convertible and has a lovely leather jacket. His life in this futuristic Kansas City is uncomplicated. Like Pinocchio, he has no strings to hold him down. Stashed beneath his floorboards is a stack of silver bars—the currency of choice in 2044—with which Joe will one day make his escape. This might be Kansas, but Joe knows there are places better than home. Paris, for one.
The problems start when an older version of himself (Willis) is sent back in time for disposal at Joe’s own hands. Kill him, and Joe will be out of the loop. Free to go anywhere, his ties to the mob severed. But, by killing his older self he will be committing the ultimate murder/suicide. While Joe deliberates, Old Joe (Willis) scarpers. This isn’t his first rodeo, after all. In fact, he’s only lived this long by killing his own older self 30 years prior, back when he was Young Joe. Confused?
“I don’t wanna talk about time travel,” Old Joe tells Young Joe when they eventually meet up again, after much catch-me-if-you-can style shenanigans. Old Joe’s refusal to get into the nitty-gritty is handy, as it means the film can move forward without fear of contradicting itself, and without the audience spending the entire runtime with our heads in knots.
“Even though it's a time-travel movie, the pleasure of it doesn't come from the mass of time travel,” director Rian Johnson told the Hollywood Reporter upon the film’s release. “I very much wanted it to be a more character-based movie that is more about how these characters dealt with the situation time travel has brought about. So the biggest challenge was figuring out how to not spend the whole movie explaining the rules and figure out how to put it out there in a way that made sense on some intuitive level for the audience; then get past it and deal with the real meat of the story.”
And that’s the clincher. Looper might be a film with time travel elements, but really it’s a character-driven old school mob thriller. From Levitt to Willis to Jeff Daniels as the big mob boss and Emily Blunt as a farmer, the cast and performances here are outstanding and serve to ground the narrative among it’s more sci-fi leanings—something very few ‘time travel movies’ achieve.
As a standalone film, Looper beats the Terminator franchise in two ways. Firstly, the time travelers of Looper don’t have to travel naked. Which is a big plus. Secondly, unlike that franchise, Looper isn’t undone and overcomplicated by endless sequels of diminishing returns. Even Avengers: Endgame—another recent entry into the time travel canon—tied itself up in knots in that film’s explanation of the quantum realm; an explanation that has only become more confusing with the advent of the multiverse. And unlike Tenet, you don’t need several doctorates to understand it. No, like the best cinema, Looper keeps the rules of its world simple and, once established, sticks with them to devastating effect.
An early torture scene illustrates how time travel works in the film. It is, arguably, one of the most effective and original bits of modern cinema. (Spoilers follow). The mighty Paul Dano plays another Looper named Seth. Before Old Joe shows up, Old Seth makes an appearance. Young Seth lets his older self escape, but Young Seth is captured by the baddies before Old Seth can get out of town. In order to send messages to Old Seth, the mobsters start carving off pieces of Young Seth’s body. As he hurries through the city, it’s sickening to watch scars appear on Old Seth’s body, bits of him suddenly missing. His fingers vanish as he’s midway through climbing a fence, and his tongue disappears before he’s eventually caught, and killed. That is how you do time travel cinema effectively, and memorably.
See also, a parallel thread showing Old Joe’s life in the future, an insight into what Young Joe’s life would be like had he been quicker to off his time-traveling older self. Instead of Paris, Joe heads to China. There he kills and kills again for the mob, his eye-drop addiction becoming chronic, and almost killing him. Eventually, he briefly finds peace and love before his wife is killed and he’s sent back in time to die. It’s a mostly violent, brutal, and pointless existence.
None of this really matters to Young Joe, of course, but as the audience, we’re in the position of understanding his depressing future—which makes the film’s third act all the more powerful. There, Old and Young Joe go head to head over a young boy who will grow up to become a mass murderer. Old is for nipping it in the bud and offing the kid. Young thinks he can be saved. As a terrific Emily Blunt (the kid’s mother) watches, the film ends in the only way it ever could.
This might be a time travel film, but there is no escaping destiny. Roll the dice as many times as you like, but for Old and Young Joe, it was only ever going to end one way. In the very final minutes, Looper succeeds in subverting the expectations of time travel as a synonym for freedom—to crushing effect. Just one of many reasons why, time after time, Looper is yet to be bettered.
From: Esquire UK