Time travel for dummies

If you go to watch Looper expecting a twenty-first century version of The Matrix, you’re going to be disappointed.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Ostensibly a mind-bending sci-fi thriller of Wachowski Brother proportions, Looper turns out to be a somewhat more simple, if well played, action romp. While undoubtedly serving up an engaging and often thrilling couple of hours, Rian Johnson, whose previous credits include Brick and The Brothers Bloom, still leaves us craving the gobsmacking reveal we are led to expect.

In a recent interview, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – who stars as a hitman whose targets are dispatched to him from the time-travelling crime families of the not-too-distant future – reflected that Looper does appear more complicated than it actually is. ‘If you’re trying to sum it up in a paragraph’, said Hollywood’s man of the moment, ‘it might sound like a lot, but really it’s a basic drama’.

Indeed, while it may be difficult to neatly explain the broad strokes, that is only because this is a film about time travel and, as we all know, films about time travel get messy rather quickly. Content living a life of drug-fuelled depravity off the back of his handsome wage, Joe is faced with the moment every ‘Looper’ dreads when he is given his future self to execute – the pre-agreed way in which they all end their contract.

Unfortunately, his future self (Bruce Willis) has other plans and escapes, hatching a plot to change the course of his personal history. Sure enough, the paradoxes, parallel potentialities and fading photographs soon obscure what is a very simple story about the benefit of hindsight and, primarily, Joseph Gordon-Levitt walking around shooting people with a prosthetic, Bruce Willis-styled nose on.

But, in many ways, Johnson’s opening hour inadvertently leads us to believe that we’ll be getting something a trifle more complex from the rest of the film. We first meet Joe in Kansas City in the year 2044. Along with the usual futuristic flourishes, some of the population have developed a mutation allowing them to perform very small feats of telekinesis. While it is dismissed early on as something guys do to show off to women, clearly too bizarre to stay in the background, it forms the basis for the set pieces of the film’s final act. However, it is dealt with in a rather unsatisfying fashion, along with the intertwined story of the ‘Rainmaker’, a legendary anonymous villain from the future whose significance comes to light in the most blatant and bathetic of ways.

Happy to end his contract as agreed, Joe goes out in search of his bald future self and ends up on a farm run by a feisty single mother (Emily Blunt). It is here, away from the flying motorbikes of Kansas 2044, and more than 30 years away from the intriguing future world – seen exclusively in a handful of Bruce Willis’s flashbacks – that the hanging threads of the story are finally drawn together. The ending is neat and, despite all the time-skipping paradoxes, makes perfect sense. But it still feels inappropriately domestic and lacking in the sort of epic panache that the film initially leads us to expect.

That aside, Looper does straight-up sci-fi action rather well. Johnson plays deftly with the possibilities the form lends him, serving up brutally thrilling sequences involving inter-timeline torture and futuristic gang warfare. Gordon-Levitt, having now fully transitioned from indie film pin-up to bona fide action star, is perfectly passable as a swaggering young Bruce Willis, while Willis himself offers a surprisingly layered performance as the bad man turned good trying to correct the mistakes of the past.

Going by its rave reviews and box-office success, it seems the majority have been able to enjoy Looper for what it is – an intelligently fashioned popcorn flick. But I’m sure there will still be those who will leave the cinema having expected something more.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Looper here:

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