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Looper is the latest in a long tradition of films that wrestle with the questions, paradoxes and bewildering logic of a subgenre of science-fiction that has produced everything from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to The Terminator. This is the fourth dimension, a frontier strewn with booby traps and the potential for massive plot holes. I’ve been fascinated with the storytelling potential of time travel for as long as I can remember and in my time as a writer have fallen hard into some of its pitfalls. Looper has already been lauded as an instant classic and has drawn comparisons with such sci-fi heavyweights as The Matrix. Can the film live up to this lofty billing and go down in history?

Man of the moment Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays his on-screen namesake Joe, a Looper living in the year 2042. What is a Looper? Loopers are hit-men who off people sent back in time from thirty years in the future (when time travel has been invented and disposing of bodies is a practical impossibility) by the mob. The name comes from the fact that this shadowy future mob, headed by the enigmatic Rainmaker, has a tendency to send their ageing assassins back in time to be rubbed out by their younger selves once they’ve ceased to be useful. This kind of murder/suicide is known as ‘closing the loop’. As a Looper the consequences of letting your damned future-self go are dire enough to act as a deterrent most of the time as made clear in a clever but grisly sequence involving disappearing limbs but when Joe recognises his bald thirty-year-older incarnation (Bruce Willis) he hesitates long enough to let him escape.

One of the first rules of time travel fiction is to keep things relatively simple or risk the complexities of causality and paradox derailing the plot. Looper largely sticks to this rule but doesn’t manage to weave a plot that will stand up to close scrutiny (but then neither did The Terminator). Instead Johnson keeps the pace ticking along fast enough that you’ll be too busy keeping up with the action to give it too much thought. There are also a couple of occasions that come very close to breaking the fourth wall in which characters acknowledge the confusing logic in play and give the audience a gentle nudge to just buy into it. Fortunately the story is more than engaging enough to allow for any plot holes even if you can’t help but think it would just be simpler for the Rainmaker to just employ the Loopers to kill each other rather than themselves.

Writer/director Rian Johnson has fun with the quirks of his universe’s logic, including a creative way of sending messages but the real value of the film is found in other areas. There’s some action but it’s not really an action movie and it never attempts to present a future world as vivid and alien as that of something like Blade Runner instead blending a handful of examples of fairly believable future tech with a moderately dystopian landscape both rural and urban rife with vagrancy. The chief success of the drama is all character based and full of moral ambiguity. Old Joe’s efforts to change his fate take him to some extremely dark places and the significance of farm woman and single mother Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid in the story is a fascinating mystery with a satisfying solution. What could have been a mid-picture lull in which young Joe takes refuge on Sara’s farm for a significant stretch of the running time is actually quite gripping despite being nearly devoid of excitement. The film builds into a quite brilliant meditation on the nature and origins of evil and the motivations and psychology attached.

It’s a mostly superb film but there are some missteps, notably in the execution of important foreshadowing. Joe’s stripper muse Susie appears briefly near the start and isn’t seen again until her presence in the story as nothing more than a plot device becomes important. Plus a certain human mutation is shown in some rather blunt exposition early on and is allowed to be forgotten until it matters in the latter scenes. The stars are all excellent, JGL showing his versatility through his prosthetics and does a rather good Brucie smirk. Willis meanwhile gives one of his best and subtlest turns to date as a man scarred by experience desperate to reclaim his own late-in-life redemption. Emily Blunt gives top notch characterisation and nuance to a character that could have floundered in less capable hands but the revelation is little Pierce Gagnon who is stunning although to say too much of his contribution would be to err close to spoilers.

Looper is a terrific film that comes highly recommended which is undoubtedly smart but not on the same level as something like Inception. It’s certainly one of the better few films I’ve seen this year but for all its good work it felt to me like something was holding it back from true classic status. Having said that, I get the impression that a second viewing might elevate it.

Verdict

Not flawless by any means but a very strong and confident foray into tricky conceptual and thematic territory that absolutely succeeds and confirms both the director and the star as hot property worthy of the hype.

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