Monday, October 1, 2012

LOOPER Assaults With a Barrage of High-Concept Sci-Fi

LOOPER Review:

- Those going into Looper expecting a generic sci-fi shoot-'em-up are going to be pretty surprised by what they find. While LOOPER has its share of kickass action scenes, this movie is legit, thought-provoking science fiction. It's a mind-bender of epic proportions - a film that many will compare to classics like Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys, as well as modern favorites like District 9 and Inception. There's a little bit of all of those movies in Looper - and some similarities to this year's Chronicle as well. But it feels like it's own, distinct thing in large part because writer/director Rian Johnson is such a distinct filmmaker. When I saw his debut film,  Brick, several years back ... I knew that this was someone to keep an eye on - a guy who played with the trappings of genre filmmaking, but a guy who was also determined to make films that defied easy categorization. In Looper, you've got some of Blade Runner's darkly-tinged sci-fi noir. You've got some of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly's Spaghetti Western, gunslinger-on-a-mission aesthetic. You've got some Nolan-esque twists, and some comic-book style secret origins. But the key thing is ... every time you think you've got Looper pegged, it surprises you. The result: a sci-fi film that is unique and rewarding, that will spur geeky discussions for years to come, and that creates an atmosphere of utter intensity, awe, and wonder. Looper has its flaws, but it's also one of those movies that you can't help but admire. Because it seems to mark the emergence of a cinematic voice that, while influenced by the past and by his peers, has now leapfrogged into the big leagues. Rian Johnson, with Looper, has just made a major statement.

The premise of Looper is one of those sci-fi contraptions that provokes a thousand questions. Luckily, the film is pretty good about giving us context and some basic rules that help the story to make sense. Fifty years or so in the future, America has devolved into a state of chaos and poverty. Unchecked crime is rampant, the streets are dangerous, and the average person is struggling not just with money, but for survival. It is under these harsh conditions that the criminals known as Loopers come to be. As it turns out, time-travel hasn't been invented yet, but in thirty years from the film's present, it will be. In that future-future world, time travel is outlawed, but it's used on-the-sly by savvy mob-bosses to stealthily dispose of their victims. In the totalitarian-ish state of eighty-years-from-now, it seems forensics and tracking tech have made murder all but impossible to get away with. The solution is: employ "Loopers" in the more chaotic past to do the future-mob's dirty work. The Loopers are rewarded with money, drugs, and women. The one twist is that their job comes with a thirty-year expiration date. In thirty years' time, the Loopers are rounded up and sent back in time with a pile of cash strapped to their back. They are then executed by their younger selves - "closing the loop." Sure, in thirty years', the Loopers are liabilities. But until then, the young men recruited for the job get to live large.

The film follows a Looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) - the youngest Looper ever recruited. Problems arise for Joe when it comes time for him to execute his older self (Bruce Willis). I won't spoil anything ... I'll just say that Old Joe comes back determined not to get killed by Young Joe. He has to see through his mission - a mission to drastically change the past in order to prevent tragedies - both personal and global - that will befall him in the future. But Old Joe's escape poses major problems for his younger self, as Levitt now has his angry employers in pursuit of both him and Willis. But as Young Joe learns more about Old Joe's mission, the question becomes ... will Young Joe come around to his older self's way of thinking, or will he determine that this older version someone who's gone off the reservation, and who has to be stopped?

What LOOPER deftly sets up is a three-way showdown between Young Joe, Old Joe, and the organization that's after them both - led by sent-back-from-the-future Abe (a fantastic Jeff Daniels), and his right-hand man/lackey, the trigger-happy Kid Blue (Noah Segan, in a part destined for cult-favorite status).

At first, the movie plays things fairly straight. Levitt vs. Willis vs. Daniels. There are shoot-outs, narrow escapes, and questioned loyalties. But somewhere towards the middle of the film, Rian Johnson throws us a giant curveball. Young Joe, attempting to intercept his older self, finds himself away from the grimy, gritty city streets where much of the film had heretofore taken place. Suddenly - in a jarring twist - we're at a desolate farm. There, Levitt meets a mysterious woman, Sara (Emily Blunt - also great, rocking a Southern accent and a shotgun) and her even more mysterious son, Cid. And suddenly, the tone of the film shifts, the pace slows, and we realize that Looper is not quite the movie we thought it was.

Rian Johnson takes some major risks here. As I alluded to, he brings the movie to a jarring halt midway through, slowing things down and beginning to build towards a surprising third act. After the rollicking introduction of Willis' badass Old Joe, it's weird to see him suddenly relegated to the background of the movie, as the film shifts the focal point of the action to Sara's farm. During some of the extended farm scenes, you could feel the audience in the theater squirming a bit. And some of that, I get. Johnson almost seems to pack a 12-part HBO miniseries into one movie. If given more time to breathe, certain aspects of the film might have felt even more meaningful and powerful. Johnson is creating a world - and I mean a *world* here, with a mythology that takes on a fairly giant scope over the course of two hours. What this means is that Looper leaves you with a ton of questions. Some of that is intentional by Johnson, I think - I think he likes dropping little hints that make you raise an eyebrow and say "wait, what?!". But I also think that it's partly because there is just *so much* going on here ... it couldn't all be contained in a two-hour movie. I'm sure Johnson will take great pleasure in knowing that film fans will long ask questions like "how *did* Sara know about Loopers?" and "what *is* the nature of the relationship between Abe and Kid Blue?" But I'm a little back-and-forth about all of the ambiguity. Okay, movies like Blade Runner did it. But Blade Runner's ambiguity was mostly centered around one, central question - is or isn't Deckard a Replicant? LOOPER, on the other hand, seems to take almost sadistic pleasure in dropping all kinds of "hmm, well, what do *you* think happened?" questions at its audience. Let me put it this way: either there will be sequels, spin-offs, comics, etc. that explain more of the backstory, or else there is *a lot* in this film that will be perpetually debated.

By that same token though ... Johnson does a nice job of shading in a lot of the "rules" of his universe. Not in a strict "here are the five rules of time-travel" sense, but in a "here's what time travel is like in this world" sense. In short, time-travel in Looper is messy, cloudy, and can be used in very sadistic ways in order to %$#& with someone. Johnson has some very, very effective and memorable time-travel moments. Some are emotional, as with Old Joe desperately trying to hold on to memories of his wife, even as those memories are retroactively dissolved by Young Joe's future-changing actions. Some are physical, as in a horrifying scene in which a young version of a Looper is tortured and mutilated, and we see, in real-time, the grotesque effects on the older version materialize. Disturbing as hell. That's the thing about Looper though - it keeps throwing crazy moments at you. It ensures that you're in a constant state of wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

Earlier, I mentioned how Rian Johnson's tendency to be a bit ... arty ... with aspects of the plot can ocassionally be a bit frustrating. But Johnson's determination to try things that are unique and different is also one of the movie's greatest strengths. Especially from a visual standpoint. From the first scene, where a man from the future is zapped into the past, only to be suddenly and brutally dispatched by a Looper, you know that this is not your ordinary sci-fi blockbuster. Johnson also visually plays with the looping nature of time-travel. When we see Old and Young Joe's first encounter originally, it's shot in a standard action-movie style that makes Bruce Willis seem like a badass. When we see it a second time later in the film, it's shot from afar, plainly, in a way that highlights the absurdity of the whole encounter. To that end, there's also a streak of dark gallows humor that runs through the film. To be sure, this is a bleak, gritty, hard-R flick ... but it also has some fun with its over-the-top premise. I'll say it again though - Johnson's relentless experimentation with story and style is both the movie's greatest strength and weakness. It can be frustrating that the pace is inconsistent, and that the script asks you to fill in so many gaps. But it's also totally thrilling to see a movie that zips from a chase scene, to a shoot-out, to a sensory-overload flash-forward through thirty years of Young Joe's transition into Old Joe, to quiet-but-ominous scenes on a remote farm, to an apocalyptic climax worthy of the most ambitious superhero comic books.

While LOOPER is in many ways a showcase piece for Rian Johnson, it's also one of the most memorable roles to date for Joseph Gordon Levitt. Levitt has been in a ton of movies this year, but this is the role in which he really ups his game. Going in, I had no idea how Levitt would convincingly play a young version of Bruce Willis. As it turns out, he nails it. Some skillfully-crafted prosthetics help to give him more similar facial features. But ultimately, the character is sold by Levitt's facial expressions, his body language, the way he talks, and the way he transforms himself into a young Bruce, without ever feeling like he's doing a mere imitation or gimmick. Pretty remarkable stuff. Levitt carries the movie in a way that we've rarely seen from him before (perhaps not since Johnson last cast him, in Brick). For his part, Willis is also exceptional in this one. He gets to kick ass and be awesome, but he's also got a character with real depth. Old Joe goes to some very, very dark places, so it's not a cut-and-dried case of rooting for or against him. That said, you've got to enjoy Willis' performance, because he seems more invested and alive in this role than he's been in a long time. And also, Jeff Daniels is a scene-stealer. He makes Abe both funny and menacing. Emily Blunt - wow. I knew she could play a certain type of part very well, but I never expected her to own it as a tough-as-nails farmgirl.Color me impressed. Pierce Gagnon also almost steals the movie as her creepy son Cid. This is one of the most striking young-kid performances in a movie I've seen. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that Twilight Zone fans will instantly draw a connection between Cid and one of that show's most famous characters. Except that Cid may be even more disturbing, in his way. Noah Segan as Kid Blue ... he is sort of the Bobba Fett of the movie. On the perimeter of the plot, but kind of awesome because he is a bit mysterious. You get the sense that there's a whole other movie that could have been made about Kid Blue and Abe - his father figure from the future. Paul Dano pops up as a Looper, and he's very good - his usual manic energy is perfect for the role. Another nice surprise is Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood, Raising Hope) as Jesse - a dangerous employee of Abe's. His quiet menace is perfect for the part.

Looper is a movie that *can* be picked apart. Johnson leaves it open to a lot of scrutiny, and a lot of questions. But he does something interesting here and says that, look, we don't know how time-travel works - here are some basic rules, the rest is messy and malleable. But ultimately, this is less a movie of science and more a movie of ideas. Is it possible for one man to change so much over 30 years that he'd fundamentally be at odds with his younger self? How far would / should one go to protect their loved ones, and when is the line that is crossed simply going too far? What forces shape someone into a good person versus an evil one, and can one man or woman's influence be enough to stem the tide? Looper puts all of these big ideas front and center, and leaves it up to us to fill in some of the details. But it gives us just enough plot to latch onto, and it poses the big questions so vividly, that you can't help but think about them long after the movie is over. I do think that the messiness keeps this from being quite on the level of some of the classics that inspired it. But by the same token, that barrage of ideas, of experimentation, and of originality is what places it, easily, above so many of the generic sci-fi blockbusters we're used to seeing these days.

My Grade: A-

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