It can be hard to to identify superior talent in film early on. The hipster desire to identify “the next big thing” is far more prevalent and far easier in music. Hear band, love band, selfishly hold onto band until they make it big and you can say “I knew them before.”
But movies have too many different creative minds involved and are often far more profit driven to be able to easily identify “the next big thing.” It’s not like you could see Christopher Nolan at CBGB before everyone else did or hear a leaked studio mix of Paul Thomas Anderson early. The opportunities to hop on the early bandwagons is fewer and further between.
I bring all this up to say: it looks like most of us missed the train on director Rian Johnson. Looper is a truly fantastic film and a natural calling card for what looks to be a superb upcoming filmmaking career. There may have been a handful of devotees singing Johnson’s praises after his first two films, 2005’s Brick (also starring Joseph Gordon Levitt) and 2008’s The Brothers Bloom (sans Levitt) but Looper should rightfully be the film that turns us all into Johnsonites (hold your tongue for now, early adopters).
Looper is a sci-fi, time-travel film with a relatively easy to understand conceit considering the genre. It’s 2044 Kansas, where Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) works as a “looper.” A looper is an assassin who kills targets sent back in time from 30 years in the future. You see, time travel hasn’t been invented yet…but it will be. Naturally it will be immediately outlawed but futuristic gangs will still find access to it and send poor schmucks to be assassinated back in the past for loopers to kill because it is nearly impossible to hide a dead body in 2074.
Joe and his fellow assassins are called loopers because at some point, they must “close the loop.” Their final job, for which they’ll be paid in oodles of gold, is to kill the 30 years older version of themselves. Yes, that means they all technically know that they are on 30 years of borrowed time but at least that 30 years will be filled with futuristic drugs and strippers that look like Piper Perabo.
After mistakenly harboring a fellow looper and friend who was unable to close his loop (Paul Dano), Joe makes the same mistake, himself as future Joe (Bruce Willis) is able to get the drop on him and run off into 2040’s Kansas. Young Joe must track down and kill Old Joe or the mob led by Abe (a delightfully-bearded Jeff Daniels) will do the same to him. At the same time, Old Joe has some goals for his time spent in the past, aside from just not getting killed.
Looper works in large part thanks to its singularity of vision. Johnson wrote the film, directed the film and chose his buddy JGL as the lead. I wouldn’t be shocked if he stocked the craft’s table too – the film bares that much of his own DNA. It also doesn’t hurt that Johnson has a very clear confidence is what makes a perfect science fiction narrative and never deviates from it. In science fiction, form must always follow function. Any new technology or culture presented in a futuristic or time travel setting must have a purpose in addition to the “wow, that’s pretty cool” factor. Take the preferred weapon of choice for all loopers: the blunderbuss. It’s a futuristic, cool-looking sci-fi gun but it serves a purpose. It’s essentially a one-shot shotgun that is useless from 15 feet away or more but within 15 feet has near-100% accuracy – a critical property for assassins that absolutely must kill a target ten feet away from them or suffer catastrophic consequences.
The movie is filled with interesting stylistic sci-fi flourishes like this but is never bogged down by them. Johnson understands that sci-fi is merely a heightened medium for basic human stories. And the actors, particularly Levitt, Emily Blunt and a child actor Pierce Gagnon (whose mere presence in the film I don’t want to say too much about to avoid spoilers), are all able to express their character’s humanity beautifully.
Looper is basically split into two-halves, the first half of which is covered in the promotional material, while the second half has been wisely left unspoiled. I won’t spoil it here but suffice it to say it’s similar to the first half in that it covers another familiar sci-fi trope in a fresher, more satisfying way. I suspect that anybody itching to be contrarian about the film will merely pick whichever half they found more satisfying then declare it a failure for not being a “half a movie” or something. But I found both parts to be equally satisfying and logically related – leading to an effective and exciting finish.
Ultimately, Looper is a near-perfect science fiction yarn. It’s rare that a studio will endow a relatively unknown yet talented visual artist with this much creative freedom to make a genre film. I suspect their are minds out there teeming with Looper-esque brilliant ideas. But for now, if we get a Chronicle or a Looper every few years then movie fans and genre-nerds alike will be in good shape. Now, let’s see if Loop can get any residuals on that name.