Friday, 28 December 2012

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2012 - #4

4: Looper - Rian Johnson

There's a point in Looper where Bruce Willis says to his younger self - a prosthetically-altered Joseph Gordon-Levitt - that there's no point thinking too hard about "this time-travel shit" and that he should just accept it. It's hard not to believe that he's also talking to the audience.
That's not to say the time-travel in Looper is confusing (it's much simpler than, say, Back to the Future part II) but rather that the time-travel is completely broken. It just doesn't work. Ten seconds of thought at the end reveals paradoxes you could drive a TARDIS through. Not the "so who invented rock 'n' roll?" kind, either, but the "THIS PLOT MAKES NO LOGICAL SENSE!!" kind.

It's a good thing, then, that Looper is a better drama than it is a sci-fi.
The story revolves around Joe, played by both of the actors mentioned above, a hitman who kills targets sent back from the future. Bodies from the future are, of course, impossible to identify, because all evidence will point to someone who is demonstrably still alive. It's the perfect crime. It's also the perfect way to dispose of hitmen like Joe, which is of course what happens, as Joe is tasked with offing his older self from the future.
Calling it a bad sci-fi is actually really unfair, because all of this stuff is handled exceptionally well. This dirty, mob-ruled near-future is realised simply but effectively, with all the concepts introduced and explained with ease and flair. Things like solar-panels jury-rigged onto battered cars show us exactly what kind of world we are seeing, without ever being mentioned or focused upon. One nice touch is the fact that a mobile-phone is by far the most hi-tech looking thing in the movie, while the time-machine is essentially a rusty metal box.

The trailers made Looper look like an action movie - all running and gunning - and, while there certainly is action, it's always dealt with swiftly and brutally. There are no grandstanding setpieces - at least, not the kind you might expect. And that's a recurring theme throughout: this film is not what you expected.
The biggest example of this is about half way through, where the film takes a surprising turn and changes from fast-paced chase movie into slow-burn character drama. While the sci-fi is well handled (minus the crayon-scribble of a timeline) and the action is explosive and intense, it's with the dramatic stuff that Looper really excels.
Joe and Joe have very different agendas here, and neither of them is clearly right or wrong, good or bad. Lines are crossed by both of them, terrible things done, but good things too. We understand both their motivations, but can't really support many of their actions. It's good stuff, and it only gets better when the big bad is eventually revealed.
Even then, with the audience finally understanding the true stakes, it's hard to take sides and even harder to predict an outcome. The time-travel may be stupid but the film, thankfully, isn't. Johnson's assured direction and the great performances, particularly from Gordon-Levitt, subtly riffing on Willis' mannerisms, more than earn it a place on this list.
That and Willis' truly godawful flashback wig.