Thursday, January 10, 2013

Looper (2012)

Time travel stories are difficult to pull off well. Explain too little and you get nothing but plot holes, explain too much and it turns into technobabble. Also hard to pull off: genre films intended squarely for adults. You can quote as many "Pow! Zing! Comics Aren't For Kids Anymore!" articles you want but the fact is the majority of sci-fi, fantasy, superhero and horror movies are aimed squarely at teenagers. Which isn't to say those movies are bad or anything, but they are usually fairly shallow.

In fact, Hollywood doesn't make any movies for adults period. Besides Argo, I can't think of many studio backed movies with major release dates that were tailored for an adult and weren't comedies. Ever since Star Wars, the blockbusters are for the teens while the dramas are saved for awards season. That's fine, there's good and bad examples of both, but it can get monotonous after a while.

So it's nice to see when a movie mixes up that dynamic just a little. Looper is one of those movies. I have no idea how it ever got past pre-production, not because it's bad or so crazy to be plausible or whatnot, but because it is just not the type of movie a major Hollywood studio makes. It forces you to pay attention, is surprisingly dark, and is filmed and staged like no other sci-fi film to come out of the studio system. It's also probably one of the best films to come out last year

The story follows Joseph Simmons, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the year 2044. A couple decades late, the secret to time travel will be invented and abruptly outlawed. Only the biggest criminal syndicates use it. They send a person to the past where they are promptly killed and disposed of by assassins called loopers. They are paid handsomely for their services via silver bars attacked to the bodies, making them some of the richest people around. Now, eventually a looper gets a body with gold bars attached. This happens when they "close the loop," or kill themselves from the future. Once this happens they are set loose from their contract, wherein they're allowed to spend the next 30 years as they wish before, well, you get it.

So you know where this is going. One day Joseph gets a body that, lo and behold, is himself from the future, where he turns into Bruce Willis. Future Joe escapes, leading to a manhunt. I would usually go more in depth about what happens but A) It's really complicated and has lots of details that start insignificant then become really important, and B) It's a movie that benefits from experience rather then explanation. If a high school film teacher ever wants to use a movie that explains the concept of "show don't tell," this is a good choice. After some voice over exposition over the first 10 minutes setting up the film's world it takes great joy in using film techniques instead of talking to illustrates how its world functions.

To use a counterpoint, take Inception, another fun mindbending movie that's success is probably the reason this movie was made. During Inception there is always somebody there to explain to you what's going on. Leo or, uh, Gordon-Levitt are always on standby to tell Ellen Page, the audience surrogate, how a totem works or what the Mister Charles ploy is. Looper, on the other hand, takes great pride and pleasure on letting the audience figure out what's going on. One wonderful wordless sequence shows how the crime syndicate takes care of loopers who refuse to close their loop. It's wonderful to watch, not just because the very idea of it is intriguing but because you, the viewer, need to take it in on your own. It doesn't tell you flat out what's happening, it guides you there. That's fun to watch. Hell, that's fun to experience.

The difference between this movie and other "experience" movies like The Avengers is that Looper isn't just all flash. It has stuff to say about fate, choice, memory, and environmental upbringing. More importantly, it explores these ideas without ever overtly announcing it's doing so. It's a brash film to be certain, but it has surprising subtleties to it that make it so much more rewarding.

Another surprise: the performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been proving himself to be quite the action star and in his reunion with director Rian Johnson, who helped guide him out of the child star ghetto with the fabulous Brick, he gives one of his best performances. It's a character that could easily have been flat in the wrong actor's hands, but Gordon-Levitt puts real humanity under his character's exterior. Also great, Bruce Willis. When Mr. Willis is in the wrong role he is an absolutely awful actor (The Expendables, any of the Die Hards after the first one, this). But between Moonrise Kingdom and Looper, he's having a pretty great year! Emily Blunt is fantastic as always, Jeff Daniels gets the best lines in a movie full of them, and the child who plays the Rainmaker gives the best child performance this year after Quvenzhané Wallis.

When I first saw the trailer I thought this movie looked like a very generic action thriller, albeit with a sci-fi premise. So, you know, the Total Recall remake. Instead Looper is one of the most inventive movies of 2012 and a thrill to watch. On the Wicker Scale, which is terrible, Joseph Gordon-Levitt just shot Nic Cage, giving his silver to Christopher Lee.

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