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Entry updated 30 January 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2012). FilmDistrict/TriStar Pictures. Directed by Rian Johnson, starting Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt. Written by Johnson. Colour. 118 minutes.

It is 2044 and Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a paid killer who murders people sent back from the further future (thus eliminating any evidence of the crime). Obviously this Time Travel premise makes no sense but it exists to allow director Johnson to explore the possibility of second chances. Loopers are so called because at the end of their career they must "close their loop" by killing the future version of themselves. When his older self (Willis) is sent back, the younger Joe hesitates, allowing him to escape. Old Joe wants not only to live but to change the future for the better. The callow younger Joe just wants his life to go back to normal and thinks that if he can kill his older self then he will be able to square things with his mob boss.

When old Joe meets his younger self under a flag of truce, he cautions: "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." In fact, the Time Travel content of the film is minimal and the presence of Shane Carruth – director of Primer (2004), the most complicated and sophisticated time travel film – as a consultant is a red herring. Instead Johnson takes a magpie-like approach to the tropes available. He presents a nicely shaded future that has succumbed to neither Holocaust or Dystopia but rather a gentle collapse. In this, he is in tune with contemporary science fiction but his significant use of Telekinesis is not. This is an obsolete and disreputable trope within written sf but is much more acceptable within media sf, probably because of the enduring appeal of Superheroes. But Looper goes further back to evoke the rising of psychic horror movies in the 1970s, particularly Stephen King adaptations such as Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980) (see Horror in SF). Johnson is obviously well aware of this recursion (see Recursive SF); Joe's employer, a character sent back from the future, notes that all his young killers have taken their sartorial cue from the gangster films of the Twentieth Century (see Crime and Punishment).

As with contemporaries like Darren Aronofsky, this seems like a deliberate attempt to bring back a B-movie aesthetic to modern genre cinema. This sense of hybridity and homage is increased by the appearance of Sara (Blunt), a shotgun-toting homesteading farmer, adding Westerns to the list of cinematic antecedents. Unfortunately, this unusual stage lacks its players. As the lead actor, Gordon-Levitt has excelled in several films – not least Johnson's debut Brick (2005) – but struggles under the twin burdens of facial prosthetics and a dull character. In contrast, Willis is rather good but the Bruce Willis persona still manages to distractingly poke through his character on a couple of occasions. His presence also inevitably causes the viewer to draw an unflattering comparison between this film and Twelve Monkeys (1995). Sara, initially the most interesting character in the film, is soon forced into the twin archetypes of mother and love interest, leaving Blunt with little to do.

This points to the fundamental flaw in the film. Much as with Duncan Jones's Source Code (2011), a promising director squanders the narrative possibilities of a Time Loop by indulging in the emotional power chords of sacrifice and sentimentality. It is to be hoped that sharper work will be forthcoming. [ML]

see also: Cinema.


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