Looper (2012, Rian Johnson)

!! CAUTION !!

Because the one thing 12 Monkeys was missing was a whole lot of expository dialogue and incomprehensible action sequences, some kind soul (Rian Johnson, director of the excellent Brick, which appears to have been a fluke) has given us Looper, with the added bonus that it’s thoroughly absent of the playful artistry that might distract from the Inception-like headtrippery and hip gun-blazing awesomeness of it all. Of course, Monkeys was itself a wholesale lift from Chris Marker, but at least Terry Gilliam and his people had the decency to give credit. Like so many modern science fiction films, this mishmash of bad acting, awful dialogue, and even worse editing is essentially cinematic Calvinball. Since you can’t express the incredibly arcane “rules” of this time travel universe visually, you just shout out things to other characters and keep going. “Wait, you can’t use the black hole time travel pit between the hours of 1 and 2pm! That might unleash a box of Grippers!” “What are Grippers?” “You’ve never heard of Grippers?” [comedic slap of the forehead] “Grippers are the flesh-eating time travel-generated shadows that eat into your skull if you upset the balance of the universe!” “I knew I shouldn’t have asked!” [audience roars with laughter, author of this review kills self]

Speaking of killing yourself: that’s the subject here, basically, but not much is done with the actual human implications of that — Bruce Willis is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s future self, god forbid, and the latter is curiously blasé about the assassination that he has to carry out on the former, for a lot of boring MacGuffinish reasons. Look, time travel or no time travel, this is just another action movie with a slightly lower budget than is now usual for the genre. That doesn’t make it a fucking miracle. Aside from its convoluted plot, it’s all quite straight-ahead, opening as a neo-noir (not surprising given the Brick lineage) with some Hitchcock interpolations — the desolate site of the crucial murders, in which hired assassins kill Mob victims from “the future” who suddenly appear in some idyllic setting, is a naked North by Northwest cropduster-sequence homage, while the first half interpolates Vertigo more than once — and slowly degenerates into a cycle of gunfights that mean to impress with their amoral attitudes. Kids die in it, the entire plot occurs within the organized-crime realm, because there sure as fuck weren’t enough movies about that, and the “hero” is “ambiguous,” I guess. Fine, whatever, a theater seat is as nice a place to sleep as any.

But then, after about forty-five minutes, the thing goes from inoffensively dumb to thoroughly apeshit terrible. There are so many questions. Why does every mainstream film of the last ten years somehow hinge upon a stereotypically “evil” child who makes things float and causes indoor tornadoes but stops short of wishing people into the cornfield? Why does the film even need a “supernatural” kid? Why does a science fiction film need to rely so desperately on horror movie tropes? Why does Gordon-Levitt have sex with Emily Blunt, the kid’s mom? What’s the relationship of what happens in the course of the movie itself to the boy’s future? What makes the kid a terrible crime boss in the future? Why is there no believability to his transformation either way? You’re a criminal genius until your mom hugs you a few times and then it’ll be okay? But then, you sprawl outward: Why is there no believability to this entire movie, even within its own logic? Why the hammer thing earlier on, with shades of Albert Brooks in Drive? Why the nonsensical subplot about Bruce Willis’ dead wife? Why is the entire “looping” operation necessary? Clearly there’s no issue with disposing of bodies in the future, since we see all kinds of murders taking place there, and even if there were, why couldn’t they just kill the person in the future and transfer the body to the past? And the question of life, the universe, and everything, or as I call it, the Shutter Island question: Why are we watching this tripe?

One thing that perked me personally up a bit was when the film popped up out of nowhere with a Richard & Linda Thompson song, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” Kudos to Johnson for his soundtrack choices, but another one — the closing credits tune, “Powerful Love” by Chuck & Mac — raises a central problem with Looper that goes beyond the ineptitude of its plot and script. This movie attempts to predicate itself on being secretly about love, up to and including its final act of self-sacrifice, but I believe it’s a deeply cynical piece of commercial product. That’s because, ironically, all of the struggle throughout the film is an act of selfishness; everything is predicated on these people being part of this criminal organization and fighting for their own limited existence. The future of said organization and the young boy becoming its overlord is made out to be some massive world-altering catastrophe… but it’s never shown to have anything to do with the larger world at all. If it does, that’s coyly ignored with the same disgusting service-with-a-smile with which Francis Ford Coppola et al. disregarded the Mafia’s impact on the universe outside its own masturbatory inner circle in the Godfather movies. At the finale, Gordon-Levitt sacrifices his life so that… what? So that now, your criminal organization will be run smoothly by a non-dictatorial psychopath? That’s great! I suppose it’s nice that the boy will lead a happier, less Scarface-like existence as well, though I’m again not sure why the events of Looper itself will change that if all it took was for the boy to spend time with his… ugh, never mind.

Aesthetically, there’s little reason to bother with Looper; just as Johnson’s ear for dialogue has tinfoil over it suddenly, his visual sense is mostly limited to a few impressive scenes, like one set in a diner that rapidly degenerates into another pointless battle and is really just a resourceful use of a location. The production design is quite poor with little body to the supposed “future” in any part of the film, as though it’s all disconnected from any mark of its setting. As for the performances, the only exceptionally good one is by Paul Dano, of course, killed off almost immediately; Bruce Willis is terrible in the film, a stark contrast to his sensitive turn in Moonrise Kingdom. This is all quite frustrating; it baffles me that Looper‘s being mentioned in the same sentence with Children of Men as a great modern sci-fi film. I find myself agreeing with the movie’s conclusion that, since none of it ever actually happened in light of JGL’s suicide, it may as well not have existed.

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