Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Looper" Review

Time travel is one of my personal favorite sci-fi plot devices. I love imagining the future, I love history explored in a modern context, and I love surprises. Time travel is often expected to deliver all or at least some of these things.

So obviously I was very much intrigued by "Looper", written and directed by Rian Johnson.

The Enigmatic Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson's career path was somewhat difficult to pin down until now. His first film was "Brick", which is very difficult to describe. Imagine if you took a John Hughes movie and turned it into a film noir without a hint of irony. And it's that lack of irony that makes Rian Johnson very unique.

Another writer/director with a similar kind of style is Wes Anderson, but everything Wes Anderson does is deep fried in irony.

It's difficult to explain, but I guess imagine that filmmakers are like kids with LEGO bricks. Sometimes you have all-purpose pieces, and then other times you have pieces that clearly came from the "Star Wars" LEGO sets. Wes Anderson would take those franchise-specific LEGO pieces and put them in stark contrast with the rest of his fairly normal all-purpose world. Like a Gargoyle in the middle of a normal family's kitchen. He does it in a way to draw attention to the absurdity of it. To give his world personality through the atmosphere (since the characters certainly aren't going to do it).

Rian Johnson, on the other hand, will use those franchise-specific LEGO pieces, but he will down-play them or find a way to incorporate them so that it almost makes a weird amount of sense.

Another writer/director famous for this kind of approach is Quentin Tarantino, who also unironically incorporates old-school film tropes with a sense of passion and nostalgia, but once again, Rian Johnson differs by not making his work self-indulgent.

Don't get me wrong, I love Quentin Tarantino, but he IS very self-indulgent.

But anyway, I saw "Brick" and I liked it, but I had a hard time knowing what to make of it. It almost felt like it took itself too seriously, but in a way that worked because film noir does that.

His next major film, "The Brothers Bloom" didn't interest me at all until I saw it. My younger brother kind of forced it on me. But I'm glad he did, because it was a very good movie, though once again I came away not really sure how to quantify the experience other than "It was good."

So anyway, "Looper".

Unsurprisingly, "Looper" ended and I was left with pretty much the same indescribable feeling I got from "Brick" and "Brothers Bloom". And before anyone accuses me of going in expecting that, I actually forgot who Rian Johnson was until I looked him up after I saw the movie, wondering if I had seen anything this guy did before. That's when everything kind of clicked for me.

What I Expected

I went into this movie knowing very little other than what I saw in the initial teaser (what a "looper" was, that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in it, and that Bruce Willis was playing his older self) and that it was considered a really good movie.

If you don't know the premise, it's basically that "loopers" are assassins hired by gangsters from the future who send people they want dead into the past to be killed and disposed of. When the looper is done, they send the future version of the looper himself to be killed to complete the loop. If they fail to do it, it can cause serious damage to the future. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a looper, Bruce Willis plays his older self who escapes his execution, and wackiness ensues.

I like time travel, I like Bruce Willis, I've grown to really like Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is gradually becoming one of my all-time favorite actors, and I liked the sort of low-tech feel I got from the trailer.

I should also say that when it comes to time travel, I usually go in with a certain amount of baggage.

Time travel stories tend to have a lot of common tropes and themes. Dealing with or avoiding paradoxes, people meeting their relatives without knowing it, characters turning out to actually be other characters from the future, seemingly insignificant plot details become major ones, everything tying together to hammer home this sense of "destiny" as well as deliver a major Hollywood Formula climax... you get the picture.

We all have these sorts of expectations regarding time travel. Generally, when time travel becomes a factor, it takes precedence in the plot. I myself am even guilty of this, and it kind of makes sense. With time travel around, why would you care about anything else?

I also briefly mentioned the Hollywood Formula again. If you haven't read one of my earlier articles on the subject in regards to the initial trailer for "Wreck-It Ralph", check it out so you know what I'm talking about. Just a quick recap though: Protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonist (relationship character), all conflicts resolve in the climax for maximum emotional impact.

What I Got

So the first thing that surprised me was the inclusion of the TK's in the story. This idea of 10% of the population suddenly being able to use low-level telekinesis seemed kind of huge, and I was kind of surprised that the movie didn't mention it before.

I was also surprised that the movie takes place in the future. I mean, granted, only like 20-30 years in the future from what I could gather, but it seemed kind of unnecessary, really.

So already the movie was taking a different shape than I expected. Then the movie starts dropping a lot of characters on us.

As a movie tends to progress, I unconsciously start to put familiar pieces together in order to get more involved with it. Try and figure out the shape of it. So I start loading up the Hollywood Formula in my mind.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (playing Joe) is obviously the protagonist. His concrete goal is to close his loop by killing Bruce Willis (Old Joe), then retire and live out his life the way he wants to. Old Joe is the antagonist because he's preventing Joe from achieving his goal, and the only way Joe can achieve his goal is by confronting Old Joe. So this was the shape the movie was taking. It was hard to pin down who the deuteragonist was, but I figured I would figure it out eventually.

I was wrong.

The shape of the movie kind of transforms part of the way through. I don't want to spoil anything major just yet, but basically Joe stops trying to actively seek out Old Joe and instead figures out what Old Joe is after and waits to prevent him from accomplishing it. So they kind of reverse roles.

It was around that point that I realized the movie doesn't really have a conventional structure. I've talked before about how not having a conventional structure is dangerous because it can really hurt the pacing or emotional impact of a story. Just as writers have rules of sentence structure and grammar, and those rules can be ignored, but first you must understand them and why they exist.

The plot structure of "Looper" is not something I would recommend for any film, but it works for "Looper". It's kind of like designer clothing. It works for the person it was made for and literally no one else.

The odd structure of "Looper" works because even if the movie shifts tone and focus a lot throughout the movie, sometimes getting quieter and more introspective when it feels like it should be getting bigger and louder, it never feels boring. We're always engrossed and interested to see what happens next.

Now, one thing that I always look out for in time travel movies is for characters to start mentioning family members. And that actually happens quite a bit in this movie. People will talk about their parents, grandparents, estranged parents, adopted parents, kids, you name it. It pops up all over the place. And in a time travel movie, this is usually done to set up some kind of twist where the relative turns out to be someone unexpected.

So with all the talk of relatives in this movie, I was expecting that sort of plot twist at some point in the film.

Never happens. Not even a hint of it. Not once.

Honestly, only one character has a particularly significant twist and it has absolutely nothing to do with time travel.

So when the credits rolled, I felt uneasy. Like I missed something.

Like Rian Johnson's other work, I left "Looper" without words to really describe it.

"And Then I Woke Up"

After an hour or so of thinking about it at home, I realized that the feeling I was left with reminded me most of "No Country For Old Men".

If you haven't seen that movie (and you don't mind spoilers), it starts out as a pretty typical crime film. The main character stumbles upon a big sack of money and he's on the run from a psychotic hitman, who is also on the run from an old-school lawman. Near the climax of the film (or where the climax should be), the main character is threatened by the hitman over the phone and he basically tells the hitman that he is not afraid of him. In basically any other movie, this would resolve in a big showdown. Instead, the main character is killed offscreen by some random gang members who were after the money. Then the movie just kind of wallows in disappointment which culminates in an introspective moment from the lawman who describes a haunting dream he had about his father. That's when the movie ends.

A lot of people hate that ending, and I was one of them the first time I watched it. Then my younger brother told me to watch it again. I watched it again immediately.

When I rewatched it, I realized that my preconceptions about what the movie was colored my expectations of the movie's ending. I had mentally narrowed down what the movie could be and ruled out what I thought it couldn't be. So when the movie went some place completely different, I assumed it was because it was a bad movie. But actually it was because I thought I was watching one kind of movie when I was really watching a completely different kind of movie.

That's pretty much the case with "Looper".

Like I said, I love time travel stories and I got into time travel stories with certain expectations. But "Looper" doesn't really go down that road. In fact, it really plays fast and loose with time travel. It's kind of the anti-"Primer" in that the mechanics of time travel don't matter at all.

Here's an example. It's established early on that if a looper and his future counterpart are both in the same point in time, any damage you inflict on the looper will affect the counterpart, but not retroactively. If you cut off a finger, the counterpart will lose a finger and act as though it just happened, not like it had always been that way.

OK, fine, I can play fast and loose with that. "Doctor Who" does that all the time. My favorite Christmas special, "A Christmas Carol" uses this idea of real-time updates.

But at the big climax of the movie, Joe could solve his problems by shooting his own hand off, and yet he doesn't.

Additionally, it's never really adequately explained why loopers are expected to kill their own future selves. Given that there are occasions where they find out that the time has come and they hesitate, wouldn't it make more sense to have loopers close out other loopers loops?

While these sorts of inconsistencies SHOULD bother me, they actually don't. That's because the movie isn't about the mechanics of time travel or what they mean. It's about the characters and what their decisions mean.

In that regard, Joe deciding to shoot off his hand might work mechanically, but it doesn't really work narratively.

This movie uses time travel as a plot device to bring about important character-defining moments, and that's it. Beyond that, time travel is not explored in a new or interesting way, we never really explore the concept of "destiny" or "causality", at least not in a typical fashion, and there's never a moment where time travel brings about some major shock.

In fact, telekinesis probably matters more to the actual plot than time travel does.

OK, We Get It, So Did You Like It or What?

"Looper" is probably one of my favorite movies of the year so far. I want to watch it again, but not for the same reasons that I would watch "Avengers" again and again, but more for the same reason I watched "No Country For Old Men" a second time. I feel like if I saw it again, I would have a vastly different experience, since I would be able to discard my preconceptions about how a time travel story should be told and can enjoy this refreshingly unique take.

I love that this movie finds new ways of using some of the most commonly used sci-fi plot devices but acts like it's no big deal. And not because it's too cool for that kind of self-indulgence, no. It doesn't act like these aspects are all that important because it knows that that's not what the audience connects with. We might think those aspects are cool in the moment, but what keeps us thinking about the movie afterward are the decisions the characters make.

I can't deny that if the movie was smarter about the plot devices then some of those character decisions might have had more impact, but they also would have felt inevitable. That's one of the problems with time travel. You tend to force yourself into corners where there's generally only one way your plot can shake out. The way writers tend to make this work is by concealing information. If we don't see the full picture, we can't spot the inevitable destiny of the characters.

In "Looper", by playing fast and loose with the "rules" of time travel, the characters are making decisions based on factors other than "destiny". In a way, their decisions are explicitly designed to SPITE destiny.

Typically, a time travel movie has an underlying message about time travel. Time travel is dangerous because you risk mucking with the chain of events that led to time travel in the first place. Time travel is pointless because anything you change will have to lead to the same destiny in order to maintain a stable time loop. Time travel is selfish because it represents a denial of responsibility.

"Looper" kind of denies all of these common messages.

In "Looper", time travel never causes any serious harm other than what it does to individual people. Time travelers can and do make changes that affect their lives without necessarily nullifying them. Time travel is not a means of denying responsibility but actually a way of assuming responsibility.

By breaking the rules, "Looper" can talk about different aspects of the human condition that time travel usually avoids.

I hesitate to call this approach "refreshing" because there's nothing refreshing about throwing out the rule book. It's unnerving. A change of pace tends to be refreshing when they bring up the rule book in a silly or genre-savvy kind of way. This movie doesn't do that. It just does its own thing.

So I do really like this movie a lot, but it's not the sort of movie that fills me with joy or satisfaction, which is odd because time travel is usually designed for that sort of thing. But not all movies should do that. And that's not to say "Looper" is not fun. It is a lot of fun. It is at times very funny. It is a very entertaining movie.

But Rian Johnson is not looking to leave you with a feeling of warm fuzziness. And most of his movies don't. Rian Johnson wants you to take this movie with you for the rest of your life, and I think it absolutely succeeds in that.

I don't think it's a perfect film because perfect films can give you that sense of completion while paradoxically resonating with you and fostering a deep obsession with it. "Looper" achieves that second part, but doesn't quite nail the first part, and while the second part is VASTLY more important, the first part is what might keep this from becoming a major genre classic like "Star Wars" or "The Matrix" or "The Princess Bride".

Regardless, I think Rian Johnson is definitely a talent that I should pay more attention to. I think "Looper" is his best film to date, but I absolutely think he can do better. And if he does, I think it will be a truly unforgettable film.

1 comment:

  1. Great review Pat. Didn’t have me as emotionally-invested as I thought I could have been, but still, a pretty solid sci-fi flick that’s heavy on story and characters, which is all that mattered to me.