Directed by: Rian Johnson
Running time: 118 minutes
It is no secret to anyone who knows me that time travel is one of my favourite things to have in a story. Doctor Who is pretty much my favourite TV show and the novel Third Transmission by my brother Jack Heath is one of the best books I’ve ever read. But being a connoisseur of time travel has resulted in me being very picky and pedantic about my time travel fiction. So going in to see Looper, I was very intrigued as to how the time travel elements of the story would fit together because I knew that it was going to be a tricky one to get right and still maintain a tension filled narrative.
Did it succeed in satisfying my incredibly high standards of time travel fiction? Well, no. But I wouldn’t say it broke the movie either. Read on to find out!
Now Showing this week is Looper, directed by Rian Johnson. Set in the 2040s, Looper tells the story of a man named Joe (a made up beyond recognition Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is a specialised assassin known as a “Looper”. You see, in this future, the ability to time travel is invented in the 2070s but becomes heavily outlawed. As a result, the only people who have access to it are the incredibly rich mafia of the period, and they use it to dispose of people who crossed them. They send the people back in time to a spot where a Looper like Joe is waiting for them and the Looper kills them, then disposes of the body thirty years before the person is even reported as missing! However, Joe is faced with a challenge when his latest victim turns out to be himself from the future (played by Bruce Willis) who escapes in Joe’s moment of confusion. Now Joe (young Joe that is) must catch and kill his older self before his employers can erase the both of them. But Old Joe is back for a reason, a reason that could have catastrophic consequences…
Before I get into my nitty gritty analysis of the movie’s science fiction, I will say that from all the movie making viewpoints it is an excellent film. The cinematography, art design, soundtrack, dialogue, everything is all top quality. The acting is great, especially from the two leads Gordon-Levitt and Willis who both convey so many similarities with each other as well as differences due to age. Gordon-Levitt’s make up was very impressive I must say, he didn’t look like him at all throughout the movie. There was maybe two times where I thought his face looked a bit fake but every other time he looked like a completely different person! And lastly, the action scenes were very well made, featuring an array of weaponry akin to that of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, combining science fiction with western design. All in all, great job team!
Sadly now I must get to the inevitable “but…”. I’m sorry to say that, as much as I tried, I just couldn’t see how any of the time travel in Looper made any sense. I’m going to throw up a very minor spoiler warning here, just in case I say something you readers don’t want to read. You have been warned!
Looper is really vague with its explanations as to how its time travel mechanics work. The film establishes that changes can be made to the future in the present, so the protagonist’s have free will. They establish this initially by the mob capturing a Looper (whose future self has also escaped into the past) and begun severing his limbs. They cut off the young Looper’s hand, his future self suddenly doesn’t have that hand. And while that all makes sense, it also doesn’t because the future guy is surprised to learn that he suddenly doesn’t have a hand, when really he shouldn’t be surprised because now he should have not had that hand for thirty years since when he was the younger version of himself having that hand cut off. That means he should have arrived in the past hand-less, as well as every-other-limb-he-loses-less, and as a result he wouldn’t have been able to escape anyway because he arrived in the past limbless and the younger Looper would have killed him and so he wouldn’t have needed to have his limbs removed in the first place so then he’d have had all his limbs when he was sent back to the past to be killed by himself and he would have escaped, then his younger self would have had his limbs cut off so he then wouldn’t have ever escaped etcetera etcetera etcetera. This would go on forever and is what is called a paradox. You see my problem?
The film tries to tackle this another way later in the film when Young and Old Joe have coffee together and discuss how this whole situation works. Old Joe says that he suddenly becomes aware of Young Joe’s actions (at least, his actions that are different to his past recollections of being Young Joe) just after he does them. But again, these appear to be surprises, when really Old Joe should have now always known not only the action that Young Joe just took, but a whole lot of future actions as well because he should remember being Young Joe. But that doesn’t seem to happen, he just seems to only have one new memory and that’s it. In the aforementioned coffee scene, Young Joe asks the question of how do his actions affect his future self. Old Joe replies that they could sit here all day and talk about “this time travel shit,” and they could make diagrams to understand it but let’s just forget all that and accept it. Now I personally found that part to be quite funny because it felt to me like that was the writer talking directly to the audience and telling us not to think too hard about the mechanics of the film’s time travel, because it doesn’t really work properly and we should just sit back and enjoy the movie! And when the script itself feels it needs to acknowledge that it can’t properly explain itself then that is definitely a red flag.
Anyway, a lot of you might have realised now that Doctor Who contains a lot of paradoxical inconsistencies in it as well, and that I’m a hypocrite for loving Doctor Who and not Looper. And you would be half right. Doctor Who does have time travel hiccups in it’s story lines; however it does have a genius narrative device set in place that often clears up all the confusion and that is: the TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine. In Looper, when the future events alter (and as a result past events since future people are coming back to the past), for some reason everyone still remembers the original series of events as well as the new ones with no explanation. In Doctor Who, this is a result of the TARDIS affecting the characters who have traveled in it. They have been exposed to the time vortex (the TARDIS’ power source) and that allows them to perceive the universe differently. It may seem like a cop out, but in science fiction there is such a thing as fictitious science so the author can make up whatever they want. But in Looper, there is no TARDIS scapegoat equivalent and it left me wanting.
But, Looper is still a very enjoyable movie. I like to think of it like Back to the Future; it’s a film that is very entertaining about the ethical ramifications of having the power to alter time, but when you properly analyse the time travel mechanics within it you will find inconsistencies and paradoxes. I liked Looper, for nothing more than a well made film that was attempting to go back to the old days of science fiction that questioned the complexities of the human condition. And that is something that definitely needs to come back!
See you next time!