29 October 2012
Warning: Mild spoilers-by-inference contained within.
Perhaps the key to making a successful sci-fi film is to ensure that no matter how grand your ideas get, you always ground them in a relatable reality. Avatar was grounded by the incredible detail in its special effects. Moon was grounded by an incredibly human performance from Sam Rockwell. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (yes, it counts as sci-fi) was grounded by its central love story. And The Matrix? That was grounded by centralising an all-too-inevitable conflict between humanity and artificial intelligence.
After the event, the fact that Looper has been even mentioned in the same breath as The Matrix is somewhat confusing - there isn't a single shade of the Wachiowski brothers' opus here.
The story goes that in 2074, time travel is invented, but is immediately outlawed. That of course doesn't stop criminals from putting it to nefarious means, using the technology to circumvent their time's ability to track corpses - hurling people they want dead back in time to be murdered by people known as 'loopers' in 2044. When the time comes to end a looper's contract, they are sent back to get killed by themselves for a retirement-grade payday - a process known as 'closing the loop', and hence the name of the job.
If anything, this should've been coined as Back to the Future's psychotic younger cousin - it's newer, angrier and a whole lot more complicated. But the key difference that sets this apart from The Matrix - and indeed Back to the Future - is that the latter two work. Sadly, Looper does not.
At least, not fully - I'm not necessarily saying that it's without merit. The central premise of time-travel as a means of assassination is one of the best ideas to be committed to film in quite a while, and it gives way to an astonishing sequence involving one of the titular loopers, his future self and a surgery table that is beautifully unsettling. If nothing else, it proves that Rian Johnson has come into his own as a director - everything is handled with a dark, dry sense of humour that has come to be his unique selling point even in the disappointing The Brothers Bloom.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are also fantastic as the present and future versions of Joe, with Gordon-Levitt in particular nailing the speech patterns and mannerisms of a 1980s Bruce Willis. This, coupled with the extensive make-up disguising him, makes for a compelling dynamic between these two aspects of the same character, and the best character moment is shared between the two in a Pulp Fiction-style stare-down in a remote diner. Jeff Daniels is laconically menacing as the mob boss who runs the loopers, and Noah Segan's bug-eyed secondary antagonist is a spluttering, incompentent joy to behold - the indignation when he's asked if he's blown off his other leg is fantastic.
But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the movie ultimately comes to rely on three central conceits that aren't particularly grounded. The first is that the film's take on time travel is not particularly consistent - not being able to choose between Twelve Monkeys' approach of one set timeline in which everything has already happened, and BttF's multiple timeline's approach. The stuff involving telekinetic powers is clearly just shoe-horned in to up the visual spectacle, and could've easily been excised whilst preserving the narrative.
The final, crippling conceit, however - and this is the one large spoiler that you may wish to avoid - is the fact that the loopers are armed with weapons that cannot fire further the 15 feet. It's frankly ridiculous, and never properly explained - 'just because' is the best Johnson can come up with - but two of the film's major set pieces (including the chaotic finale) rely on this fact, and it completely undermines the joy of the admittedly spectacular sequences.
Disappointing would be the word of choice on this one, though a part of this is the comparisons with The Matrix colouring my expectations. But even discounting this fact, the best that can be said about it is that it's an admirable mess, much like The Brothers Bloom that preceeded it. Johnson has a real talent for direction, but it's possible that self-indulgence is getting the better of him, and it may be time for him to direct something that he didn't write himself.
But it's still certainly worth a look - the performances are great, the premise sound and inconsistencies aside, the story progresses in a relatively satisfying manner, with some excitingly played set pieces. It's also darkly amusing to boot - it's just such a shame that the story doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny. Have a pinch of salt ready, but otherwise, there are worse ways to spend two hours at the movies.