The sci-fi-thriller Looper makes one misstep in its final moments, and I mention it upfront ‘cause it’s a doozy.  We’re entering spoilerific terrain here, so I’ll tread lightly, but suffice to say, one of the film’s main characters witnesses something important and makes a fateful, wordless decision.  At least, it should be a wordless decision – writer/director Rian Johnson gums up the moment by slapping a voiceover track onto something that the acting/editing/camerawork/score make brutally clear.  This gaffe represents one of contemporary cinema’s biggest contradictions: while the medium is inherently visual, most movies spend so much time telling viewers what they need to get out of a given scene.  We don’t always need the words, and Looper undercuts its own effectiveness in assuming we do.

Here’s the thing: everything before and after the offending thirty seconds is damn near close to perfect.  I’ve seen three masterpieces this year, and Looper certainly ranks among their company.  It’s the best kind of science fiction; like Primer or Timecrimes before it, the film succeeds in generating vast global and temporal implications from a relatively modest setup.  We begin a little ways in the future, where time travel exists, though it’s been immediately outlawed.  The potential for catastrophic revisions is too great, but that risk hasn’t stopped criminal syndicates from breaking the space-time continuum in order to assassinate people in the future.  It’s a pretty sweet gig: send a person back thirty years and blow him away, and you effectively erase his existence.

The “loopers” pull the trigger.  They show up at a predetermined location, wait for a target to materialize out of thin air (it’s one of the movie’s many spooky grace notes – time travel occurs not with explosions or flashing lights, but with a blink) so they can neutralize him, and for that, they’re well-compensated, but there’s a catch: eventually, every looper kills his future self.  It’s the mob’s way of tying up loose ends – of closing the loop – but it gives these specialized assassins the air of the walking dead.  All they do is kill, until they kill themselves.

So it goes with Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, teaming up with Johnson for the third time after 2005’s Brick and 2008’s The Brothers Bloom).  He’s tripping the life fantastic, praying that his nightly acts of hedonism will distract him from the spiritual rot at his core, when he suddenly finds himself face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis), and all hell breaks loose…

With that premise, Johnson has us.  He and cinematographer Steve Yedlin create a tactile future from scraps.  The rare innovations – time travel, hoverbikes, a liquid form of LSD – exist in a future teeming with squalor; Johnson’s vision of an America deeply in debt to Asia and devastated by class warfare feels terrifying and all-too plausible.  This isn’t a terribly expensive movie – sources estimate its budget at around $50 million, or a fraction of your standard Bruce Willis actioner – but it feels massive, thanks to some fantastic special effects (including some practical gags you’d swear were CGI) and Johnson’s canny use of Katrina-devastated locales around New Orleans and Louisiana.

And key to that reality is Johnson’s portrayal of time travel.  Wisely, Looper doesn’t spend too much time talking about how one can pass through time; in the film’s funniest line, Willis complains to Gordon-Levitt that “if we start talking about time travel, we’re going to be here all day, making diagrams with straws.”  Instead, Johnson vividly – and non-verbally – illustrates how time travel has permeated through the culture.   You can tell how rigorously Johnson has worked out the process in the way he has future-dwellers Willis and Jeff Daniels (a delight as Looper‘s avuncular mob heavy) struggle with memories that seem to revise themselves every second, or in the horrifying punishment meted out when Paul Dano’s twitchy looper fails to kill his future self, or in the malaise that the loopers can’t shake, even as they try to drown their sorrows in money and whores and drugs – they know how unstable the future is because they undermine it every day.

It’s that last point that turns Looper from a sterling piece of sci-fi speculation into an honest-to-God noir masterpiece.  Despite his many misdeeds, Young Joe clings to the hope that life holds more for him, and Gordon-Levitt embodies that psychic turmoil with every inch of his being.  Johnson doesn’t make it easy for him – he saddles Gordon-Levitt with facial prosthetics that lend him an uncanny resemblance to Willis while denying him some of his youthful insouciance – yet the young actor turns in a performance that transcends mimicry.  We believe in Joe, in his desire to ground himself to something other than death (compare Gordon-Levitt’s warmth around his other cast members with the way his eyes go dead right before a kill), and as such, his hunt for his future self takes on an existential twang.  Maybe, by taking out the man he’s destined to be, Joe can become someone else.  Between Premium Rush and The Dark Knight Rises, Gordon-Levitt is having a banner year, and he does his finest work in Looper.

Credit to Bruce Willis, then, for complicating the argument.  Willis has a fraction of Gordon-Levitt’s screentime, and still Old Joe has an inner life equal to his younger proxy.  In one of Looper‘s virtuoso setpieces, Johnson stages the evolution from Young Joe into Old Joe, and the Willis section is startling in its emotional vibrancy.  Old Joe has travelled back in time for a very important reason, and the specifics of his mission cloud our sympathies – like Young Joe, he’s fighting for his soul.  I’m always amazed at Willis’ continued endurance as an indestructible superman since his real gifts lie elsewhere; as The Sixth Sense, Twelve Monkeys, and this year’s Moonrise Kingdom illustrate, Willis excels as men who yearn for kindness even though they don’t know how to receive it, and Looper blends that tenderness with his popular Die Hard persona flawlessly – Old Joe is a broken man willing to commit atrocities in order to heal the evil he sees in the world.

The best part about Looper?  I’ve written a lot, and it’s only a fraction of what the film has to offer.  I haven’t mentioned Noah Segan’s hilariously sleazy-tragic turn as inept mob enforcer Kid Blue, or the film’s exhilarating action sequences, or the devastating moral conundrum that Gordon-Levitt and Willis find themselves on opposite ends of, and how this issue involves Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon’s mother-son pair (fair warning about Gagnon: this six-year-old kid will be a huge star, if he wants to be).  I thought of Inception more than once, in terms of Johnson’s ability to marry Big Themes with relentless intrigue, and I also thought of last year’s brilliant Drive – like Nicolas Winding Refn did with that iconoclastic neo-noir, Johnson goes genre blending (science-fiction, mob drama, noir mystery, horror movie, action epic, fantasy thriller, domestic saga) and comes up with something wholly unique and vital.

Mostly, I thought about how ready I am to see whatever Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt come up with next.  Looper‘s a rare bird: a fabulous entertainment that pays close attention to character and thematic resonance.  You feel this one in your gut.

Sony’s Blu-ray/UltraViolet combo pack looks phenomenal.  Johnson shot the film on anamorphic 35mm, and the image has a hazy clarity that’s just wonderful.  So is the robust 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Special features are a mixed bag.  The disc’s three behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Looper: From the Beginning,” “The Science of Time Travel,” and “Scoring Looper”) are fluffy and, ultimately, none too revealing.  Better are the animated trailer Johnson used to drum up interest in the film as well as the twenty-two deleted scenes (nearly forty extra minutes of the movie) that come with optional commentaries from Johnson and Noah Segan; Johnson also pairs up with Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt for a full-length commentary track that plays over the main features, and it’s a solid listen, too.

No matter what, 2012 can’t go down as a bad movie year.  We got Looper, and its presence alone redeems so much of that other gunk.

Looper will be available on Blu-ray on January 31st.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.


Culture Movie Review: Smart, Thrilling LOOPER Is One of 2012's Best Films