Writer-director Rian Johnson’s third feature, Looper, is one of the best science fiction movies I have ever seen.
I’ve been writing about science fiction movies here at Tor.com for a couple years now. I love science fiction and movies, and I don’t make greatest-of-all-time announcements lightly. But sometimes it’s necessary, and with a movie as richly imagined, gracefully and stylishly executed, and emotionally overwhelming as Looper, it is. The only SF movie I can unambiguously call better, 2001, is sufficiently different to make the comparison meaningless. The point is, Looper is a work of cinematic art so profoundly and deeply beautiful in its fierce, dark vision of a terrifyingly, vividly real future, that its equal in SF will not be seen for a very, very long time.
The worldbuilding in Looper is of a depth and breadth normally associated with novels; the assumption usually goes that shortcuts are necessary to keep a movie’s length down to two hours, but Looper is a shade under that and has no problem setting up a vision of the year 2044 that instantly convinces. Technology is unevenly distributed, old and new all jumbled up in a way that feels organic, the way such things would probably be. And the exposition, while reliant on (quite well-handled) voiceover narration, does not also rely on random ordinary people suddenly spouting off paragraphs of sociology or quantum physics, as sometimes happens in lesser works. Rian Johnson, through writing, compositions, and editing, creates a future that breathes, a future that it’s all too easy to see us heading towards.
Extrapolating from existing present-day societal issues, Looper’s American society has deteriorated, with the gap between haves and have-nots widened to the point where cities are controlled by gangsters who flaunt their wealth and indulgence while dodging starving street people in their fancy red sports cars. One such flashy young man is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who works as a “looper,” a job specific to the discovery, some years in the future, of time travel, which is immediately outlawed and thus available only to outlaws. Gangsters in the future send undesirables back in time, hooded to maintain anonymity, where loopers such as Joe execute them at point blank range (the loopers are then tasked with the disposal of a body that doesn’t officially exist). The catch is, one of those hooded figures might very well be the looper’s future self. Amid rumors that some mysterious gangster in the future is looking for all the loopers to “close their loop” (to wit, have them whacked), Joe is faced, one fateful day, with a balding, angry man from the future (Bruce Willis), who turns out to be Joe himself. Only then do things start to get crazy.
And do they ever. Almost everything you think you know about Looper gets turned on its head at some point or other. Good guys do unspeakable things. Bad guys are nice, even cute. Up is down. Black is white. Looper is a movie with a seemingly endless array of surprises to throw at the audience, and yet, when it ends, there’s a feeling of inevitability that can be seen from the very beginning. It is, in every sense, a movie built as a loop. There is no either/or. There is no beginning or end. All is one.
Completely apart from its seamless plotting and integration of form and content as a piece of science fiction writing, Looper is also a really magnificent bit of filmmaking. It hints at its special effects, rather than brandishing them, making those effects even cooler than they’d be were they seen. The design, the “look” of the future, isn’t always fancy but always compels; not to mention, the blend of old and new, of shabby and shiny, fits with the movie’s whole notion of being a loop, of all being one.
More than anything else, though, the way Looper is edited is truly masterful. At the beginning, when the world is being built for the sake of informing the audience, time is taken to savor each individual shot and bit of exposition. Then, to highlight the intensity of Joe’s work as a looper, the editing builds to an almost unbearable intensity, the peak of which is the establishment of the central impasse between Old Joe and Young Joe. The pacing then slows back down, almost to a halt, leaving us to question where we are and what’s about to happen. After a few minutes of that, both Joes discover what’s really going on. Which is, to put it mildly, stunning. (The performances, by the way, are top-to-bottom terrific. Joseph Gordon-Levitt disappears behind his prostheses to become a young Bruce Willis, who himself turns in his best work in years.) There are places Looper goes in terms of emotion and action that few other movies dare explore; some movies may have more action, but few make the audience feel the absolute totality of the act than this. The ending, coming after some brutally intense suspense, is a moment of overwhelming beauty, the movie’s final subversion of expectation in a movie full of them.
Which brings us back to where we began. Looper is one of the very best science fiction movies ever made, this year’s best by far. If you have ever cared about science fiction or movies it is an absolute must-see. It is an instant classic, a movie for all time.