Thu
Sep 27 2012 11:00am

This Year’s Best Sci-Fi Movie By Far: Looper

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.


Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.

22 comments
john mullen
1. johntheirishmongol
Looper may be a good movie, but when you say 2001 is the best scifi movie ever, you put your credibility in question.
Kevin Leslie
2. Kevin Leslie
I'm sorry, Danny, I've got to go with John the Irish Mongol on this one... Iconic, yes, Impactful, yes, but Best...?
Danny Bowes
3. DannyBowes
The end of that sentence, about the comparison being meaningless, is the operative part.
Kevin Leslie
5. DavidEsmale
The thing is, unlike apparently a lot of people, I don't watch R-rated movies. There's enough muck and filth in the world, such that I really don't care to view that level of gore/profanity/sex/whatever as entertainment.

That said...I'm aching for a completely spoiler-loaded rundown on the plot of this movie. Anyone know where to find one yet?
Kevin Leslie
6. Qwuie
Having seen the movie at an advance showing I'd like to say that, while I agree it is a good movie it is a little hyperbolic to call it "one of the very best science fiction movies ever made". The tone of the film is a little uneven and the main thrust seems to change part way through from thriller/action to a markedly different, more interesting movie.

I'd be happy to agree that its one of this years best sci-fi movies.
Kevin Leslie
7. TheDoctor
I'm not a huge fan of violent action movies, but I'm a totally sucker for time-travel movies. I've been excited to see this film since I first saw the trailer.

From your review it sounds like this film is an action movie done in a smart, thought provoking way. That's all I ask anymore, really.
Scott Silver
8. hihosilver28
AAAAAHHH! I'm trying to remain completely unspoiled for this movie. I've only seen the first trailer, and now the onslaught of news for it is severely tempting. Must. Remain. Strong. All this to say, I'm looking forward to reading this article after I see it tomorrow. :)

I'm sure he said it in the article, but Rian Johnson's previous films are fantastic and well worth checking out. Brick is basically a film noir set in a high school that plays it completely straight and has some incredibly dense and fascinating dialogue. The Brothers Bloom is a con man movie to end all con man movies, but most importantly, is just a hell of a lot of fun. I can't wait to see Looper!
Vincent Lane
9. Aegnor
@1,

Calling 2001 the best sci-fi movie ever isn't outlandish at all, especially when you consider the technology at the time. It was incredibly advanced for both it's filming technique, special effects, and for the hard science. Even simple things that we today don't even think of when watching the movie. Like the monitor displays used in the movie, with keyboard for input, weren't available in 1968. They also were using tablet computers that look strikingly like iPads.

You may not agree that it is the best sci-fi film, and it is a perfectly valid opinion. But to claim someone loses credibility because they believe it to be the best just makes you look like an arrogant a**.
Dave Thompson
10. DKT
Happy to hear the good buzz on this one - I've also enjoyed Johnson's previous films, and am pretty psyched to see this one. May even catch it in a theater if I can manage.

Danny, have you done an all-time Best of SF/F Movie List here before? I can't remember. (Totally hyperbolic, of course, but there always fun to look at!)
Kevin Leslie
11. Smithcraft
The email said this would be a spoiler free review.

Thanks for spoiling the movie.
Kevin Leslie
12. David Rain jr
My suspension of disbelief hangs solely upon the question if they offer an explanation as to why the mob doesn't use the ability to travel into the past for something more unseful than murder, like, say, playing the lottery or betting on horses.
Dave Miller
13. Borogove
@Smithcraft, I honestly have no idea what you're talking about. I learned nothing substantial about this movie that wasn't already blatantly obvious from the trailer.

That said, I'm in the same boat as David Rain jr, here. Unless the movie can adequately explain why the mob is using one of the most game-changing scientific discoveries of all time to do something that it already does just fine now without it, I'm going to walk out feeling like it was incomplete, no matter how masterful the storytelling is otherwise.
Danny Bowes
15. DannyBowes
There is sufficient explanation of why the mob only uses time travel sparingly. (That's not a spoiler, btw, merely a reassurance.)
Kevin Leslie
16. politeruin
Great film, the looping doesn't really bear much scrutiny but it's solid other than that. I love it when a film like this comes along with almost no hype and turns out to be a gem. Also, someone is definitely a fan of akira, enjoyed those scenes especially and that is one scary kid - how the hell can someone that young be such a good actor.
Tucker McKinnon
17. jazzfish
Borogove @13: the opening narration gives us something along the lines of "it's almost impossible to dispose of a body 30 years in the future, what with tagging and advanced analysis and all." Sufficient as a handwave to make the movie work, but if that's what's going to snap your disbelief suspenders the movie's not going to be able to talk you round.
matt
20. graftonio
@16 that kid may have been the best actor in a movie full of great performances.
Kevin Leslie
21. wingracer
Just saw it. I found it a very, very, very good movie. That being said, it is far from perfect. There are several issues that bug me a bit but despite them, I quite enjoyed it. It's one of those movies I will have to see a couple more times to catch all the clues and I look forward to doing just that.

As for it being one of the best science fiction movies of all time, well maybe. I think I would have to say that it is but only because there are so few truly great science fiction movies. If we had more truly stellar films that did justice to the great depth of science fiction literature, I think it would just be above average.
Kevin Leslie
24. Ruhayat
Oh. God. "Looper" was a massive disappointment for me. It was okay in the beginning, because the movie was self-aware about the problems of messing with time travel as a plot device. But then it took itself seriously, the second half was too long, and there were just so many holes. Seriously, check your brain at the door and you'll be fine. Be shallow, and mesmerised by the pumping drama. Don't pry under the skin, or you'll quickly find that the plot simply cannot exist, and the storyline is downright impossible.
Kevin Leslie
25. rucrazy
Ya not so much people must be crazy this year. Looper was a crap movie it was boring and long so predictable. The only thing that was good about this movie the idea behind it, I feel sorry for Bruce Willis.

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