Science-fiction fans: Remember how excited you got when you heard about "Prometheus?" Ridley Scott returning to his universe for another chapter of the xenomorph epic? Oh yeah! Then the trailers were released, revealing ridiculous amounts of the plot—including humanoid aliens, new snake-like face-huggers, and even the film's ending (seriously, we were shown the explorers' spaceship crashing into the alien craft to destroy it). You figured there HAD to be more to the story so you got some friends together and went to the theater anyway, yet it was disappointingly predictable and you felt no connection to the motivation of the characters or the rate at which events took place.
The future noir film "Looper," in theaters since late September, is anything but predictable. The trailers basically list the ingredients of the story, but the entire second half of the movie is a fairly well-kept secret, departing drastically from the expected (and, for me, desired) "future self and me" trope. The movie is set in 2044 and follows a young man named Joe, played by Joseph-Gordon Leavitt ("500 Days of Summer," "Inception"). Joe is a member of a group of assassins whose targets, sent back 30 years by the mob of the future, materialize in front of their ready weapons. The term "closing his loop" is used when a Looper ends up killing his future self. He is paid an enormous amount, and his contract is closed, leaving him free to celebrate or squander the next 30 years. The problem is that when the time comes for Joe to close his loop, future Joe, played by Bruce Willis, overpowers present Joe and escapes on a mission to survive. Presumably.
Let me nerd out here for paragraph (minor spoilers); obviously the logistics associated with time travel can be a nuisance, and how they're handled is important to judge a sci-fi story like "Looper." For one, and this surprised me a lot, the audience gets to follow Joe through the first "time-line"; he kills his target, discovers it's himself, retires rich, and spends a 30-year montage having adventures with wealth, weapons, and women. When the mob comes to close his loop (for whatever reason), we witness the aforementioned encounter in which he changes things up and survives, altering the time-line. This leads to another mechanism, which is that changes to Joe appear in Old Joe. These most obviously and traditionally include physical wounds (e.g. Joe gets shot in the ear, Old Joe's ear gets a scar) but in "Looper," Old Joe's memories from the first loop are getting overwritten now that Joe's life has veered onto a different path. This of course yields some trippy sequences and gives the screen writers an excuse to show us some of the most important parts of Old Joe's life, as well as divulge his REAL mission.
Beyond appreciating the aim at logical and exciting time-travel, and ignoring JGL's absurd Willis-esque facial prosthetics, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 70 to 80 percent of the film. The soundtrack selections of driving rock or post-metal ambience for various moments held the scenes together well without standing out on their own. The script was believable and smooth (other than a somewhat creepily articulate five-year-old boy), with no cheesy or uncomfortable one-liners that typify superficial science-fiction. I also greatly appreciated the flow of events and structure of scenes; there are some excellent unexpected but not unjustified occurrences and revelations, not to mention well-timed humor. Most admirably however, each character is not a single point along the protagonist-antagonist spectrum; Joe, Old Joe, and even "the Man" and his bumbling henchmen are multidimensional and have moments that rendered me sympathetic.
I honestly wanted to be completely satisfied with "Looper," but the late twist went in a direction that disappointed me. Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, one of the elements of this futuristic world exists for no reason other than to provide a villain. I feel that to avoid this sort of deus ex machina the film should have been about twenty minutes longer and told more about the world: give us a reason to care about genetic mutations, bikes that levitate, or streets crawling with homeless. These things and more are great ingredients for a science-fiction motion picture, but when you get to the end and begin to realize this is actually not the story about time-travel assassins you paid for, it puts a damper on the whole experience. One proper mechanism for bringing this disparity to the audience's attention was used by Joss Whedon in "Cabin in the Woods," which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Trailers for that film did not reveal the real content of the movie, but within minutes of sitting down in the theater everyone was well aware that this would be a strange and creative show. The fun was finding out how along the way. "Looper," on the other hand, lulled me into believing I was watching a fast-paced mystery/noir/action/sci-fi story flaunting a specific and admirable mantra, but I left the theater perturbed. It was similar to how I felt after reading Isaac Asimov's Robots of Dawn, which ends with most of the questions posed in the 400-page novel being answered by the out-of-the-blue fact that one of the robots is telepathic.
In summation, "Looper" was certainly not a bad movie. I've illustrated many strong points as well as those that I think could have been done differently. And while his make-up was off-putting and honestly just looked bad, JGL does a fantastic job of emulating the mannerisms and diction of the great Bruce Willis. Writer-director Rian Johnson ("Brothers Bloom," "Breaking Bad" guest writer) has a good sense of creating a world, populating it with characters and putting them in scenes together, but as far as story-telling goes he is still finding his feet. The world of the loopers is engaging and visually appealing, but the film pretty jerkily arrives at its destination. If you are okay with that, or are just prepared for it after reading my opinion, you will find "Looper" an enjoyable and exciting sci-fi smash with an indie vibe. If not, you'll certainly be thrown for a loop.