Friday, October 12, 2012

ONE FILM CLOSES LOOP ON TIME TRAVEL

Jim Kirk once famously said, “Time travel gives me a headache!” The captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise isn’t alone. Since H.G. Wells invented The Time Machine, authors great and small have taken on the challenge of throwing their characters backward or forward in time, wrestling with time paradoxes and inconsistencies until they and their readers reach for the extra-strength Excedrin.

Filmmakers, too, just can’t seem to resist the challenge and the heartbreak of the time travel story (and particularly, the time travel romance—The Time Traveler’s Wife, Time After Time, etc.). Their failures are too numerous to mention, but when someone actually gets it right, the many Grade-Z horrors just fade from memory, angels sing and all seems suddenly right with the universe.

Such is the case with LOOPER, certainly the best science fiction film to grace the movie screens yet this year. We’ve had few to choose from, true, but this one has what so few so-called SF films these days offer—something to think about when you walk out the theater door. The characters—or is it character?—have choices to make that, of course, since it’s a time travel story, affect the timeline. And writer/director Rian Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM) leaves us guessing until the very last second as to what those choices will be.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (most recently PREMIUM RUSH and 50/50, but who could forget him as the adolescent alien in television’s THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN?) is Joe, the looper of the title, a hitman in the year 2044, assigned to kill the bound and hooded victims sent to him from his gangster bosses in the year 2074, when time travel has been discovered (and made illegal). The victims appear in a cornfield, Joe shoots them, takes the silver straps to their backs in payment and disposes of the bodies, all nice and neat.

(Okay, I admit the use of a time machine to dispose of murder victims seems excessive, but just go with the flow here. The future’s future is a grim place evidently, but it’s tough to get rid of a body.)

Eventually, every looper knows, a victim will show up bearing gold bars on his back. That will indicate it is time to “close the loop”, meaning the looper’s services are no longer needed. The victim will be the looper’s older (future) self. Since the victims are hooded when they show up, they’re usually dead before the looper sees the gold. Oh, well. Take the gold bars, live the next thirty years in peace and prosperity. God bless.

Except lately, lots more victims have been showing up with gold bars, lots more loops have been closing. Rumors go around about someone in the future called “the Rainmaker”, who is getting rid of all the loopers because of some personal vendetta. Joe shrugs it off until his own best bud, Seth, refuses to close the loop and is brutally hunted, tortured and killed by his fellow loopers.

So far the story is fairly straightforward, but this is time travel, so things commence to get weird right about now. In timeline A, Joe’s old self shows up in the cornfield, bound and hooded as always, Young Joe closes the loop and takes the gold and time progresses. We see Young Joe travel the world, work various bodyguarding/crime jobs and so on until he ages into Bruce Willis and settles down with a lovely Asian woman somewhere off the beaten path. He is happy and content.

One day, however, the big bosses find him to close the loop. They kill his wife and send him through the time machine to the cornfield—with one difference. He fights them, and manages to pull the hood off, so that when he arrives, Young Joe sees his face. He has that moment of surprise to turn his back and take the gun blast in the gold bars strapped to his back. Plus, of course, he has skills. So he escapes.

Thus begins Timeline B, in which Young Joe and Old Joe occupy the same time and space. Now, normally this would not be possible, according to most time-travel theories, but, hey, by this time, I’m enjoying the show and really don’t care. Gordon-Levitt and Willis are absolutely magnetic on the screen, both separately and together. Writer/director Johnson has made us care about Joe, both as a young man and as his older counterpart, and it is fun watching the two selves interact. At this moment in the film, the technical aspects of the “science” become much less important than the relational aspects of the “fiction”, as they should be, in my mind. We get caught up in the story and just want to know what happens next.

Everything that has come before has been the set-up for the moral dilemma of the final act of the film. Old Joe is looking for a young boy who will grow up to be the Rainmaker, the man who will order his death and be responsible for the death of his wife. The Rainmaker is a psychopath; there’s plenty of evidence for it, and Old Joe feels justified in killing this child before he has a chance to grow to adulthood. (If you could go back in time and kill Hitler in his crib, would you do it?)

Yet Young Joe has seen that the child, being raised by his mother on an isolated farm, has the capacity for love and remorse as well as the power to do harm with his extraordinary telekinetic talents. The final scene sets the stage for a tragedy that will determine everyone’s future—or a solution that will alter it. One man’s choice changes not only his own life, but also the lives of many others.

I won’t give away the final moments here, but I must say Johnson’s escape from this time-travel trap is both satisfying and believable. I could forgive him any lapses in consistency earlier on just because of this neat wrap-up. In fact, we could use a few more of this kind of SF films in an era when special effects so often overrule the story. It’s kinda nice to have something to think about on the way home.

Cheers, Donna

4 comments:

  1. Have heard very good things about this film - thanks for the review!

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  2. Donna, this film sounds wonderful. I was planning to see it, but the SF minions have been blasting it and tearing it apart. (Why are SF fans almost always so brutal when they turn on their first love and try to obliterate it instead of enjoying what it brings and the fact that it IS SF? Hm...perhaps fodder for another post.)

    At any rate, now I want to see it again, knowing from experience I'm far less critical of SF than most and I'll probably love this film. The set-up of the final paradox sound amazing and I can't begin to imagine how it will be resolved, so I'm totally interested.

    Great review, Donna. You are now officially our Spacefreighters Lounge film critic. We need to get you a thumbs up and thumbs down icon. Or maybe an "All Systems are Go" or "Abort Launch" icon?

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  3. I was hoping to sneak in seeing Looper at the cinema now my three kids are at school but, sigh, it's only on in the evenings. So I guess I'll have to wait for the DVD - again!

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  4. OOOOH, I'd SO love some special film review icons just for me, Laurie! That would be so awesome! Sorry you'll have to wait, Pippa. I do love my matinees!

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