LooperOctober 20, 2012
Ever since 1895 when H.G.Wells sent his Time Traveller into a bleak, dystopian future, science fiction writers have been imagining the ways civilisation can progress and decline at the same time. Before Wells the vogue was to use a vision of the future to show the ‘earthly paradise’ the world could become under socialism.
If we look back over the sci fi of the past century we are usually looking at a wasteland rather than paradise, with one of the favourite themes being a future in which technology has raced ahead but society has fallen into squalor. Poverty, crime and drugs become the touchstones of everyday life in a world in which every city is a slum. This is the future visualised by writers such as Philip K. Dick, and by up-and-coming director, Rian Johnson, in Looper.
This stylish blend of science fiction and crime drama is set in the year 2044, thirty years before the invention of time travel. The twist is that the process has been declared illegal, and is used exclusively by organised crime to transport their enemies back into the past where they are executed the moment they materialise. Apparently they do this because future detection methods are so advanced the only way to dispose of their victims is to send them to another era.
This stretches the boundaries of credibility. One might ask why the criminals fear the law when they are so powerful? They also seem to lack imagination if this is the only use they can find for time travel. They seem to forget about these fearsome detection methods later in the story, when someone is killed in one of the future segments.
If we can stop pondering all the logical non-sequiturs involved in the plot, Looper remains a cut above the usual sci-fi action film.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, whose job it is to execute the time travellers. He is well remunerated for his work, but knows there is a pay-back. Thirty years later these assassins will be tracked down by a mob unwilling to leave any loose ends, and sent back to face the same fate. This is called “closing the loop”.
Joe is resigned to his destiny and lives hedonistically, while managing to put money aside for the day when he can give up the job and travel. But things go wrong when his older self (Bruce Willis) appears in front of his eyes and escapes. This leaves young Joe seeking old Joe, while the mob is after both of them.
An added complication is that old Joe is seeking to kill off the future mob boss, known as the Rainmaker, while he is still a child. He turns out to be a precocious little brat named Cid, living on the family farm with single mum, Sara (Emily Blunt). Young Joe knows this child will have a poisonous impact on his future life, but his instinct is to protect the boy and his mother.
The body count in this film is high enough to satisfy viewers with short attention spans, but the real action is all in the mind. The time travel motif sets up a mass of possibilities and paradoxes, keeping us guessing until the very end.
The story also raises that old moral dilemma: could you kill a child – be it Cid or Hitler – if you knew that child would grow up to become a mass murderer? Could history be changed for the better through selective assassination? There is nothing new about such questions, but it is rare to find them asked in a Hollywood action film, where human life is usually as cheap as popcorn.
Looper, USA/China, rated MA, 118 mins.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 20, 2012