Science fiction often finds itself the odd genre out. Its concepts are occasionally novel and commonly recycled, and its reach has a chronic tendency to exceed its grasp. What a treat it is, then, when science fiction cinema fulfills its promise, producing a film that’s enthralling, thought-provoking and accomplished within the confines of its own ambitions. This year, that film is “Looper.”
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, “Looper” concocts a sleek melange of time travel, telepathy and dystopia that’s flawlessly balanced; it’s believable yet grandiose. Its premise: in the future, time travel exists but it’s illegal – so naturally, the mob gets a hold of it, sending their targets back in time to be disposed of cleanly. The hitmen who blow holes in the chests of these poor buggers are the titular loopers, and their work pays pretty well. The catch? To make the whole process as tidy as possible, they’ll eventually have to murder their future selves too. Here we arrive at the central quandary faced by our protagonist, Joe, played in his middle-aged form by Bruce Willis and in his youth by a nearly unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose face is covered in Willis-esque prosthetics.
The story is set in motion when young Joe hesitates and old Joe escapes, forcing young Joe to go into hiding from the man who employed him (the reliably enjoyable Jeff Daniels). I won’t delve too much further into plot mechanics – Johnson tells his own story best – but essentially, old Joe has a plan and young Joe’s quest to figure out what it is leads him to a house in the middle of a cornfield occupied by a telepathic child and his mother (a phenomenal Emily Blunt). Needless to say, things get a little crazy from there. Johnson’s ability to retain a steel grip on his material as Willis hunts kids (there’s a fairly legitimate reason for that), Gordon-Levitt flirts with Blunt, Blunt’s son wreaks all sorts of havoc on the homestead and Daniels’ goons search wildly for both Joes is impressive by anyone’s standards. That his film, with its many conjunctive parts, is unfailingly thrilling, cerebral and visually spectacular is nothing less than a miracle.
All of this builds to a stunning multifaceted payoff that cleans up the film’s loose ends rather nicely. Despite the plot holes inevitable in a film that features time travel, “Looper” wisely streamlines its mythology enough to ensure that its few unresolved questions remain harmlessly under the rug. It does, however, feature some good old Bruce Willis butt-kicking in its bullet-riddled climax, brilliantly positioned right before the film’s finale gets philosophical. This is the best role Willis has had in years, and he plays it all the way through. Gordon-Levitt, in the culmination of a terrific year, goes well beyond the call of duty, transcending his role’s demands to communicate a complex emotional arc underneath all that makeup. Johnson, meanwhile, should be commended not just for the ingenuity of his screenplay, but for his stout cinematic pacing and unique visual style, which amalgamates postmodern, steampunk and Western designs to create a fully realized vision of a strange, intimidating future Kansas. “Looper” is an extraordinary achievement on every level and undoubtedly ranks Johnson among the most exciting young writer/directors working today. It boasts the exhilaration of a top-notch thriller and the brains of the very best that sci-fi cinema has to offer.