The Videogum Movie Club: Looper

In college I took a film class and at one point we watched Terminator 2, because that is the kind of thing that you do in college. You watch a big budget Hollywood movie about robot assassins that you’ve already seen a bunch of times, and then you sit in an over-heated classroom and listen to an old man explain how the robot assassins are actually metaphors for colonialist imperialism, or something, and how the part where Edward Furlong hacks an ATM machine is a signal of the director’s Marxist interpretation of Gilles Deleuze’s insistence on the flaneur as spectacle or I DON’T EVEN KNOW. All I know is that we watched Terminator 2 and got one juice glass of each kind of drink in the cafeteria and college and it was awesome. But in the discussion group after the movie, I remember getting in a very heated argument with another student. His position was that the movie was perfect, and my position was that time travel sucks in movies and that it never makes any sense if you stop to think about it for even two seconds. This is not to say that I don’t like Terminator 2, because I do. I like it just fine. But if you are in college, and your job is to think about things, then some of the movie’s internal logic does not exactly hold up to close or really ANY inspection. No movie about time travel does. Including this one. But it is still pretty fun!

Looper takes place 30 years in the future (and then also 30 years after that), not that you would be able to tell from the automobiles, which were all made in 1995. (I actually liked that everyone just nail-gunned solar panels to the hoods of old cars to make future cars. There is nothing worse in a movie about the near future than a poorly designed near future car. It’s like those foam outfits at the beginning of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey times 100.) In the future, 10 percent of the population can spin quarters with their brains, which is just a surprising and unusual detail that we will leave here and it probably won’t even come up again later. 30 years from now, time travel will NOT have been invented yet, but 60 years from now it will have, but also it will be illegal, so the only people who use it are the criminal underworld who send people back in time to be killed and disposed of without a trace on a field by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Paul Dano. Stuff happens. And now 60 years in the future there is a new criminal superboss (literally) who has decided to elimidate all of the people involved in the time travel assassination game. Enter: Bruce Willis. He is Joseph-Gordon Levitt from the future, and he is sad about his wife being killed by the Zoot Suit Riot. They have lunch in a diner. Stuff happens. Look, do you need me to spell the whole movie out for you? You just saw it! Were you not paying attention? There is a chase and a fight and some corn and another chase and another fight and more corn and the farm from Signs and a scary little boy. R. Kelly trapped in the olde timey safe in the closet. Time travel. Loops within loops. Change the cycle. BlunderBUSSTED. The end.

It is a pretty fun movie to watch! As mentioned with the cars thing, the near-future-ness of the world wasn’t too heavy-handed. If anything the focus was more on the fact that in the near-future you’re basically allowed to shoot anyone in the face for any reason rather than, like, showing some night club with all of the hottest future fashions (although they also show the night club, this is a movie after all). Everyone does drugs out of eyedroppers? Of course they do! 2044, son! And Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a very good Bruce Willis impersonation. Cybil Shepard was like “Bruce? Is that you? Come to bed.” Admittedly, I am not entirely convinced that everyone in the near future talks like a Dashiell Hammett cartoon, but maybe they do! Time will tell. Also, I am not sure what is SO appealing about setting your movie/TV show in a borderline-apocalyptic urban disaster zone and then moving the action out to a bucolic farm, but that is a tried and true switcheroo that has apparently not been exhausted yet. Let’s keep doing that, you guys! I am not being sarcastic! It really hits some kind of special emotive button!

The scene where Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt argue about whose life is whose? Very very good scene! What most of us would not give to be able to kick our younger selves in the balls. The scene where Future Paul Dano’s body starts falling apart piece by piece? Very very scary scene! RUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNNNNN! And of course White Akira in the living room was pretty good. All in all this movie had lots of really great, highly memorable visuals and moments that we will all cherish until our loop is closed.

Now, before we get into the more problematic aspects of this movie, let me just say that my issues with this movie are not “nitpicky.” A nitpicky issue would be, for example, the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt carving arrows and BE-AT-RIX into his arm as an ominous echo of the Paul Dano torture scene is a totally hacky bait-and-switch that isn’t based on any traceable logic. There were a couple of things like that, and I did not mind them. I’m only pointing that last one out as an example of something one COULD complain about, but let’s choose our battles, guys. Life is short, and Looper was still fun. Let me also just say that my issues with this movie are issues and that’s all. Who cares? I still enjoyed myself. I’m not panning the movie. It was good! But if you are going to take on the burdensome mantle of a time travel sci fi movie and all of the intellectual complications that entails, then you should be prepared for your plot to get picked apart, because it can and will be. And so here we go:

Time travel in Looper, just like time travel in all movies that feature time travel, sucks. Oh well! It simply doesn’t work and is impossible. (The one possible exception to this might be 2004’s Primer, although my guess is that the time travel in that movie is less intellectually sound and more just opaque and completely confusing.) Rian Johnson does a pretty good job for awhile, what with all of the fuzzy memories, and the body modifications, and I also like that the mechanics of the time travel are pretty simple. You just crawl into a hot cage? Fine. But the fact of the matter is that–and they loosely touch on this and then forget about it–once you start changing things, the changes echo throughout time, this is called Ashton Kutcher’s The Butterfly Effect. So, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes to the farmhouse for a long weekend, which we know he did not do in his original timeline because we saw his original timeline and it involved a lot more lofts in Shanghai, it changes his story and it also changes him. As he kicks drugs on the farmhouse and not 20 years later in China, as he sleeps with Emily Blunt, as he develops paternal feelings for White Akira, all of these things change who he is as a person. Even within his closed narrative arc, by the end of the movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a more selfless, emotionally available person, right? Which means Bruce Willis would have aged into a more selfless, emotionally available person. And therefore, Bruce Willis would no longer be the same Bruce Willis, on a myopic quest to shoot all the babies in the face. He would be different, too. But in the movie he isn’t different. He is just blasting his way through to the bitter end. (It also seems very clear to me that at some point there was a scene in which the photograph inside of the pocket watch either disappeared or changed into a photograph of Emily Blunt. They set that up so hard in the first half of the movie and then never went back to it.) This, to me, is the most serious (and I do think it is serious, in terms of logical cohesion) flaw with the time travel aspect of this movie. You are welcome to try and convince me that this is not a problem, but I have already seen the future and SPOILOOPER ALERT you can’t*.

This, of course, is the inherent problem of time travel in movies. I’m not saying I know how to solve this problem. I’m not sure you can! But that doesn’t make it not a problem. Argh! Time travel movies!

A lesser but still confounding question about Looper is also: wait, what? Let me explain: in the future, time travel is so illegal that only criminals use it. OK. But the only thing they use it for is to dispose of bodies, right? And clearly murder is LESS illegal than time travel. Like, time travel is SO illegal that at a certain point the criminal underworld starts MURDERING everyone involved with time travel just so they don’t get caught using time travel. But all they are using time travel for is MURDER. So my question is WHY NOT JUST MURDER PEOPLE AND LEAVE THE TIME TRAVEL OUT OF IT? To make this question even more confusing, we have already learned that in the year 2044 when there isn’t time travel yet things have already gotten bad enough that you’re totally allowed to shoot someone for LOOKING AT YOUR MOTORCYCLE. You don’t even have to wrap them up in a corn tarp and drop them into the abandoned furnace. So, my question again: what?

I’m not even going to talk about the telekinesis thing but I do feel like time travel is already enough to wrap one’s brain around and now we also just have this other thing? OK, Rian Johnson, u r the boss.

Here is my favorite part of Looper**, for what it is worth: so, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is waiting in the corn field to blast Bruce Willis, but Bruce Willis is running late. That’s odd! Then Bruce Willis appears without the customary cheese cloth veil over his future face. Joseph Gordon-Levitt hesitates, Bruce Willis gets away. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wakes up, heads back into town, gets chased, falls off of a fire escape, cut to black. Now Joseph Gordon-Levitt is back in the field waiting to blast Bruce Willis, but Bruce Willis is running late. That’s odd! Then Bruce Willis appears WITH the customary cheese cloth veil over his future face. Joseph Gordon-Levitt blasts that fool and finds the golden backpack. We see him do a semester at sea and turn into Bruce Willis as Nicolas Cage in Bangkok Dangerous 2.

Bruce Willis meets his beautiful wife, but then it is time to close his loop, and then he gets in the fight with the Zoot Suit Riot (oh, that is why he is late!) but he still zaps himself back in time in the Hot Cage because he’s going to kill Baby Kaizer Soze, or whatever. Cut back to Joseph Gordon-Levitt waiting in the field to blast Bruce Willis, but Bruce Willis is running late. That’s odd! Boom: Bruce Willis appears again, no cheese cloth, he escapes, and now we are on our adventure. BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CHEESECLOTH? He was wearing the cheese cloth that one time but then another two times he wasn’t wearing the cheesecloth? This was so casually thrown into the movie, and never really discussed or explored (with the exception of one line of dialogue for half a second, but not really) but it sort of touches on the whole decision tree slash string theory Multi-Verse thing, as if there are other versions of this movie where all the other possible outcomes play out, and that’s neat. I like that. These guys know what I’m talking about:

Anyway, Looper! Pretty good though!

*The closest you might be able to come is to point back to the diner scene when Bruce Willis says that he still remembers what Joseph Gordon-Levitt does after he “does it” (kills Bruce Willis) and gets all sad eyed, as if somehow maybe (this is your argument now) he is foreshadowing that he knows the whole time that they are both going to die or something, but that doesn’t hold up at all. Nothing in the movie points to this being what Bruce Willis meant or that his intention was to reverse engineer his own death in order to change the outcome for the little boy. I don’t buy it one bit. You’re wrong. AGAIN.
**When I say this is my favorite part, I mean that in the “I watched Terminator 2 in college” definition of favorite where we’re talking about themes and ideas. My actual favorite part of the movie was when Bruce Willis smashed Gordon Levitt’s face into a table.