Looper Might Be the Best Time Travel Movie Ever

Note: This review originally ran on Tuesday, 09-25-12.
Forget The Jetsons, DC Comics' Legion of Superheroes or any other shiny, happy vision of the future. The decades ahead of us aren't guaranteed to get much better than the present. Truth is, everybody makes bad decisions that trap us into lives we don't see coming. That existential space is where Looper thrives, teasing viewers with the notion of going back into our own lives and engineering the outcome that we deserve.

Writer/director Rian Johnson's latest film centers on Joe, a type of mob assassin called a Looper. Joe lives in an alternate reality about thirty years from now where time travel technology exists but hopping up and down the timestream is an outlawed practice that happens only in secret. Loopers provide the ultimate in deniability, killing people that criminal organizations further down the timeline send back to the past to be eliminated.

But there's a catch in being a Looper: eventually you're going to have to kill yourself. As a result, Loopers tend to drink, drop drugs into their eyeballs and generally not give a damn about anything. Johnson makes great use of time travel to show gruesome sadistic violence through its time-shifted effects. A character's older self has a finger disappear and the audience knows exactly what happens to his younger persona. They get paid in silver—which is a Judas metaphor, of course—but they're ultimately betraying themselves. When it's Joe's turn to close his loop—as the practice of self-suicide is called—his future self overpowers him and escapes. All Young Joe cares about is preserving his life in the present, destiny and whatever Old Joe tells him the future be damned.

Almost from the first scene, Looper toys with your expectations, as if Johnson knows that you're gaming out the branching plot possibilities in your head. But, for all the technological advances in the movie's setting, past and future are still linked. It seems like many characters are either in the middles of a misspent youth filled with self-destructive behavior or reckoning with repairing the damage done in previous years Looper's characters sop up as much pleasure as they need to numb themselves to the responsibility and inevitability that comes with the passage of time.

Sounds grim, right? There's a strong streak of nihilism in Looper, but it serves to make the movie's central premise incredibly attractive. How might your life change if your past self knew what you know now? It's a tantalizing question with a pot of gold at the end of rainbow as a possible answer. Looper operates on a cat-&-mouse template but it's the same guy chasing himself. Moreover, it's a hunt where an older, more assured self goes after a callower, more short-sighted drug addict from decades past. The ending seems written in stone but time travel screws up the assumption that anything is pre-ordained.

Looper Might Be the Best Time Travel Movie Ever

The movie's effects are well done, placing Joe's story in a five-minutes-from-now future that looks like a stop on the way to Blade Runner's choked, overbuilt Los Angeles. Cheap solar panels are all over the place, jerry-rigged onto today's cars. Rollaway computer screens and phones that are just a square of glass replace desktops and phones. And slatbikes—motorcycle chassis strapped to evolved jet turbines—show off how the rich and thrill-obsessed get around in 2044 Chicago. It's not a utopian future by any means.

As Young Joe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a great jaw-clenching take on Bruce Willis' all-too-familiar tics. Willis' performance makes deft use of his real-world standing as an aging Hollywood bad-ass. He gets a few moments of over-the-top gunplay and they stand out for how egregious they feel compared to the rest of the action.

Looper benefits from a nice mix of motifs, too: the subtext of urban encroaching on rural that you get from westerns, the squandered potential of an inglorious sci-fi future and some wiseguy mafioso shorthand for the criminal underground. It's stylized but not to hide any lack of substance.

The quintessential time travel question sits at the heart of Looper: if you could go back in time and change things to make the world a better place, would you? And even if a cosmically greater good happens because of it, what kind of person does that make you? Ultimately, Looper is about maturity and when you acquire it, about what you grow up around and how it shapes you, taking stock of past lives. It's a great sci-fi movie that smartly uses its fantastic mechanisms to illuminate prickly sharp observations about human personality. Go for the action, stay for the brains and glory in its surprising psychological depth.