New release 'Looper' takes unexpected twists, turns

Paul Dano and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Looper." SOURCE TRISTAR PICTURES
October 7, 2012

Time travel has long been a favorite sub-genre in science fiction. Some of the best examples of this subsection are those with microscopic budgets. Perhaps it has to do with their creators having to focus more on ideas than technology. For example, I’ll take the microscopic-budgeted “Primer” and “Moon” over the 2002 version of “The Time Machine” or “Land of the Lost,” both of which had the about 10 times the budget of NASA.

Rare is the film that can balance both. Even “The Terminator” began on a budget of $6 million, 1/33 the budget of the franchise’s most recent incarnation, 2009’s “Terminator: Salvation.”

“Looper,” the most recent take on skipping through time, certainly carries a larger budget than, say, the $7,000 it took to create “Primer,” but it was still small beans by comparison to this summer’s “Men in Black III,” which also sent its leads back in time. It also manages to be one of the best science fiction films to hit the screens in quite some time.

This is, in part, due to writer/director Rian Johnson, who I think started out writing a film noir that happened to deal with time travel (just like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was a romance that happened to feature science fiction). It’s a genre in which he’s comfortable, having made a splash with “Brick,” which was placed in a high school setting.

Let me state up front that “Looper” is not the film you may expect from its trailers, which are touting it as sort of another “Inception”-style mind-melter. Let me also state that the places which it heads instead are just wildly ambitious and a thrill to behold for the adventurous filmgoer. It’s just more ponderous than pulse-pounding.

In about 60 years from now, according to the film, time travel will be almost simultaneously discovered and banned (Why?! Think of all the money to be made on sports betting alone!). Yet, society’s seediest segments still manage to use it by sending their foes back in time to be executed by “loopers,” who greet them with a shotgun blast to the gut within seconds of their arrival.

Loopers then dispose of the bodies, collect their pay and essentially wipe out people’s very existence.

Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is part of this shotgun-wielding welcoming committee, dutifully fulfilling his requirements, squirreling away the part of his earnings that he’s not blowing on drugs and hookers. When a fellow looper (played by Paul Dano) arrives at his apartment, he informs him that his “loop has been closed,” and sets in motion a series of events that drives the rest of the film.

You see, when a looper has outlasted his effectiveness, the older “version” is sent back in time to be killed by his younger self. This soon happens to Joe, when an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), gets zapped back in time. For the sake of the film, this is also where I will choose to “close the loop” of the plot description, for fear of ruining any of the many surprising elements in store.

If there is one distraction, it’s the mounds of makeup caulked onto Gordon-Levitt’s face to make him resemble a “young” Willis. It’s an unnecessary element, as we could have easily bought the evolution based on the strength of the young actor alone. That said, when the two of them sit face to face in the diner, it turns into one of the best across-the-table encounters since Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino shared coffee in Michael Mann’s “Heat.”

What I admired the most is not just the unexpected direction “Looper” takes, but how risky it feels and how unafraid it is to go to some rather dark places. For that reason alone, I give “Looper” a lot of credit, as films that have been sanded down by studios would eliminate certain aspects to increase marketability. But, by staying true to itself, “Looper” will remain a film that is equally as clever as it is entertaining.

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