Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Being Kept In the Loop

Saturday night's film: Rian Johnson's Looper (2012).



I must begin by inserting my standard caveat about science-fiction not being my typical bread and butter, even though much of the subject matter of sci-fi is interesting to me. But I find I often chafe at what seem like excessive liberties taken with reality in pursuit of a compelling story. It rubs me wrong in exactly the same way as inserting *magic* into a story does: if we can just make any old shit up, then NOTHING has any ACTUAL MEANING. The death of a person isn't really tragic if they can be jesused back to life with fairy dust; no bad occurrence is really bad when the wave of a magic wand can impetuously undo the damage. (And the feeble attempts by the writers to limit the wizard's / magician's powers--"She can do X, but Y is beyond her power"--just seem the easiest of silly fiats.)

Well, this is kind of where I instinctively come down on the subject of time travel. I know it's a staple of sci-fi, but I usually find myself swamped by a tsunami of questions that get in the way of my enjoying the story. But we'll come back to that.

Rian Johnson's film Looper is almost entirely about time travel. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a young man employed as a "Looper." The Looper's job is to kill people who have been sent back from the future expressly for elimination. The victim materializes in a flash before the Looper at a precise moment and locale and is summarily shot at that instant. Time travel is illegal, and these people are sent back to Joe's time from some unspecified period in the future by organized crime bigwigs so that they can be eliminated before the problems they will make have even started.

I think.

Most Loopers work a certain number of jobs before having, as a final assignment, to exterminate the future versions of themselves--an event which is called "closing the loop." After this they are allowed to retire and live off the wealth they acquired by looping.

That's actually a pretty interesting premise if you don't ask too many questions. The difficulty faced by a Looper at having to eliminate the future version of themselves is an easy concept to run with. In Joseph Gordon-Levitt's case, his future self (played by Bruce Willis) materializes and escapes before being eliminated. This is an unacceptable failure for the Looper--and surely a deadly one--so the race is on to A) either rectify the problem so that Young Joe might keep himself alive, or B) determine if Old Joe really knows something that warrants keeping him alive. This sets up all sorts of intriguing possible scenarios, including Young Joe meeting Old Joe in a diner for a conversation about what lies in store for him / what happened to him. And it turns out that Old Joe is fighting a battle against a powerful person (called "The Rainman") who has caused Old Joe some grievous harm--harm that Young Joe does not yet see coming. Where is the truth in the scenario? And what to do about it when Young Joe is now in a world of hurt for failing to execute his contract?

I admit to being quite rapturously entertained. The cast--Gordon-Levitt, Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, and the spooky Pierce Gagnon as the young boy--are all just perfect for their roles. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is kind of unrecognizable because of the use of a facial prosthetic to make him more Bruce-Willis-looking, but the trouble pays off: the illusion is almost perfectly convincing (it's an astounding makeup job, as he has many closeups and there is nary a hint of anything amiss). This use of different actors to play the same character in different phases of life is historically another of my little pet peeves; it just so often fails to work and poses a great distraction. But this time I daresay they pull it off. The action moves along at a goodly clip, and there are nice noir-like voiceovers from Gordon-Levitt filling in the blanks. The world of the near-future is nicely done, without placing too much emphasis on it.

So, within the constraints of the genre, I give the film high marks.

And yet. I find I can't stop chewing on things. Twice during the film Gordon-Levitt says in voiceover "Time travel hasn't been invented yet. But in 70 years it will be." Does that even make sense? People going back from the future are almost by definition returning to visit a time period where time travel doesn't yet exist. So wouldn't EVERY period have experience of time travel, even if they weren't equipped to understand it? And the death of a young person in the film's present day makes the future iteration of that person disappear in a poof. I understand this as a concept, but wouldn't that mean that people in the present day occasionally vanish into thin air from an action wrought upon THEIR younger selves? I just think you can't open up that door without letting the whole swarm of locusts in, at which point telling a coherent story becomes, well, other-worldly.

But I understand that no one who is a fan of this type of movie will object to these things, and even for me these questions did not stand in the way of my enjoying the film quite a bit. And for that matter, it does seem that writer / director Johnson has intentionally reigned in this aspect of the story to a very manageable few details expressly to avoid muddying the waters too much. And it works.

Grade: A-

14 comments:

CyberKitten said...

It's a bit late to comment extensively on this (just after 11pm and I'm on my way to bed) but I'll have something more substantial tomorrow when I get home from work.

The short story: Interesting idea, nicely filmed, but internally inconsistent and philosophically incoherent so basically fell apart at the end for me. Basically disappointing.

wunelle said...

You're much more savvy about SF than I, so I'll look forward to your extended views. I was entertained, but a part of me felt I SHOULDN'T have been! ;-)

Vancouver Voyeur said...

M and I enjoyed this. M liked Willis' character's explanation about time travel, "don't over think it," and that his memories were already fuzzy. I purposely avoided over thinking it so I could enjoy the movie.

CyberKitten said...

OK.... A couple of minor points first:

Flying bikes???? Very silly...and from a brief look at their design - impossible.

Then the killings: SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER

If they can send the people back to a specific time and place why don't they just send them back into a known active volcano - it'd be a lot cheaper and there'd be zero chance of escape.

My main issue is, of course, philosophical. Throughout most of the film they use a Linear idea of time - exhibited by the interesting idea of communicating with your future self by inflicting a scar causing wound on yourself. Yet, at the end (HUGE SPOILER) the final act of the young Looper was clearly based on the Alternate Worlds idea of time because in a linear time universe the act would have negated the entire plot of the film! You really can't have it both ways - which the movie very much tried to do. Either the writers painted themselves into a corner and changed tack to get out of it (hoping no one would notice) or they just got things muddled up - which is easy to do when you're using Time Travel as a plot device.

So, I honestly wasn't that impressed. B for effort (maybe) but D- for execution.

wunelle said...

Interesting. I just haven't seen enough of this stuff to maybe even ask the right questions. It seems that any one of a zillion possible scenarios would so change the future that the whole world would be in surreal flux all the time.

I wonder if anyone has done this subject matter well, or (since I reasonably enjoyed Looper) better or more coherently than Looper. I'd be curious to see others' takes on time travel.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

Oh my gosh, I can't believe I didn't catch that C K. ! That would have negated everything. That's what I get for ignoring things for the sake of enjoying the movie.

CyberKitten said...

I think what *should've* happened is young Looper does his thing at the end. Time reverts back to the point where he's in the corn field waiting for future Looper - who doesn't arrive.

He waits a bit more, then gets back in his truck and (with voice over) drives back to the city where he thinks things over and packs the whole thing in. He then goes on a road trip and find himself drawn to the Midwest where he bumps into Emily Blunt. They both have an instant connect like they've met before and start seeing each other. With young Loopers silver bars they fix up the farm and start a new life together, bringing up the boy to be an upstanding citizen..... Fade to black.....

wunelle said...

That would have been a nice ending!

Vancouver Voyeur said...

CK, you're a hopeless romantic! Wish you lived state-side, I've got a friend who would be perfect for you.

CyberKitten said...

Being a romantic in the Age of Cynicism isn't easy...... [grin]

Oh, and I did have a feeling that the girl of my dreams is actually living on a different continent. It'd explain a lot!

Vancouver Voyeur said...

She's an artist, a glass blower, creative, independent, well-read. She's your age, likes her alone time in her studio, but likes having a man around too. Doesn't smother or like to be smothered either.

CyberKitten said...

Anymore of that and Wunelle will be getting hassle from e-Harmony's lawyers!

My practical head says that I should really concentrate what little effort I am making to this side of the Atlantic. But thank you for the thought....

wunelle said...

Don't make me come in there and play chaperone! ;-)

Vancouver Voyeur said...

Wunelle, we need to fix CK up. Any connections to get him a cheap flight to the US? :-)