Women in science fiction films tend to get short shrift. There are exceptions, obviously. The Alien series for instance is generous to its female inhabitants. But by and large it’s a genre that tends to be something of a boy’s playground, with any genuine layering or complexity reserved for your main man (unless he’s Keanu Reeves, in which case, scale it down a little). So it’s refreshing – in fact delightful – to see Emily Blunt turn up half way through this time-travelling twister and completely wipe the floor with everyone.
But, ironically for this picture, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Looper is the new film from Rian Johnson, who has so far brought us the high-school film-noir indie classic Brick and the complete car crash The Brothers Bloom. The former’s greatness leavened by the latter’s rambling banality. Thankfully Looper sees him back on track to the smart genre-bending that got people whispering about him in the first place, delivering what appears to be a mass-audience action sci-fi film, but in fact turns out to be something much more involving and somewhat less easy.
The time is the present, albeit if the present were 2044. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (currently everywhere) plays Joe, a ‘looper’ working for organised crime who takes out undesirables sent back from the future. He stands in a field with his blunderbuss and waits for hooded victims to pop into his timeline so he can blow them away and dispose of the bodies. Clean. However all ‘loopers’ know that they will eventually ‘close the loop’, and that one of their masked marks will be their future selves, sent back for them to blow away anonymously, tidying up the loose ends. With me? Good. Because Joe’s future self is Bruce Willis. And he just got away.
This set-up alone would satisfy 90% of action directors and you’d be forgiven for expecting an ensuing 100 minutes of fast-edited chase sequences, maybe a pit-stop midway for a Fed-Exed plot twist or token love interest before big explosions, job done, credits. I expected it. I was comfortable waiting for it, hoping that at least Johnson would take us down some inventive variations of what we’ve seen before.
So I was thrilled when Looper defiantly went down a different tangent altogether, drawing an even more interesting tale out of its clever weave, one I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for anyone here.
All of this requires exposition to get us up to speed. I’ve crammed cliff notes into these paragraphs here, when Looper has far more to get through. By necessity this weighs a little on the opening half hour as Johnson tries to establish his low-tech future as snappily and as painlessly as possible. It’s a little rough, but it gets you there. It’s not until Willis arrives that things begin kicking up a notch. Johnson’s technique for bringing us up to speed on older-Joe’s side of the story is masterful both visually and from a simple story-telling perspective. And then the two Joes… sit down for a good quarter of an hour.
As older-Joe says, they could sit talking about the perplexities and paradoxes of time travel for hours. Johnson isn’t making that film. But the way in which the two Joes relate to one another, and the way in which the film purposefully slows down to do this is key to the success of what follows. It places the film very deftly on a different tempo, and something far more interesting and emotionally involving develops, far greater than that initial sprint even hinted at.
All of which leads to Emily Blunt and a farmhouse in a cornfield, hardly the staple image of futuristic sci-fi. Well good, because it’s fitting that Johnson takes us outside of the genre’s usual visual cues, because Looper aims for something different.
Johnson’s roots remain outside of digestible mainstream cinema, and it shows in some of his choices here. Young Joe is a junkie, and a fairly unrepentant one, whilst his future self proves shockingly adept at making some difficult and reprehensible decisions (one sequence will no doubt shock and upset many). But it is not Looper’s hard heart which leaves the greatest impression, but it’s rueful, tender and compassionate one, a heart that beats in a rundown farmhouse with secrets and history. Again, credit to Emily Blunt for bringing such a strong, believable edge to this story from the fringes of the incredible.
Johnson keeps this in check though, and things don’t overspill into schmaltz. Like Spielberg at his most restrained, he knows just how much sentiment to bring to the party. And if you come to Looper not looking for emotional involvement, rest assured there’s also a hard-as-nails action piece in which a stone-faced Bruce Willis does the business with two-guns. You get that too.
Willis and Gordon-Levitt are fine. Willis probably stands out a little more, as J G-L seems hampered slightly trying to imitate his elder counterpart. Elsewhere it’s a minor shame to see the likes of Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano given relatively little to do. But I’m loath to bemoan Looper as it took me somewhere I wasn’t expecting it to, surpassing my expectations. I turned up for a good sci-fi action yarn, and I got one, but I feel like I got something more in the bargain. And Garret Dillahunt’s in there too, one of my favourite character actors in a role that, for one reason or another, you’re not liable to forget in a hurry.
It’s not perfect. It doesn’t ignite immediately, and a couple of beats clunk along the way. But unlike a number of other multiplex-bound high concept pictures this year, Looper somersaults over expectation and leaves Johnson in a very comfortable position amongst Hollywood’s thinking class. Unexpectedly, one of the films of the year, and one which, with time, could become a beloved genre piece. You know, with time.