If you don’t recognize the name Rian Johnson and haven’t heard it kicked around in discussions of young directors to watch, that is all about to change. Three films into an already impressive career (his debut film Brick is fantastic, and his sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom is better than you’ve been told), Johnson has delivered his most complex and all-around biggest film yet, and it’s the best piece of original sci-fi we’ve seen since Duncan Jones’s Moon.
Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hitman in the near future whose job requires him to kill people sent back in time by criminals of the more distant future — but it’s not really as confusing as it sounds. Things get complicated when his latest target not only turns out to be his future self (Bruce Willis), but also manages to get the drop on him and escape. What follows is a twisty crime thriller set in a world so fully realized and intricately designed that Ridley Scott would have to tip his hat. This is not a shiny, pristine, white-and-silver future. The environs are still recognizably grunge-y, and even the hi-tech gadgets have a worn, workmanlike look to them. Flying hover-motorcycles share the road with “old-fashioned” pick-up trucks retrofitted with tubes and wires in a shabby effort to keep up with the times. It feels like a credible future, and helps ground some of the more outlandish story elements in a sense of odd familiarity. This is also helped by Johnson’s ability to mix in some bone-dry humor, which is best exemplified by a scene where Willis and Gordon-Levitt share a diner booth and Willis scolds his younger self for asking too many questions about the logic of time travel.
I went in concerned that the prosthetic makeup they saddled Gordon-Levitt with in order to make him appear more Bruce-ian would be a distraction — but not only do you stop noticing it after a while, you begin to admire the way JGL manages to work in some subtle Willis mannerisms without tripping too far into an impression. He’s also helped by his outstanding supporting cast, including Jeff Daniels as a world-weary crime boss who exudes menace with every exasperated sigh, Paul Dano as a fellow “looper,” and Emily Blunt as a mysterious woman who ends up getting pulled into Gordon-Levitt’s existential whirlpool. Their natural performances, like Johnson’s “used future” look, keep the film rooted even when it threatens to spiral out of control.
If there’s a critique to be made about Looper, it’s that the film takes an admittedly strange (even for this movie) turn in the second half that you’ll either go with or shake your head at. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this hard left into bizarre territory left me both admiring Johnson’s willingness to expand his scope and attempt something on a much broader scale, and feeling like Looper had a bit of a unbalanced, schizophrenic feel. Still, this is a thoroughly engrossing, intelligent, and wildly entertaining movie that you should absolutely see. Avengers and Dark Knight were great, but this trend towards more original sci-fi (Pacific Rim and Elysium) is welcome, and no one can begrudge Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s all-out assault on filmdom.