The key when making time travel films is to balance the cerebral and the visceral. Stories about time travel need to be entertaining, but they also have to work on an intellectual level, to make the most of an interesting concept. If you can't get them to be totally seamless, the next best thing is to make the film so fast-paced and entertaining that we can overlook any small inconsistencies and enjoy it as a series of ideas. Into this box we can now add Looper, which confirms Rian Johnson's status as one to watch.
It isn't too hard to spot all the films to which Looper owes even a passing debt. Johnson's other features, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, have demonstrated how cine-literate he is as a film-maker. He was inspired to become a director after watching Annie Hall, claiming to be fascinated by the different rules of film genres and how Woody Allen's film effortlessly broke so many of them. His affection for the medium shows through in everything he does, and he makes no bones about being in familiar territory.
The biggest touchstone for the film is Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's seminal sci-fi thriller which set the bar extremely high for time travel stories in the post-Back to the Future age. The comparison doesn't stop with the presence of Bruce Willis (who was at his career-best in Gilliam's film), since the films pitch the relationship between the main character's past and future self on similar levels. Both films play on the idea of changing memories within a time-loop structure, and both are essentially fatalistic, acknowledging that time travel stories are largely cautionary tales, filled with despair, loneliness and self-annihilation.
While Twelve Monkeys serves as the anchor or predecessor for many of the film's ideas, it is by no means the only film to which the narrative owes a debt. Joe's plight is similar to Captain John Anderton's in Minority Report: he goes on the run after the system he has lived by starts targeting him, with everything appearing normal to his colleagues. Cid's characterisation owes a lot to both The Omen and The Fury, with Johnson drawing on the 'demon child' archetype presented in the former and referencing the final scene of the latter in the death of Jesse.
Elsewhere there are visual nods to The Terminator in the later stages (particularly the image of the older Joe relentlessly pursuing Cid) and to Timecrimes with multiple versions of the same protagonist wandering around, just missing each other's movements. Looper is visually the most mainstream-looking film that Johnson has directed thus far, having the same glossy sheen as Source Code or any Christopher Nolan film. You could even argue that Nolan is a narrative influence: the film contains elements of both Memento and Inception in how one version of the protagonist creates or destroys the memories of the other.
While we are clearly in familiar territory, Looper does raise a number of interesting ideas which are either unique or put an interesting new twist on ideas raised on other, similar films. For starters, it presents a very clever inversion of the grandfather paradox - the idea that if you went back in time and killed your own grandfather, you would cease to exist, meaning that you could not have travelled back in the first place. Examples of this are present throughout the Back to the Future trilogy: in the first film Marty almost ceases to exist because he nearly prevents his mother and father from getting together.
The fate of the loopers is an inversion of this, since they are asked to kill their future self, thereby preventing an immediate paradox and "closing their loop". This creates an immediate difference in demeanour: people subject to the grandfather paradox often live in fear or panic, while the ex-loopers party and celebrate being released. Theirs is not an existential despair, but an empty hedonistic rush; they know they will die one day, and there's no point saving or being cautious in the meantime. Joe begins the story saving up his silver bars, but by the time he has grown old he has partied wild and found the woman of his dreams.
This latter development sets in motion events around the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies. Bruce Willis' love for his wife leads him on a path of revenge, which manifests in his desire to find and kill the child who will become the Rainmaker. But in attempting to do so, he causes the events that will bring about the Rainmaker in the first place, specifically Cid witnessing the death of Sara.
This is where Looper treads closest to Twelve Monkeys, since both Joe and Cole seem unable to stop either their own deaths or the great catastrophe that will befall mankind. Both films (up to a point) obey the terms of the Novikov self-consistency principle, which states simply that any event that could cause a paradox cannot occur, and therefore time travel cannot alter anything. But while Twelve Monkeys followed through to the end with a haunting final scene, Looper pulls out and gives us a happy ending which undoes a lot of its logic. Its ending is technically impossible, undoing much of what has gone before and thereby reducing the chance of that ending happening in the first place.
The film is also interested in the importance of parents in the formative years of children. It's easy to overplay this and reduce the film down to a treatise on parenthood, just as you cannot reduce We Need To Talk About Kevin down to the words "parents, discipline your children". Johnson contrasts Cid's careful upbringing by Sara with that of Joe, who was sold to gangsters at a very young age; he presents both parties as having some degree of dysfunction, contrasting their different methods of protection and prevention. There is also, on the sidelines, an interesting surrogate father-son relationship between Jeff Daniels' character and Joe's gun-toting rival.
Looper conveys all these interesting ideas through an intelligent and well-written script. Johnson handles the themes smartly and treats his audience like rational human beings, who don't need the entire mechanics of time travel spelled out every thirty seconds. He keeps the characters at the forefront of the story, so that we spend less time figuring out how all the strands fit together and more on the emotional response of the individuals. This ensures that we always go with the story even when things aren't resolved or make a great deal of sense.
Johnson is also confident enough to make his characters morally ambiguous. Each of the characters have a very good reason for doing what they do, and we find ourselves conflicted about which version of Joe is doing the right thing, both for himself and everyone else. Each of the main characters undergoes a little soul-searching where they question what they are doing - Bruce Willis, for instance, pictures his wife and openly weeps when he is killing the children in his search for the Rainmaker.
Not only can Johnson write well, but his direction is highly entertaining. Looper is very fast-paced, with a good balance of action and drama: after the opening exposition dump, it zips along very nicely and tells its story with great efficiency. The action scenes occasionally feel too standard: Willis' machine-gunning everyone down feels like a leftover from the Die Hard films. But the film makes up for this with good special effects and some very effective make-up to make us believe that Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt could be related.
The performances in Looper are generally very good. WIllis and Gordon-Levitt are very convincing as the different versions of Joe, and even without the accurate make-up they spark off each other, especially in the diner scene. Emily Blunt continues to impress in roles that require a blend of steeliness and vulnerability; she has more to work with here than in The Adjustment Bureau and has great screen presence. Unfortunately, the film also confirms how annoying Paul Dano is an actor. He seems incapable of playing anything other than mopey teenagers or whingers, and Johnson is very wise to kill him off early.
Looper is a really entertaining sci-fi action thriller which demonstrates Johnson's great skill as a director. Its time travel logic and causality don't entirely hold up to scrutiny, but it has more than enough interesting ideas and emotional depth to carry it through, thanks to good writing and a very efficient hand behind the camera. It's no Twelve Monkeys, make no mistake, but until we get another of those it will do quite nicely.