Friday, October 5, 2012

I Don't Want to Talk about Time Travel

It's odd to comprehend that the scrawny kid from 3'rd Rock from the Sun is seriously a movie star. I can still picture young Tommy Solomon, with his shoulder-length hair and carefree attitude, stealing many a scene from his older, more experienced costars. Since then, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has practically exploded onto the movie scene. He has been exploring a wide variety of film roles, starring in indie flicks like (500) Days of Summer, 50/50 and Hesher, and also major blockbusters G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and the surprisingly good Premium Rush. But the film widely considered to have catapulted him to where he stands now is 2005's Brick, the neo-noir thriller and debut of director Rian Johnson for which Gordon-Levitt's performance was vastly praised. Seven years later, the actor reunites with his Brick director for the time-traveling thriller Looper, which sees Gordon-Levitt wearing some crazy prosthetics as a unique style of hit-man who is literally confronted by his future.

He's looking a little different...
In the not-too-distant future, crime and poverty have risen to stratospheric heights, and the corrupt government ensures that things won't change anytime soon. In thirty years time travel will be invented, immediately outlawed, and therefore operated by only the largest criminal organizations. Because trackers make disposing of murder victims practically impossible, anybody the mob wants removed is instead zipped into the past, to be disposed of by specially-chosen assassins, named Loopers, who can secretly murder these people and wipe clean of any evidence. It's no easy life of luxury, however, as letting a target escape is grounds for extreme termination. Eventually, Loopers are sent their future selves to "close the loop", paid a boatload of cash and get the next thirty years to live their lives. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper who rose from the filth of the streets to make a name for himself as one of the most reliable men in the business. All that changes when he is confronted by his future self (Bruce Willis), who catches Joe off guard and manages to escape, and seems to be on an unknowable mission. Now Joe, on the run from his organization, will do anything to take down his older self, but what is Old Joe's goal? And how does a telekinetic single mother (Emily Blunt) fit into the picture?

Looper's story is brightened by multiple intricately-managed mysteries, which refuse to be rushed in this two-hour film. The balancing act appears to be Johnson's strength as a writer and director; never revealing even the tiniest details before the timing is absolutely right. Johnson also knows that not everything in the universe needs to be told in vast detail; there are several instances of seemingly important facts glossed over - for instance, that about ten percent of the population can for some reason move small items with their mind -  and the reason for that is there is a major difference between needing to know something and needing to know everything about it. We don't need to know exactly WHY or HOW people have this talent, but we DO need to know that they have it, and Johnson wisely gives us just that. The character growth of Joe is also something of a big deal, as he goes from self-absorbed sociopath to... something else. I won't go into further detail as to avoid spoilers, but Joe's path is one of the better character stories I've seen in film this year, right up there with Judge Anderson in Dredd and the leads in For a Good Time, Call... It helps to be portrayed by a wunderkind like Gordon-Levitt and an underrated performer in Willis, but it is Johnson's direction that ensures that we demand to follow Joe's journey from beginning to end.

Just saw the box office draw for The Cold Light of Day.
Unfortunately, that aforementioned lack of detail also leads to one of the few problems I had with Looper: the science. I like time travel stories, from  H.G. Wells to Doctor Who to The Terminator to any comic book reference (and there are many). But do you know what they all have in common? They have rules. Very elaborate rules. Going back in time and altering the past is usually portrayed as a big no-no in stories, most notably because it can cause a paradox that does serious damage to the future. In Marvel Comics and the recent Star Trek reboot, such things merely causes parallel time-lines that exist outside the accepted universe. Even in the Terminator and (admittedly not time time travel) Final Destination pictures, fighting to stop a tragic future is never really successful, as the universe tends to right itself and force those events to occur eventually. Nowhere in modern time travel lore does it say that you can alter the past on a whim and with no major repercussions, and the logic in the science appears tailored to the story Johnson wanted to tell rather than something the tale is built around. Looper does get around this by making sure none of its characters really understand how time travel works, and in the end it doesn't matter all that much. While a little more science wouldn't have hurt the overall story, neither does it's absence detract from the rest of the movie.

She can hold my gun anytime.
The movie's story is one of great characters, and Johnson puts together a stellar cast to patch the whole thing together. Great pains were taken to make Gordon-Levitt and Willis appear like versions of the other, and while Willis puts on one of his better Bruce Willis impersonations, Gordon-Levitt is masterful at representing Willis' younger self. Sure, the unnoticeable prosthetics he dons certainly play a part, but his ability to nuance himself into a role is all but unparalleled in the industry, making for one of the year's better genre performances. A supporting cast of the excellent Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Garret Dillahunt, and Noah Segran flesh out what is already a generous amount of narration, and Johnson shows a keen eye for talent in his selections of his actors. Blunt especially stretches far from her comfort zone, a welcome sight for an actress of such talent, but everyone here is wonderful as well. Each has an important role to play, and more than fill their requisite storytelling needs.

"Just a tip from the future: stay away from the brisket."
Looper has deep and human characters, a generous dose of humor, and one of the best-written morality plays I've seen in this or any other year. This is probably the best science fiction film I've seen in recent years, perhaps only a tick behind District 9 or Moon, even though its a movie that will likely appeal more to mainstream audiences than the hardcore sci-fi fans that will frequent it. The lack of scientific logic might seem like a serious step back from traditional sci-fi, but I'll take the bad science when I'm offered both great characters and a worthy story that keeps me hooked. The only question is where to place it in my Top 10 for the year, a place it surely deserves to be listed. For genre films, it's better than just about everything Marvel has put out (besides The Avengers, of course), and perhaps just a bit higher than Dredd. #5 for 2012 seems just about right. Gordon-Levitt keeps proving that he deserves to be a star, and with fare like this constantly appearing on his resume, I'll gladly allow it.


Richard J. Marcej said...

I couldn't agree more. I saw this Monday night (so haven't gotten to post my review yet) and agree that it's one of the best science fiction films that I've seen in a long time! Maybe since "Blade Runner".

It does what every great science fiction film should do. It poses difficult questions without succumbing to easy answers.

Perhaps the greatest compliment this movie viewer can give "Looper" is that the trailer DIDN'T give everything away. It showed enough to get me intrigued but was still able to surprise me with it's story's direction and conclusion. And in this day and age, that ain't easy.

Richard J. Marcej said...

One other thing.
I'm also a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and I think there should be a new Oscar award developed. Best performances in a large amount of movies in a given year. Kind of the " Jessica Chastain Award".

She had seven releases in 2011 and while I didn't see them all, her performances were always unique and a standout.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt will have four releases in 2012 and after seeing his first three performances, I'd make him a shoe-in for the best in the most of '12.

Mr. Anderson said...

I absolutely agree! Even if the Oscars are already a little bloated, I would love the see the addition of an award that recognizes and actor's body of work for the year, not just one solitary role. You mention Chastain, and I would put forth Michael Fassbender's name, he who played three very different characters in three VERY different movies in 2011. It would also be a great boon for performers who consistently put in excellent work but perhaps don't get the automatic attention of a George Clooney or an Angelina Jolie.