Hollywood still reigns supreme in 2044 by way of Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller Looper. Infused with motifs of time-travel and self-determination, and further complemented by a dazzling portrait of a dystopian future America, Looper is Johnson’s most ambitious film to date, despite yielding to Hollywood sentimentality at its climax.
The film is set in two alternating time periods: 2044, and 2074. In 2074, time-travel has been invented and outlawed, and the world is under the control of a crime lord, who not-so-modestly calls himself the Rainmaker. Those under the Rainmaker’s hegemony have illicit, underground access to these time-travel mechanisms, and use it to send their prey back in time — to 2044 — where they are to be exterminated by “loopers” – hitmen who stand patiently in a field, shoot their veiled victims, dispose of their bodies, and await their next loop.
At some point, the loopers are too close their own loop, which means that they are forced to eliminate their future selves sent back from 2074. This obviously means that the free-willed assassins of 2044 are not so free-willed after all. After closing their loops (which they only become aware of after the assassination has taken place), they are offered enough gold to last them a lifetime – that is, the thirty years they have until they are to be sent back in time and executed.
This is all quite complex, but all of it is made quite clear thanks to the well-utilized voice-over narrative by Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a looper who proves incapable of closing his own loop, unintentionally setting his future self (Bruce Willis) free in the 2044 world.
What is so refreshing about the film is that not once does it insult its audience with pseudo-scientific rationalizations for its employment of time-travel. Johnson, through Abe (Jeff Daniels) — a mobster from the future who is sent back in time to oversee the 2044 loopers — explains it all with a simple I don’t know. It is too complicated to explain, Daniels’ character tells Joe and hence, the audience — and this is by the far the most dignified explanation a sci-fi film can give for an idea so fantastical.
Yet surprisingly, the first half of the film isn’t at all fantastical, regardless of its dystopian themes, its loopers, its futuristic vehicles, or new-fangled weapons. It is reminiscent of an uglier present-day, and Johnson is a master of evoking this kind of grit and dreariness. The world Joe lives in is suffocating, and when he closes his loop, he dreams of Paris, and a more cultured future before his inevitable extermination. But the older Joe proves that this is not to the future to be had for his younger self: He is to go to China, fall in love with a woman that brings him closer to his own humanity, and he is to lose that woman at the hands of one of the Rainmaker’s mercenaries. As a consequence of this chain of events, Old Joe has found a way to escape to the past, with the goal of slaying the murderous crime-lord – who, in 2044, is only a child. Therefore, Levitt is now chasing his older self so as to close his loop, and Willis is on a manhunt so that his former self can fully experience the love that he lost at the hands of the Rainmaker.
Unfortunately, the second-half of the film takes a turn for the saccharine. A change of setting leads Joe to a ranch, where we are finally introduced to Cid, the future Rainmaker (Pierce Gagnon) who can telepathically obliterate homes and people when failing to control his temper. We are also introduced to his mother Sara (Emily Blunt). Unsurprisingly, this is where the film barefacedly switches to autopilot. Of course, Levitt is to fall in love with Blunt, and he undoubtedly is to feel a paternal fondness for Cid, and all of this will unquestionably lead Joe to fight his future self to his very last breath – all in the name of love (not real love, of course, but the wonderfully saccharine and sacrificial love that we have come to expect from Hollywood).
Throughout the rest of the film, one hopes that Johnson turns the cards on his audience, offering a more inspired conclusion to such an inspired film, but that proves to be as fantastical as time-travel itself. The grittiness and the notions of free-will that so engrossingly opened the film are all sacrificed in the name of love.
In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his very last novel, Timequake, a fictitious account of a civilization forced to go back in time, ten-years previous to their present-day lives. Strangely, regardless of the “timequake,” the time-travellers retained their memories of the future, fully aware of what was to happen to them in the next ten years. Vonnegut dooms his time-travelling characters to make the same mistakes and follow the same paths so as to raise interesting and often harrowing questions concerning free will and fate. He was also quite clear about where he stood on the subject: We are condemned, and can in no way change our past. Unlike Looper’s cheery finale, love is not the solution to the big bad man in the future. It does, however, sell a lot of popcorn.