Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Bruce Willis, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels
Rated: R, for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content
Runtime: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Bottom line: Brilliant sci-fi actioner
Science fiction used to be a genre of ideas.
Ever since Fritz Lang’s 1927, still-relevant masterpiece “Metropolis,” the best sci-fi flicks present us with a credible, usually dystopian, vision of our future and pose ethical dilemmas which spring from contemporary social and technological trends.
Impressive visual design has always been essential — the film must tangibly create the future, after all — but action used to be merely an accoutrement to movies whose primary goal was to contemplate humanistic truths or the consequences of present day folly.
And then “Star Wars” happened.
Ever since then, science fiction has been overshadowed by futuristic fantasy. It’s all spaceships and lasers wielded by two-dimensional stock characters who hurtle through predictable peril.
Fantasy and action sequences are fine, but real science fiction fans long for movies that remind us of how smart the genre can be.
Or here’s an idea: combine fascinating ideas with thrilling action. That’s exactly what “Looper” does.
Writer/director Rian Johnson brings wit and a fresh voice to his first foray into sci-fi. Just as he did in “Brick,” his debut feature, he takes concepts and devices that have been kicked around before yet does something completely novel with them.
The film is set in 2072. Time travel has not yet been invented but will be in about 30 years. It will also be outlawed immediately.
By now, anyone who has seen even a handful of time travel movies understands its inherent problems. So “Looper” treats us like intelligent adults (how refreshing) and doesn’t bother explaining why.
The only people to use time travel, consequently, are outlaws. Future crime bosses have developed a system in which the targets of mob hits are sent back to 2072, where hit men, called loopers, kill the mark and dispose of the body.
It’s a tidy system, but a terrible job. The life of a looper is monotonous and morally crushing.
Loopers are also at the peril of their bosses, who frequently “close loops” unexpectedly, meaning they send retired loopers back in time so their younger selves kill their older selves.
This usually works just fine since the targets are handcuffed and covered with a hood. Before the looper knows what he’s doing, he has closed his own loop and received a nice severance package that is strapped to his future self’s back.
Our story really picks up when the protagonist — we’ll call him Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — unwittingly closes his own loop by killing Old Joe (Bruce Willis).
He decides at that moment to quit looping. He lives out most of his 30 remaining years as a criminal then eventually falls in love and settles down.
By that point, he has aged into Old Joe. And when the time comes for Old Joe to be sent back and killed by Young Joe, Old Joe escapes and goes on the run.
Young Joe and Old Joe must elude their boss (Jeff Daniels), who wants to kill both of them, and find a young child who will one day wipe out all loopers. He will grow to be the man who sends Old Joe to his execution.
But Young Joe and Old Joe also battle each other in a fascinating twist on the time travel narrative. Old Joe wants to preserve the lifetime he has already lived, but Young Joe views his older self as the enemy, the man standing in the way of the future he wants to create.
“Looper” takes us on a sprawling, epic ride over the course of Joe’s two lifetimes. What I just described is merely the first act or so. Johnson develops this scenario in directions that defy expectations and consistently surprise us.
Throughout the film, I kept asking myself if the movie really is as smart as it seemed to be, until the final scenes confirmed that yes, it is.
This is a must-see for science fiction fans and anyone who craves innovative storytelling.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.