Friday, September 28, 2012

Movie Review: "Looper" by Alex Schopp

Release: 2012
Director: Rian Johnson
Written By: Rian Johnson
Actors: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo
Rated: R
Run Time: 118 min

“Looper” is the kind of sci-fi film that makes you leave the theater so full of joy that there are young, passionate filmmakers out there who you can tell are invested in and really care about the Sci-Fi genre. The writer and director of the film, Rian Johnson, is a known commodity in this nook of the film world, and coming off such successes as the cerebral “Brick” and the sneaky “The Brothers Bloom”, it seemed that with the right pieces, Johnson was primed to catapult to an entirely new level. And with “Looper”, only his third film and first getting a national release, it feels like he might have taken that big next step. With his intelligent writing and noir-style directing, Johnson joins a class of modern, sophisticated sci-fi writers and directors that includes the likes of Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams. The craftsmanship displayed in “Looper is solid on all levels, and it now seems only a matter of time before Johnson gets his own “The Dark Knight” or “Star Trek” to play with.

“Looper” is a futuristic, action thriller, in a universe where time travel has been invented, but is illegal and only available on the black market. Its only use we see in the film is that from the mob. In the future, due to tracking devices and chip implantation, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of a body when you need to. So when the mob needs to clean up a mess, they send the target 30 years into the past, where a "looper" - a hired gun and our main character, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) - is waiting to mop up. Getting rid of a body before it exists, and for the looper, taking out a person who doesn't yet exist is as tidy as it gets.

Joe is getting rich and life is good. With no real commitments or ties to anything but his job, he’s living a life full of wealth, drugs and women. And things are just fine until the day comes where the mob decides to "close the loop” on him, sending back Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) for assassination. But when his future-self escapes, the past and future are constantly altered and realigning, making for a chess game of sorts between each of them, both struggling for their lives – from each other and the powerful mob members out to get rid of them both and clean up the mess.

There are so many more details that I could share on this film, and still various plot elements that I didn't even touch on, but that feels like a pretty good start. Plus that still leaves plenty of exciting elements for you to discover on your own upon viewing. But the overall plot and progression is definitely a major highlight of the film. This script is so fine-tuned and so smartly written that it’s hard to find many holes in the story, even one as complex as time travel. Johnson did a fantastic job of setting up this universe and presenting it in a way that was not only thoroughly mapped out, but also presented in a way as not to lose viewers with its intricacies. For those obsessive enough to take the time to think about it, it seems that for the most part Johnson discovered a plausible way to present time travel in film. The details of it seem “sound”, and every circumstance we see in the film feels like it would be accurate. But even knowing that Johnson must have spent much time trying to work the “science” of it out, it’s never presented as a movie about the science – one of my favorite scenes in the film is one in which Willis’ character is proclaiming that they could make charts and diagrams all day long going in circles about how it all works, but it would take all day and the same questions would still exist. He says it’s a fact, it happens and he doesn't like thinking about it. This scene felt like a humorous nod to the audience; an audience that has probably seen its fair share of time travel concepts explained on the big screen plenty of times before (and most with little success). For a lesser director, you might consider this the easy way out, but for Johnson, it’s met knowing that he included this as to not worry the audience with the details he probably already so vividly constructed.

Past the science fiction elements of the film, there are still some moments of great humanity and interaction. It does get boiled down very purely in one final scene, but the same elements are presented throughout the film. It all comes down to what you believe In and who you’re fighting for, but playing with different areas in times and different scenarios that can or could play out, affecting various outcomes for a single person to the entire planet, it gets pretty grand. It doesn't try to get too over-complicated with the butterfly effect thing though, just showing the various choices we’re all faced with every day, and how each one of them makes for entirely different futures. And with characters who have a very real knowledge of this, seeing the lengths that each of them would go to protect the things they’re fighting for – love, loss, redemption, sacrifice – it feels very realistic and down-to-earth, even in a future with time travel and flying motorcycles. And though some of those themes might not seem like a big deal, seeing them presented in a science-fiction film - one that has genuine love for its characters - feels like a rarity. There’s more heart here than you’d expect in a genre flick like this, but the addition is definitely what helps this one rise to a higher level.

With the mob basically running the big city, there is crime all around, and poverty flooding the streets. It’s a grim dystopian future, and one that we should all hope we never have to be a part of. But the imagery was great, and the technology never seems to go too over the top – in fact, most aspects are still fairly similar to what we see today, outside of the whole time travel thing, of course (and one other great little sci-fi gem that I didn't expect to see in the film – this element really reminded you of the type of film you were in though, and I loved seeing it). The film takes place in the state of Nebraska, and while much of the film is spent in the big city, there are still parts of the film on the outskirts, in farm country. Those might be my favorite. I hate to do it, but I can’t help but reference Star Wars, and Luke’s home of Tatooine. The settings feel very similar, and something about this style of sci-fi is very fascinating to me. It’s still cornfields and old barns and houses, but there are also futuristic gadgets and technologies all around, just the older, more rundown models. Something about the juxtaposition between the two things is really neat to me. But the entire film has great atmosphere, and seemingly every shot and every location has something interesting to offer.

Tonally, the film played well, never feeling like it was struggling to get anywhere. I enjoyed that Johnson had no fears in slowing the picture down every now and then and letting the characters breathe and collect themselves - something that seems risky given the nature of most audiences today, seemingly needing a non-stop thrill ride in order to sit through an entire film. 
I can imagine that during the portion of the film where Gordon-Levitt's character holed up on the farm, many will find the slower pace and lack of action a veer from the perfect action levels he laid out in the first act of the film, but for me, I enjoyed the calm, and this is the place where we see Gordon-Levitt's character understand everything that everyone has been fighting for in the entire film. It's a necessary moment for the development of the plot, and one that I'm satisfied with. But even with the slower, more relaxed pace in a handful of these scenes, Johnson doesn't skimp on the action too much. Over the entire course of the film, Willis' character is running around in the city, and there's more than enough to keep the action pumping. Guns are still the weapon of choice, and they’re used often. Willis’ character even has a great scene in the final act of the film that feels very much akin to some of his 80’s & 90’s action forays. The tonal shift in towards the second half of the film is noticeable though, and for the wrong viewer, could be seen as a miss.

Overall, the film is exciting in almost every facet from start to finish. The characters are great and provide much more depth than I would normally expect from such a gritty sci-fi entry such as this. Both Willis and Gordon-Levitt were perfect selections for this film, and I feel like they were both on the exact same page with Johnson during the entire shoot. The film is written with such care and feels so perfectly delivered that, upon my initial viewing, it doesn't feel like it lost a step anywhere along the line. Don’t be mistaken, this is still a very traditional science-fiction film, so there are moments with dry tones. But if you can appreciate the classic nature the film is trying to preserve, there never feels like a dull moment. The tones and noir-styles feel very much ripped from the pages of “Blade Runner” and “Alien”, and it’s refreshing to see someone taking the styles of the genre with such care. I have no desire to compare this newest installment to anything either of those films accomplished, but already it feels like similar sci-fi magic is presented here as well.

This is one of the best pure sci-fi adventures I've witnessed in years, unable to even think of the last one that inspired me so much. Many will point to Nolan’s “Inception”, but even comparatively, this felt much cleaner and precise than that film. Both I think are leagues above the average piece to come out these days, but I think the overall entertainment value is stronger with this film, and presented in a much more appealing way. It’s still raw and pure sci-fi, but there is also warmth and humor that I don’t recall feeling with “Inception”.

I've only seen “Looper” once so far, so we’ll have to see what, if any, of these ideas change or are altered with subsequent viewings. I can guarantee you, however, that I will be going back to the theater at least for one more watch – I think the film deserves at least that much - and I’ll be intrigued to see what the time management is like in the film after I already know the outcomes. All signs point to this being a solid entry to the genre though and this is hands-down one of the best films of the year so far. Go see this one while it’s still in theaters. I don’t expect this one will soon fade from sci-fi relevancy.