Before we begin, I'd suggest you see this movie. It has a very unique flavor that's pretty easy to contaminate with a lot of preconceptions. So if you're thinking about seeing it or are at all on the fence, go see it, and then come back here and enjoy talking about it. If you've seen it already, or need more convincing than that, stick around. I'm keeping this part spoiler-free so that everyone can get something out of it.
First off, Looper makes a good first impression by having a very solid and believable vision of the future. I wouldn't call it quite hard sci-fi, but it jibed with my sensibilities a lot better than most. It's fun to look at societies and technologies that are fundamentally and wildly different from the ones we have now, but it's ludicrous to suggest that this is the way the future is actually going to happen. Since most future-focused movies claim to make exactly this suggestion in their exposition, that's the lens I tend to inspect them with.
For all the advancements humanity makes, there are a lot of things that don't change, and in all likelihood won't change in a few decades from now. If you compare today to the past, we still have farms, shops, cars, roads and buildings and such that very much resemble their predecessors. Anyone from 1980 would be able to look at my 2004 model car and say "Well, that's a car." or even my computer and say "Well, that's a computer." So it makes more sense to say that these things will still recognizable 30 years from now. Different, more advanced certainly, but not so drastically different that you have to explain to the audience what they are. Cell phones in the movie are little transparent squares with a glowing interface. Display screens can be folded up to store in your pocket. Billboards are animated with sound, and respond to people near them. None of these are such jarring changes that their presence or mode of operation has to be explained, so it all flows with the story. I rather liked the fact that currency has gone back to blocks of precious metals in the future, that's actually a prediction that the current economy is dangerously close to achieving.
The premise of the movie was quickly and neatly explained by the main character near the beginning. A bit blunt, but it certainly kept the exposition moving along. Sixty years from now, technological advances have made murder nearly impossible to get away with, but they have the benefit of time travel. So anyone needing to commit a murder has but to toss the victim in a time machine and send them back thirty years to a simpler time and have a past assassin off him and complete the then relatively simple process of disposing of the body. Ah, the good old days...
I wasted a great deal of time during the movie thinking of all the things that are wrong with that premise, and I suggest that you avoid doing that by reading my summary and then just going into the movie with an open mind regardless. First, really? That's the only practical use for time travel? I get that this is an organized crime syndicate that we're talking about, but offhand I can think of a dozen more effective ways to monetize time travel. That's probably a bit higher than the national average, but I spend a fair bit more time thinking about such things than most. Regardless, this cabal isn't exclusively murder focused, so if there were easy opportunities to grab more cash you'd think they would take them in a heartbeat.
It's not like there aren't lucrative opportunities to be had. A couple hundred bucks in the hands of the right software programmers working out of their garage and you could own half the country by the time the future rolls around. Stock speculation, peddling miracle cures, selling fancy future designer drugs in a world where they aren't illegal and only you know how to make them, and even Biff's half-baked horseracing scheme are all infinitely more effective uses of the technology. This is such a tremendous waste of potential that I have trouble accepting it. Do these guys use their personal Lear jets to fly to Denny's and have breakfast every morning?
Hell, even if somehow murder becomes the world's only profitable enterprise in the future there are many much more effective ways to kill people and dispose of their bodies with a time machine that have far smaller chances of messy complications than this way. You could send someone back to Siberia three seconds before the Tunguska impact or Hiroshima on the day that is the reason you recognize the name of that city. Even if the time machine can't take you to a different place, setting aside the fact that it absolutely can based on the fact that it hits a fast-moving target (Earth) with 100% accuracy, then you could just send someone back to a time when the Earth was a blazing ball of magma, or was populated by millions of future-stool-pigeon-eating dinosaurs.
How the time travel works specifically is never gone into either. That's always a carrot for sci-fi audiences, but there's hardly the briefest flash of that eye-enhancing ketene-rich goodness . The time machine is literally kept hidden in an old shed for most of the movie, and the rules are never properly explained. It's one-way, and the progressive effects of changes to the past are demonstrated a few times, but beyond that, it's just stuff that happens. And you know what? Both of those things are okay.
Old Joe (Bruce Willis) spells it all out for Young Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) in a quote that bears repeating.
"I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it... don't worry about it."
This effectively resolves the scene with his younger self, and also can be interpreted as a message to the viewer. 'We could spend all day talking about the ins and outs of time travel, but I have a story to tell, and that's not what the story is about.' This applies just as well to the whole premise of the movie. 'Look, the future mob needs people dead and they're using time-assassins to do it. That's freaking cool and you should stop worrying about the practicality of such an exercise and pay attention to the story.' Suspension of disbelief is really important to your enjoyment of the movie, and it appears that the director was very much aware of this. Just the right nudges are given to keep your attention where it needs to be so that you can get the most out of the story. And it is certainly a good story.
The plot is very character-driven. It's something that I like to see and use often in my own writings. It's nice to have a pretty, well-developed world, but something interesting has to be going on in it. The best way to accomplish this is to build the characters first and then construct and populate the world with the locations and devices needed for the characters to play out their story. This leads to the kind of shortcuts that made me wince initially, but I won't deny that it's a great way to tell a story.
To that end, the focus of the movie is very narrow. It just follows a few relatively average people through their lives in the near and far future. Sure there's a fair amount of murder, but nothing very earth-shattering on a large scale ever really happens. That aspect was a refreshing change actually. Sure it builds up tension and excitement when the world is at stake, but sci-fi and fantasy are oversaturated with that as it is. It's becoming formulaic. 'Oh really? The quiet, unassuming farmboy just happens to be named Ziradien McBadass VonCometpunch? I wonder what the gypsy fortune-teller is going to have to say to him?' This is a small story in a larger world, and it feels much more personal for it. The tension comes from that much tighter focus and from the fact that you're close enough to really care about the characters. I like getting really deep and introspective on a small situation sometimes, and really, what's more introspective than a character meeting himself?
Now, I wouldn't be critiquing if I didn't complain about more stuff, and everyone knows that it's not funny to like a movie, it's all about watching someone get all worked up spewing bile about nothing until they give themselves a hate aneurism for your amusement. An easy feat, as this movie is by no means perfect. The thing that hits me pretty hard in hindsight was the bafflingly pointless addition of telekinetic powers.
That was a big wrench into the machine of the whole "reasonable future" thing that I liked so much earlier. The abilities have almost no significance and fill a plot niche that could've been easily filled by... well absolutely nothing actually. Everything that they use the psychic powers for... okay, the one plot-relevant thing they use the psychic powers for could've been substituted for ordinary personality characteristics. This would've actually made the story a bit more relatable and would be much less jarring. As it is, it just looks like mass-market pandering in what was otherwise a very smart and original movie. 'What? Oh, the kids are into superhero movies these days? Well throw some of that X-Men crap in there. That ought to trick a few of 'em into watching it.'
The other thing that left a bad taste in my mouth was the near-Kubrick level of attention to detail in attempting to get the Old Joe/Young Joe dynamic to work out. I say 'near-Kubrick' because it's clear that a tremendous and highly obsessive amount of effort was expended, but it didn't actually work the way a Kubrick film would. In order to make the premise seem more plausible, Joseph Gordon Levitt had elaborate makeup that made him look more like Bruce Willis, supposedly. I didn't see it. That is to say, I didn't see the resemblance to Bruce Willis. I absolutely saw the makeup. Throughout the movie, I did notice "Why do Joseph Gordon Levitt's lips look like they were rendered 'Tomb Raider' style with a really low number of polygons? Why does he have awkward Spock eyebrows that look like poorly-designed motorcycle aerofoils mixed with abstract modern art sculptures? Why does his skin tone look like a mix between sun-bleached leather a latte that was forgotten in a hot car for a week? Why does his-EUGH! Why is everything about his face completely wrong‽"
So the net effect of all this painstaking effort was one part completely unnoticeable with one part sickeningly noticeable. Not a positive effect in any way shape or form. It might've worked with another actor, but Joseph Gordon Levitt just recently pulled a Gerard Butler and started being in every movie that came out for an entire season. Dark Knight, Inception, GI Joe, Stop-Loss, and probably a handful of others I can't think of offhand were all fresh in my mind. He's everywhere, so I know his face too well for a drastic makeup job like this to pass without notice. I bet that before I started really thinking about it I was subconsciously wondering what the heck was wrong with his face for the whole movie. Every moment of that confusion and unease was wasted time. I was perfectly ready to accept the fact that Joseph Gordon Levitt grows up into Bruce Willis as a story convention. Is it reasonable? No, but 'rocks in glass houses' time assassin people. You asked me to swallow some pretty bitter medicine in terms of story elements, and now you think that eyebrow-shape is the last straw that will finally collapse my suspension bridge of disbelief? Kudos to anyone that actually followed that devastating 30-metaphor-pileup.
I heard after seeing the film that Joseph Gordon Levitt had watched several Bruce Willis films, studying his style and mannerisms in order to more effectively share a character with him. Good on him for being a dedicated actor. That little touch at least had the decency to pass without notice instead of ruining the experience. He handled the role well, and I bet he could've done even better if he didn't have to yell "Go-go Gadget Face!" every morning when he got on set. Stripping off the face-condom he was wearing in every scene probably would've had the same effect on the movie as Joseph Leonard Gordon-Levitt having a shorter name would've had on this review.
And after all that, they didn't even get it right. My OCD-fu was clearly stronger than that of the makeup artist, and I noticed that Bruce Willis' ear lobes dangle while Joseph Gordon Levitt's are attached. Developing gangling ears over the course of a lifetime is not genetically possible, so apparently he sustained some very precise, perfectly symmetrical earlobe-related injuries in the interim. You know how people say "Well, I wasn't really trying." as a safety net in case they fail horribly at something? That way it wasn't their lack of skill that made them completely screw the pooch, they just weren't trying, because who wants to actually try anyway? Well, Looper's makeup team was clearly trying their asses off, making the fact that all this effort was completely unnecessary, and failed at what it was trying to accomplish, and went the extra mile to also fail at a number of things that it was not trying to accomplish, all the more tragic.
Bastille-prisoner-level acts of obsession like this only work when everything is exactly perfect. In cases like this, you've got to go big or don't go at all, and I would've much prefered that they didn't go at all. There was a montage scene of the intervening 30 years where Little Joe grows up into Big Joe, and it was fantastic! It really tied everything together and had a lot of stunning visuals. The makeup there was actually very convincing and worked well in the context of the story. I knew what was going on, so I actually understood that he was starting to gradually look and act more like Old Joe. This was a great place to showcase all the makeup talent. In a perfect world, all the rubberfaces would be confined there where I had but a fleeting moment to recognize the intent, and no time to waste tearing them apart like an energetic puppy with a new slipper that has a poorly-chosen skin color palette.
This first part is just filler for people with poor self-control that couldn't stop themselves from reflexively reading the first few lines. It seems foolish, but that exact problem happens to be one of my numerous character flaws, so it would be very hypocritical of me not to cater to it. This ending is one of those hot-button ones where the wrong five words will completely ruin the movie forever until the end of time like some sort of magic plot-ruining Adamantium bullet, so I wanted to make sure such details were well defended. So umm... I am the very model of a modern major general I have a very... Kay, I think they're gone now. Good thing too, I hate those guys.
Awright, so one of the biggest holes that I saw was the murder of Old Joe's wife. The whole setup of the movie hinges on how hard it is for the mafia to murder people in the future. Thus, while on their way to murder Old Joe, the mafia also blunders into indiscriminately murdering his wife as well just because she happened to be there at the time. Okay, not only did they set themselves up for a Bruce Willis right-hook face-bashing extravaganza by making sure that the last thing he saw before they tried to kill him was them murdering his wife in their home just because she was an inconvenience that happened to be in front of one of their guns, if you have to suckerpunch spacetime in order to get away with murder, might you want to plan things out a little better to maybe economize on the number of murders a given operation entails?
I find it difficult to believe that this elite group of professional time assassin assassins (People that murder professional time assassins, or regular people that murder professional time assassins, shame that English is glitched like that...) could track down the exact location of someone that has been living off the grid and traveling all around the world for 30 years, but not take the time to... maybe scope out the back porch and see that his wife is out there, and then execute their task in a way that would prevent them from being seen, or maybe have a plan for if she sees them that's a little more sophisticated than "Immediately shoot her in the face while Bruce 'Vengeance Machine' Willis is watching". It's Storm Trooper syndrome, or Boba Fett syndrome if you want to look at the original and not the knock-offs that were predictably just as useless as the original. If I'm supposed to believe that this is a super-sophisticated team of organized criminal masterminds, you have to show them at some point being something other than completely incompetent or the threat has no teeth. I mean really, Bruce Willis went to mafia HQ and Bruce Willis'd a full third of them before he even took a hit or broke a sweat.
The point above where I was trying to say it without saying it was that the kid didn't have to grow up into freaking Magneto to be a threat as The Rainmaker. This could've very easily just gone the John Connor route where he simply possesses the qualities that make him a good leader, and will allow him to gain enough influence in the future to become a threat to the time assassins that are trying to off him while he's still a harmless little kitten. Except he's not a harmless little kitten here. He's a cracked-out horror-movie freak-show that can insta-gib you with his mind. That was enough WTFsauce to overwhelm a lot of the more delectable flavors of this movie.
In the end though, the point where Joe not only closes his own loop, he incinerates it in the fire of Mount Doom, is incredibly satisfying. Thanks to the way time travel works here, it's not a cop-out 'Oh, none of it ever happened' ending, it's a beautiful 'I stopped it from happening' ending. It was the perfect conclusion to this journey. I absolutely loved the way the end monologue so passionately demonstrated how we're all the hero of our own story. And that stays true even if Young Joe is the protagonist and Old Joe is the antagonist and both Joes are kind of the antiheroes of the larger meta-story that went on. Comprehending that last sentence awards additional improbable understanding points to the meta-metaphor bonus above.
The fact that Old Joe created the problem that killed his wife and drove him to murder children in the past to prevent, and that only Young Joe can stop it, was mind-blowing. In that instant, it was as if Young Joe was the only one in the parade of time that could see all of the marchers from above instead of each event in sequence. He could see the cliff that this train was headed for and he had only a second to prevent the tragic chain of events. That moment felt like all the mind-screw of Inception packed into a couple seconds. I haven't felt exhilaration like that in a long time. It was both inspired and inspiring.
I did it at the beginning and I'll do it at the end. I would highly recommend this movie and if you've seen it I would highly recommend that you recommend this movie. It's a great story with compelling characters that have well developed arcs, it's entertaining and thought-provoking and has a great message that was handled well. Bottom line is, you'll never find a perfect movie, but you can certainly expect to find one whose faults are worth looking past.