Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Looper and the secret of good science fiction

with 4 comments

There are a lot of things to recommend about Looper, the excellent new science-fiction thriller from writer and director Rian Johnson, but one of my favorite elements is the movie’s time machine. It looks something like an industrial washer-dryer, and we only see it for a few seconds, housed in a dingy warehouse somewhere in China. To use it, you just shove someone inside, and he comes out the other end at a specific location thirty years in the past. None of the characters seem especially interested in knowing how it works, any more than we’d be curious about, say, the mechanics of our local subway—and this is exactly how it should be. Like Inception, which never really explains its dream invasion technology, Looper takes its biggest imaginative leap for granted, which accounts for a lot of its brainy but grounded appeal. (Actually, to be perfectly accurate, time travel is only the second-biggest imaginative leap in the movie…but I can’t say anything more without giving the plot away.)

This is how science fiction ought to be: less science, more fiction. I don’t know what the writing process behind Looper was like, but I imagine that Johnson received a fair amount of pressure from outside readers to spell out this information in greater detail—studio executives love exposition—and managed to resist it. (Evidently, Johnson shot, or at least conceived, a special-effects sequence depicting the process of time travel, with the help of Primer director Shane Carruth, but none of this seems to have survived in the final cut.) Instead, he takes time travel as a given and uses it to tell a complicated but always lucid story that cleverly teases out the potential of its premise. I’m a sucker for time travel movies with even a modicum of ambition—I even liked Déjà Vu—and Looper deserves a lot of credit for presenting its paradoxes without holding the audience’s hand. It’s hard to overstate how difficult this is, and one of the movie’s great virtues is that it makes it look so easy.

This is, in short, a very smart screenplay, and it’s one that I expect to cite approvingly at various points on this blog. Among other things, it provides one of the best recent examples of the anthropic principle of fiction, by casually introducing telekinesis as a minor plot point—certain characters can move small objects with their minds, but only at the level of a parlor trick—in order for it to pay off down the line in a major way. It doesn’t indulge in stylistic flourishes for their own sake, but it’s more than capable of big formal conceptions when necessary, as in one dazzling montage that follows one possible timeline over the course of three decades. It quietly develops two persuasive futures without making a point of it, and gives us an unusually interesting supporting cast. (I especially liked Jeff Daniels in the role of a man from the future, whose knowledge of coming events is rivaled only by that of Will McAvoy.) And it’s also ready to make its leads unsympathetic, as when the character played by Bruce Willis makes an agonizing choice that few other movies would be willing to follow to its logical conclusion.

If there’s one small disappointment that prevents Looper from becoming a stone classic out of the gate, it’s that its action isn’t quite as inventive as the story surrounding it. There’s nothing that says an innovative science-fiction thriller is required to deliver sensational action, but when you look at the short list of recent movies that have pushed the envelope in the genre—The Matrix, Minority Report, Children of Men, and Inception—you often find writers and directors who are just as eager to show us something new on a visceral level as to tell us a mind-bending story. Looper doesn’t seem as committed to redefining its boundaries in all directions, and its chases and gunfights are all fairly routine. (Its most memorable action beat is a direct lift from The Fury, but not remotely as effective.) Still, that shouldn’t minimize what Johnson has accomplished: he’s set a lot of challenges for himself, met nearly all of them, and come up with one of the two or three best movies I’ve seen all year.

Written by nevalalee

October 1, 2012 at 9:59 am

4 Responses

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  1. Brilliant review! Hoping to catch this soon and will now be secretly hoping that Jeff Daniel’s looper has travelled back in time just to tell the news uncannily well while high on marijuana and vicodin. Ok, that might be stretching the similarity a little too far…

    debbiedoesdoodles

    October 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

  2. Thanks! You should definitely check it out—it’s one of the year’s best movies.

    nevalalee

    October 1, 2012 at 10:49 pm

  3. I have mixed feelings about this movie. I loved the “look” of it. I liked Jeff Daniel’s character very much; he had some of the best lines. I like that they didn’t bother to explain the time travel, because we only care about the consequences of time travel here, not the mechanism. I had a little trouble with the telekinesis being dropped in. But what nags is this: I’m far from convinced that the choice made at the end will result in the hoped-for result. Parental abandonment and dysfunction is devastating, to be sure, but a child’s psychological development is difficult to predict. Our protagonist believes his choice is the right one; I can’t buy it. Hence the mixed feelings.

    speculativemartha

    October 2, 2012 at 10:38 am

  4. I had some issues with the ending as well—I thought it would be more interesting if the two versions of the same character came to the same realization at once—but I think it works fine within the context of the movie’s logic.

    nevalalee

    October 2, 2012 at 10:06 pm


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