Making Sense (or Nonsense) Out of LOOPER
I don’t want to write a “review” of Rian Johnson’s movie Looper per se (you can read one of those here!). It’s certainly one of the more interesting films of the year, and the direction and acting is top-notch. Instead I want to discuss whether or not the movie follows its own internal logic and actually comes together to make any sort of “sense.” Be forewarned…heavy spoilers will be discussed. Read at your own risk!
Now before you shrug your shoulders and dismissively mutter, “Time travel isn’t real,” let me first say that fantasy/sci-fi movies have to follow their own logic even more so than other types of films. Making a fantasy movie doesn’t mean the filmmakers get off scott-free; if anything they have to work harder to establish the rules of the universe, and keep following those rules so as not to break our suspension of disbelief. So even though one character in Looper may remark not to think about time travel because “it fries your brain like an egg,” to that I take the black coffee Joe (no pun intended) drinks continuously throughout the film and throw it in his face. Debating about time travel is fun!
Time travel films are often problematic of course, but from what I can tell they tend to follow two basic archetypes: Back to the Future rules and 12 Monkeys rules. In the Back to the Future series time can be rewritten, so that one small change in 1955 can lead to larger changes in 1985 (i.e. “My parents are cool now…and Twin Pines Mall is now Lone Pine Mall!”). Generally this type of logic is used for “lighter,” often comedic sci-fi, and it’s great for creating a lot of fun moments, but it generally doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny. Cracked.com has pointed time and time again how the Back to the Future series actually makes little sense, or has secret horrifying consequences (see what they have to say here, here, and here!). I personally don’t have a problem with this type of time travel logic. Not only is Back to the Future one of my favorite films, but I have recently been turned on to BBC’s Doctor Who, which also tends to throw time out the window for the sake of a fun story. Doctor Who adds the rather flimsy caveat that the titular hero is unable to change a person’s personal timeline once they enter the TARDIS with him, yet he still sees little issue in changing the course of history and hanging out with famous historical figures. My point is that the whole “you can alter history” viewpoint tends to create lots of paradoxes or logic gaps, but also makes for exciting fast-and-loose storytelling.
The “easiest” way to have your time travel story work is to just say that time is fixed, and our perspective when traveling through time is all that changes. Without spoiling the brilliant ending, this is how my favorite time travel movie, 12 Monkeys, plays it. James Cole is haunted by a memory from his childhood, only to travel back to the time of that memory and discover, as an adult, that it holds greater significance. This “fixed timeline” method is helpful from a logic perspective because it completely does away with messy paradox stuff, but it also proves to be a rather fatalist way of looking at the world. And since we humans in general like to believe we are in charge of our own destiny, it’s a viewpoint on time travel that is often avoided. Paradoxes also offer a fun bit of “dangerous” conflict that can help propel the story forward; it’s more-or-less what sets the entire Back to the Future series in motion. So if you create a viewpoint of time travel where paradoxes will never exist, suddenly your story might go limp. Still, there have been a few great movies made with this “fixed timeline” perspective; aside from 12 Monkeys, Timecrimes is pretty interesting, and I think the indie flick Primer played by these rules too, though honestly I found that movie rather overcomplicated for my liking. If you can make sense of Primer, I salute you!
Where Looper gets interesting is that it tends to follow the Back to the Future rules that timelines can in fact be affected, but unlike Back to the Future it plays these rules straight in a dramatic fashion. Looper isn’t the only movie to do this of course; the Terminator franchise is also a relatively “serious” set of films that is based around a timeline that can be altered (“The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves!”), though each subsequent Terminator film seems to break the rules of the movie before it; while the original Terminator seems to follow “fixed timeline” paradigm (Kyle Reese was always there in order to create John Connor), the subsequent sequels seem to go in opposite directions! Duncan Jones’ Source Code also ultimately follows alternate timeline/universe ideas through a very clever final twist that I won’t give away here. Where Looper is most unique, however, is that while Joe’s timeline in the film gets altered, so do his memories of what is happening to himself. I thought this was Looper’s most interesting idea, and I wish it had been explored a little further. In other time travel “alternate timeline” movies, characters tend to keep the memories of whatever timeline they came from (Marty McFly always remembers his 1985, not the altered one he creates after his return). The only other movie I can think of where characters’ memories change beat-by-beat based on how they affect time is Frequency starring Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid. It’s a fun (if slightly cheesy) movie, but also very problematic.
Anyway, now that we’ve established Looper’s ambition to tell a “wobbly timeline” story where memories can be changed based on choices made by the characters, let’s see how well it actually works. If we follow the main plot-line, we have our character Joe, who starts out being played by Joseph Gordon Levitt in a cool prosthetic. Joe succeeds in killing his older self (Bruce Willis), allowing him to live his life up to the point where, if this were “fixed timeline” rules, he would get sent back in time and get killed, closing the loop. To me, this would make the most sense, but it wouldn’t make for a very interesting movie, would it?
For some reason, when Old Joe gets sent back the second time, he manages to escape getting killed by Young Joe, setting the plot into motion. Old Joe plots to kill the little boy who becomes The Rainmaker, but now his memories (and even physical features) are altered based on the actions his younger self takes. Ultimately (HUGE SPOILERS), Young Joe chooses to kill himself, closing the loop and killing Old Joe as well.
My question is, where did the first “Old Joe” come from? If he’s the Joe that gets killed, allowing him to grow up into Old Joe, the only reason I can think for him to escape the second time he gets sent back in time is that he remembers killing himself the first time around. This is ultimately a paradox, because any version of Old Joe that gets sent back in time would have to have been a Looper, thus he would have those memories and the know-how to escape. Even if this wasn’t the case, wouldn’t other Loopers (say Paul Dano) also figure it out at some point via this loopy memory thing, and come up with a way to escape as their older self? You would have old Loopers running around in the past everywhere. This could arguably make sense if Old Joe came from an alternate timeline somehow, but Looper isn’t really about alternate timelines so much as it’s about one fluid timeline that can be constantly molded and changed (“wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff” as Doctor Who would say). This is why people are able to leave messages via scars on their own bodies and alter memories for their older selves. In other words, Old Joe escaping makes no sense, and exists for the sake of the plot more than anything else.
My other major issue is the way the films climax is resolved. The central dilemma facing both Old and Young Joe throughout the story is whether or not to kill The Rainmaker, a young cute kid who will ultimately become the next Adolf Hitler with a bit of Akira superpowers thrown in the mix to keep things exciting. Ultimately Young Joe seems to come to the conclusion that if Baby Rainmaker lives a life where his mother survives and nurtures him, he won’t grow up to be a tyrannical maniac. I would argue that this point is probably moot since I bet even Hitler’s mommy probably loved him too, but since a movie with the moral of “kill the baby” probably wouldn’t sit well with general audiences, I’m willing to let it slide. Even so, the movie presumes that in order for The Rainmaker to live a happy life, Old Joe has to die, since his action of killing the mother is what leads The Rainmaker down his path of hatred and destruction.
If that’s the case, then Evil Future Rainmaker shouldn’t exist in the first timeline where Young Joe succeeded in killing Old Joe right off the bat. But that’s a paradox, since Old Joe got sent back in time to Young Joe because Evil Future Rainmaker was trying to purge all the Loopers. If that were the case, and Old Joe never got sent back in time in the first place, then (the movie presumes) Baby Rainmaker would have turned into Future Good Rainmaker, solving everything. It’s always possible Old Joe would have been sent by the mob to a different time or place to get killed in a future where the Rainmaker wasn’t evil, but it’s all wild speculation since we don’t get to see it in any form. If anything, this just supports the idea that Baby Rainmaker will grow up to be evil no matter what Old Joe does, meaning they should have killed the little psycho when they had the chance!
Other smaller issues I had were the fact that one of the kids on Old Joe’s hit list conveniently turns out to be the same child as the whore Young Joe has been spending time with, which also is the same apartment the mob has been staking out. It’s one hell of a coincidence and a large pill to swallow, but I suppose it’s also the quickest fix for keeping the plot moving forward. Still I found it a little lazy. Also I was confused by whether or not Emily Blunt was actually the boy’s mother or not. She keeps mentioning a sister, but Baby Rainmaker insists she’s lying. Was she telling the truth? For a movie with complex time travel rules, this seemed like an unnecessary complication. At one point I even thought Baby Rainmaker was a baby version of Young and Old Joe, but was quickly talked out of it because it made NO sense.
My bottom line is that while Looper is a thrilling mind-bending sci-fi puzzle while being viewed, once the pieces are placed together they turn out to be from several different incomplete puzzles, as if a young child got into Grandma’s puzzle cabinet and mixed up all the boxes so that the train puzzle and the Paris skyline puzzle and the Birds of the World puzzle are all mixed together so that none of them fit (my grandparents really liked jigsaw puzzles). Of course, Old Joe does tell Young Joe in the diner not to worry about time travel, since they’ll be stuck all day “making diagrams with straws.” Sometimes you just have to go for the ride. I really liked a lot of what Looper had to offer, particularly in the first half. Seeing Paul Dano’s future self lose his body parts bit by bit was shocking and inspired. And I also really liked the idea of memories being fuzzy and changing, my favorite moment being when they hint that if Young Joe falls in love with a different person, suddenly Old Joe’s memory of his older wife would be erased, which could potentially save her life. I wish these sorts of ideas about identity had been explored a bit more rather than just brushed upon, but oh well. Time travel is always a brain-twister, and at the end of the day I think Looper at least took our minds to some interesting places. While the pieces don’t all quite fit together, it certainly had a driving original story with strong characters and a clear moralistic message, which is more than can be said of the other nebulous science fiction film of the year, Prometheus.
What do you guys think? Did I miss something, or get something wrong? Looper is the kind of film that gets people talking, which is one of the things I like most about movies in the first place!
PS: Also, if you’re going to use time travel to kill people for the mob, why not kill them in the future, then send the bodies back through time and avoid all the messy potential of them escaping? You could still have somebody in the past incinerate the bodies and erase all trace of them ever existing. And why make it a rule that they have to be killed by their younger selves, who are more likely to crack? Obviously this would not have made for as good a story, but it certainly makes the mob seem a little stupid. And can the mob create the exit point for all the portals, since we know they can transport from future Shanghai all the way to Kansas? Why not just have the exit point be 500 feet in the air or 500 feet under water and let the laws of nature do the dirty work?