I could describe Looper as a combination of Inception, Chronicle and Alphaville. Or Blade Runner meets 12 Monkeys. Or any of another half-dozen mashups of slick, noirish sci-fi with mind-bending speculative concepts. Rather, you should just see the film and enjoy the dystopian world of crappy telekinesis and illegal time travel created by writer/director Rian Johnson and the filmmakers.

The basic concept involves a series of timelines, the central one being Kansas in 2044, presumably after our economic crisis, since the cars look like our own except held-together by duct tape. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a ‘looper,’ an assassin who performs mob hits against people from the future, who are zapped to him wrapped and ready to go. (In the future, it is the only way to get away with murder — or something like that.) Part of a looper’s job is to kill his future self. Once he has done that, he gets a “golden payday” and can get out of the game, enjoy the next 30 years fully knowing the time and manner of his own death.

There’s a whole philosophy class that could be made of just this concept, knowing when and how you’ll die. In fact, apparently the Chinese version of the film (it was a Chinese co-production) shows more of Joe’s life after he ‘completes his loop’ — when his older self is played by Bruce Willis — and he falls in love with an unnamed Chinese beauty (Qing ‘Summer’ Xu). I’m told by people who have seen this footage that it is beautifully shot but dramatically dull. (In any case, it was only shot in about three days so it can’t be much. And I’m sure it will be on the DVD.)

Rian Johnson had originally planned to set Joe’s post-looping life in Paris, hence the French lessons Joe does. But the chance for the Chinese money and box office that comes from being a Chinese co-production made him reconsider. According to the interview linked above, Johnson had not thought he could afford to set scenes in Shanghai. But it turns out there was a good business incentive to do so, and I can say that the movie does not seem to suffer creatively from the change of venue. (In fact, it provides the movie’s biggest laugh line, when a character from the future strongly encourages Joe to go to China instead of France.) The business side of this movie is a major story, and look for a ton of Hollywood films — perhaps nearly all large Hollywood films — to be set partially in China in the future. (Already looking at you, Skyfall.)

The prosthetics on JoGoLev were very good in the sense that I never saw them as prosthetics. They allowed his acting to come through. On the other hand, they never really convinced me that he looked like a young Bruce Willis. The scene where they face each other in a diner shows how the nose profiles didn’t match. When I looked at him, I always saw him as JGL, not Bruce. So maybe the 3 hour makeup every morning was a waste. After all, this is a film that also asks you to suspend disbelief about a fraternity of TK (telekinesis) and TT (time travel).

In any case, we have a timeline split. In one version, Joe completes his loop, killing his older self and then living that life. But time in Looper is like that in Michael Crichton’s Timeline, one of an infinite set of possibilities. While that older Joe dies, another version lives, managing to turn around and block the buckshot from his younger self’s blunderbuss. So his older self now inhabits what is essentially a new timeline, remembering things his younger self with clarity as soon as they happen — but the the rest of his memory is cloudy, more of a range of possibilities.

Time travel movies can establish their rules with great clarity or throw up their hands and say “it’s complicated”. This one does a bit of both. The younger Joe can communicate with the older Joe by carving a message into his own body. So that’s a rule. So is the idea that Bruce Willis Joe can basically see whatever happens to Gordon-Levitt Joe shortly after it happens. Jeff Daniels’ mob boss character, Abe, mentions that they have to be careful not to contaminate the current timeline or risk changing the future too much.

But Bruce Willis Joe also gives a speech in the diner scene (really to the audience) about how complicated the time travel paradoxes are and how it is best not to think about it. This works fine for Johnson’s message which is not really about all the cool narrative tricks he can do with time travel, but rather a thematic message about “breaking loops” of child neglect and abandonment.

Which brings us to The Rainmaker. If you haven’t seen the film, I strongly suggest you hold off reading the following major spoilers. Okay, The Rainmaker. To save his own life (and that of his way-too-young-and-beautiful Chinese wife), older Joe attempts to assassinate the mob boss who put out the hit on him which caused the wife to be killed in the crossfire. (Nevermind that whole ‘don’t want to murder people in the future’ thing? UPDATE: Rian Johnson answers this by saying that yes, essentially the hit squad are in big trouble for murdering her, but that information was not worth stopping the narrative to explain — see Slashfilm interview link below.)

Old Joe knows The Rainmaker is one of three kids. His younger self, still trying to complete the loop, finds out the location of one of the kids and sits in wait for his older self to come for him. While he waits there, on this farm, he bonds with the kid, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), whose TK abilities far exceed any heretofore known. (Superhero in Kansas cornfields canefields; shades of Superman.) Emily Blunt plays the kid’s mother, Sara. Probably. The kid thinks his mother was Sara’s sister, who raised him most of the time. He is a bit traumatized on account of killing the sister with his uncontrolled powers, so it’s not surprising that he grows up to be a fucked-up supervillain — in one timeline.

Thankfully, that timeline seems to be erased when young Joe realizes the similarities between himself and Cid, and spontaneously kills himself, which erases his older self, which restores Sara to health and, by implication, allows Cid to grow up healthy and happy into a superhero rather than a supervillain. Like I said — and the movie dialogue said — it’s best not to think about the paradoxes. Wouldn’t either this WHOLE timeline be erased or Sara still be dead? Really, it is about breaking a cycle of child neglect from which Joe has suffered and can see Cid will suffer and mold him into a villain. Of course, then Joe never meets the love of his life. But that’s okay, because Sara gives him a frog booty call.

Perhaps older Cid (The Rainmaker) is brilliant enough to know that he can alter history through the loopers. He erases the evil version of himself to create a better one. That gives shades of Christ to younger Joe’s self-sacrifice, dying for the world’s sins, but God’s (The Rainmaker’s) most of all.

I’m sure there will be people who read this film even deeper than that. I would love to see more movies set in this world that the filmmakers have created. It’s a fascinating world. But I think with this film, Johnson has closed the loop. If you don’t read it as about child neglect, you’re in for head trip. You could do a sequel which is an alternate timeline. But at a certain point, when infinite timelines are possible, what is there to convince the audience that the particular one they are watching is more important than all the others. The multiverse is a metaphor for storytelling, where anything can happen at any turn. The best storytellers make the story seem both inevitable and surprising.

That’s how Looper feels to me. I think it’s an instant classic.

I have now seen the film a second time and can appreciate even more how every element builds to this grandfather-father-son, child care/neglect, generational rivalry themes. For example, the reason Kid Blue keeps putting himself into situations is that he really wants to impress Abe, a father figure. (Some have even speculated Kid Blue is Abe’s younger self — although why smash your own hand? Abe does mention that his grandfather warned him to watch out for the “little ones” — could he mean that he will one day warn his younger self?)

There is repeated imagery of mothers running their hands through their kids’ hair. (And even more repeated imagery of clocks.) The sequence where Cid explodes the Jesse (Garret Dillahunt) character in slow motion is absolutely phenomenal, and juiced even more by intercutting with Older Joe going to kill Suzie’s (Piper Perabo’s character’s) kid — and seeing in his memory the realization that Cid is The Rainmaker. Great sequence, and fantastic sound design supporting the editing and performances and all the rest. The score to this film is by Nathan Johnson, and it is also great. I think Nathan Johnson is one of most exciting composers out there, pushing the boundaries of film scores in terms of creating really unique styles for each film. The soundscape he creates here for the future feels futuristic itself, vaguely familiar yet altered in some way.

The film definitely rewards a second viewing. Put it on a loop!

Excellent interview with Rian Johnson by SlashFilm’s Germain Lussier that answers a lot of the lingering questions about the mechanics of the world
Dave Chen, Devindra Hardawar, Adam Quigley and Tasha Robinson discuss the film in spoiler-free and spoiler-filled detail
Jamie Frevele praises Looper‘s MacGuffin
Graphic artist Rick Slusher visualizes the timelines for film.com