Film Review: Looper (2012)

Release date: 28th Sept 2012 (US & UK)

Director: Rian Johnson

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt

Time travel. It’s one of the most potential-enabling yet hazardous narrative devices available at a storyteller’s disposal. Taking a plot apart on a chronological level is a dangerous game and the temptation to do so can lead many writers to inadvertently damaging their story’s timeline beyond repair and alienating audiences. Looper takes on this challenge boldly and isn’t afraid to play around with the concept in an extremely casual manner.

You’ve seen the trailer which explains the premise but unlike most these days, this trailer doesn’t even come close to outlining all of the elements there are to this film. The assassin-who-is-supposed-to-kill-his-future-self is only the setup which is established at the start, and from there the plot winds off on a helix of twists and possible outcomes. The film establishes quite simple time-travel “rules” and then really goes to town with what can be done with them. It can get confusing in parts, but this is only because various possibilities are opened up as the film progresses, and it keeps you thinking long after you finish watching. Some people have had trouble with the believability, but if you don’t have a problem with the concept of time travel existing then I don’t think it’s going to ruin your day.

The film is darker than I expected, right from the opening scene which takes place at dusk to set a sombre and uneasy mood from the outset. Most of the story is set in 2044, which is apparently a pretty scummy year in Earth’s history. The design of the world is very clever as technology is omnipresent but is rarely focussed on – it’s just there in the background and you really get a sense of what a horrible place the world has become through glimpses of once-new technology which has rusted and been hacked back together, and subtle parts of dialogue like the characters’ tones when referring to “The city”. The city in question is a futuristic Kansas City, which we often see looming in the distance during the countryside scenes, and also from the inside as we are taken through vagrant-filled streets to a seedy nightclub where designer drugs and prostitution appear to be commonplace. We briefly see 2044 Shanghai later in the film, but unfortunately it’s only a few glimpses despite there being various references to China throughout (apparently the Chinese release uses much more of the Shanghai footage which was filmed). There is definitely a strong neo-noir vibe here, but it comes across as if the director has a “because that’s just the way you make films, isn’t it?” approach, rather than a deliberate effort to develop that style overwhelmingly. And at a budget of only $30m, it’s a great example of how a believable world and atmosphere can be created without oodles of cash.

Joseph Gordon Levitt can add this role as yet another successful performance in his growing list of appearances, although the prosthetic forehead he wears to make him look more like a young Bruce Willis is rather distracting to look at the first few times. I don’t particularly rate any of Willis’ performances in recent years (it all went downhill after Twelve Monkeys) but he does add a, um, Bruce Willis-ness which fits well and we do also have the obligatory “Bruce WIllis kills many men with automatic weapons” scene – although it is handled with a kind of bleakness rather than the normal John Woo-influenced style that we’re accustomed to. There is some interesting character development even in the supporting characters and it’s difficult to comprehend how they fitted so much into 118 minutes.

It isn’t difficult to see how this will appeal to those outside of the scifi genre, and I am hoping this will find success across many audiences. Director Rian Johnson is obviously a clever guy because in an adventurous move he seems to have done the impossible and found a sweet-spot which can be marketed to the masses but will still satisfy basement-dwelling scifi nerds like us. Something for everyone here.


  • Alex Bigman

    great review

    I loved the movie…the future scenes/tech looked awesome….I love the shots of the downtown skyline, they looked A+(i’m a cyberpunk skyline junkie 100% serious)

    loved the bleakness of society also…the “vagrants” very legit dystopia

    I LOVED Dredd 3D with a passion, but this could be a landmark sf dystopia/cyberpunk film…it’s too soon to tell but Its up there with Brazil, Soylent Green, A Boy and His Dog, 12 Monkeys…ETC!

    Lets just see if Blomkamp can top this with ELYSIUM, saw some clips at the comic con panel and it looked groundbreaking(100% serious)

    • scifimethods

      Thanks for reading, Alex. Great to hear from another Terry Gilliam fan! Looper and Dredd are very different, so difficult to compare but I loved them both. Elysium does look incredible and I will be very happy if it’s anywhere near as good as Blomkamp’s District-9. You’d probably like our definitive films list, if you haven’t seen it already:

      • Alex Bigman

        I actually already commented on the definitive films list…it is a great list!

        Huge Brazil & 12 Monkeys fan checking in….you see this new Gilliam movie coming out ? (the zero theorem)

        • scifimethods

          Oops, just realised that after replying to you above, doh. Yes we’ll be following Zero Theorem very closely – Gilliam’s particular style with scifi is brilliant.

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  • Reece

    My impression of the film changed as new elements were introduced. Avoiding spoilers, the high-octane pace shifts drastically after the diner scene where both selves stabilize the plot through dialogue (and flashback/forward?), and it continues to lose its edge as the main conflict solidifies, and new characters are introduced. The first half of Looper is a thrilling cyberpunk joy-ride — the remainder of the film boasts some intense surprises, but essentially derails the excitement as it adopts tropes from several other sci-fi yarns with time-travel plots, and serves up an ending that, despite conforming to the confusing rules set in the movie, seems only slightly interesting compared to the twists and turns from before. On another note, the visuals in this film are nothing less than gorgeous.

    • scifimethods

      Interesting summary, Reese. I am inclined to agree with many of your
      points but after seeing the film over a month ago my mind is still
      unable to stop poking at it. I think I’ll be picking up the video
      release for a second viewing when it comes out. The more you think about it, the more you realise there is to it.