Looper

Counting the paradoxes may cause a paradox

As Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash once said (albeit while playing the role of Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community), “Time travel is really hard to write about.”  The fatal flaw in time travel films is often in the explanation of the time travel science itself – a problem wisely sidestepped in the recent Safety Not Guaranteed, which relied on character depth and development to forward the action.  The science problem tends to drag down films that are desperate to appear brainy – Primer and Donnie Darko come to mind.  In Looper, the third film by Rian Johnson (director of the subversive Hammett-esque high-school crime drama Brick), the exact science is sidestepped in a rather ingenious way: it hasn’t been invented until thirty years after the main story takes place, and even in that time, it’s so illegal that barely anyone knows it’s being used.  The main characters have no idea how it works; it just happens to provide them with an income.

The story centers around Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his 4th or 5th leading role this year, and it won’t be his last), an assassin known as a Looper.  His job does not involve stealth or theatrics, however: he simply receives a time and location, arrives there, and waits for a hooded prisoner to materialize out of thin air.  When that happens, he immediately pulls the trigger of his “blunderbuss” (a futuristic shotgun) and collects his payment (bars of silver).  The prisoners, whose faces are always shrouded, are targets of a crime syndicate thirty years in the future, who send their marks back in time to be disposed of without a trace.  Not a bad profession if you can stomach it; the pay is fantastic.  There’s one catch, however: when your contract runs out, the syndicate sends the future version of yourself back in time, and you execute yourself.  This is known as “closing the loop.”  Forget how many paradoxes this would cause in accordance with popular time travel theory (in movies, leastways); it’s an effective device.  In addition to Loopers, there are people called TKs – folks who can use telekinetic powers, but most of them can do nothing but float coins around in silly attempts to impress women, so they’re not taken seriously.

The trouble begins when Joe notices how many of his coworkers are suddenly closing their own loops.  Someone in the future is seemingly shutting down the Looper program. The reactions of the other Loopers is perhaps what’s so shocking about this: they’re all happy.  They receive a glorious payload (bars of gold this time) and drink up their paychecks with buddies before retiring and living lavishly for the next thirty years (at which point, we can safely assume, they are seized and sent back in time to have a hole blown in them).  This seems to be a commentary on the culture of immediacy we currently live in.  Is no one thinking about the future?  Are we only concerned with what we want right this second?  It’s an effective allegory for our times, and doesn’t try to borrow from George Orwell, like so many of these stories are tempted to.

One Looper, however, recognizes the voice of his future self and cannot pull the trigger.  This is Seth (Paul Dano), a good friend of Joe.  Having failed to complete his contract and close his own loop, Seth knows he will be hunted down by the incredibly efficient enforcers of the Looper program.  How do they operate so well?  Because they’re headed by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to manage the Loopers and make sure everything resembles clockwork for the next thirty years.  Abe, despite Daniels’ vintage fuzziness, can be intimidating at times, and he convinces Joe to sell out Seth, which is immediately followed (as we know it must be) by Joe’s own loop being closed.  However, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, and Young Joe has no chance to react before the former knocks him cold with a Magic Movie Punch and vanishes.

And so a double man-hunt begins: Young Joe is searching for Old Joe, because if he doesn’t kill him, his fate will be the same as Seth’s.  Abe’s right-hand man, Kid Blue (Noah Segan) would love nothing more than to see Joe dead as payback for an earlier insult, so tension is high.  Old Joe, on the other hand, is searching for someone else: in a diner conversation with his younger counterpart, he reveals a piece of information mentioned by Seth’s older self earlier – that in the future, a man called the Rainmaker has taken control of everything in a Fidel Castro-style takeover (apparently after seeing his own mother die), and is closing all of the loops for unknown reasons.  Old Joe has returned to the past in order to kill the Rainmaker before he can put his future plan into effect, thus ending this cycle and bringing his wife (Qing Xu) back to life.  Young Joe doesn’t care.  He wants to live his own life now.

On the run from Abe’s thugs, Young Joe happens upon a farm owned by Sara (the wonderful Emily Blunt).  In spite of her trepidations, she takes him in, helps him through drug withdrawal, and agrees to let him stay for a few days under the condition that he stay away from her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  We soon learn, however, that Cid, a powerful TK, may be the future Rainmaker, which means that not only is Sara in danger, but both Old Joe and Kid Blue’s posse will soon descend upon the farm.  The film makes use of effective and clear flashforwards in order to illustrate what might happen if certain conditions are (or aren’t) met, including which decisions on Young Joe’s part will either cause or prevent the rise of the Rainmaker, and the action ends with a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly triangle-style shootout.  The action, though, doesn’t cap the film – we’re always encouraged to care about the characters before the sci-fi backdrop, which is an incredibly fresh change from inspired-but-flawed sci-fi installments such as the recent Total Recall remake.

Emily Blunt puts her heart into every role, and Sara is no exception.  I’m still on the fence about her character, however – per usual, there’s only one principle female character (the only other woman with lines is a prostitute played by Piper Perabo), and despite being tough as nails, Sara’s entire existence revolves around motherhood.  If nothing else, she overcomes the sci-fi trope of the women being either nonexistent or uber-dependent damsels who can find their way around a bedroom but not a gun, and it’s clear that Sara is an independent woman who holds all sorts of cards over Joe.  Bruce Willis essentially plays his Die Hard counterpart here, delivering tough-guy dialogue and mowing down legions of enemies while shouting “motherfuckers!”  Paul Dano is underused as Seth – did Johnson forget that Dano appeared in all sorts of Best and Almost Best pictures?  Jeff Daniels is great as Abe, which seems almost like a comeback role for him, and he successfully plays against type here.  Abe is also funny – when Joe talks about possibly moving to France, Abe says, very deadpan, “I’m from the future.  Go to China.” Unfortunately, his comeuppance is depicted off-screen, which is not only a wasted opportunity (Daniels vs. Willis!), but a lack of payoff from a film that promises an action finale (and as you know, I’m not one to pander for action).  Finally, Gordon-Levitt is made up to look like Bruce Willis, which I worried may be distracting and hokey (see DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar), but it’s seamlessly done.  His character, a sci-fi leading man, is predictably one-note, but with more compassion than you might expect, and the performance is strong.

Looper is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come out in a long time.  It handles its characters well, and never quite allows its material to get away from it or become too complex.  The most complex thing involved may be Bruce Willis’s feelings about playing a character called Old Joe.

Looper (2012); written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels. 

Safety Not Guaranteed

Results may vary

Let’s talk about dialogue for a minute.  In recent films (not all, but the majority of what’s advertised), the dialogue rides bitch to virtually everything else: plot action, concept, computer graphics, visuals, soundtrack, cinematography.  In action movies (which I’m more inclined to call Explosion Movies or Hunter-Gatherer Movies since they rarely contain much that I’d consider “action” and are always aimed at men who need a replacement activity for their prehistoric forefathers’ jobs), dialogue is reduced to laconic one-liners, all of which you’ve heard before, and which only seem to occur when the battle scenes make room for talking.  The very concept of laconic speech – that is to say, phrases that express ideas in as few words as possible – originated (or is leastways attributed to) the ancient Spartans, who, being a military culture and all-around tough guys, were expected to be men of very few words.  This tradition bled all the way down to modern America, which in its more embarrassing moments idolizes the same sorts of people – Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme (I bet you can name twenty of them) – and is used for a different purpose: not to forgo pompous polemics and long-winded spiels, but to avoid losing the attention of the twenty-first century ADD generation (non-readers, iPhone slaves, Facebook addicts, and tech junkies) that production companies seem to think constitutes 100% of consumers.  In other words, no one can pay attention anymore, and Hollywood is doing nothing to make anyone want to.

Most of the films that make any artistic impression are now independent, and free of the five-seconds-per-shot-and-sentence rule, making use of effective dialogue that moves the story along but also means something, and moreover, sounds as though the screenwriter (which, as a writer of literary prose judging the current state of film dialogue, I’m more tempted to dub a screen-outliner) actually put some time and thought into what the characters say.  Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed is one such film.  Billed as a movie about time travel, the film only skirts the subject, avoiding any real science and focusing chiefly on its characters and how they might actually interact if they were people.

The story follows Darius (Aubrey Plaza of Parks & Rec fame), a recent college graduate slogging through a dead-end internship at a snobby magazine.  When Jeff (Jake Johnson), one of the magazine’s contributors, discovers a classified ad asking for a time-travel partner (the writer of the ad claims that he’s “only done this once before”), Darius volunteers to be Jeff’s sidekick.  Accompanied by Arnau (Karan Soni), who more or less embodies the Indian Friend character archetype, the duo travel to Ocean View, Washington, with the goal of tracking down Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) and pretending to be interested in time-traveling with him in order to get a good story for the mag.  On top of this deceit, we soon learn that Jeff couldn’t care less about the story, and simply needs an excuse to travel to Ocean View so he can hook up with an old girlfriend, Liz (Jenica Bergere).  Since Arnau is relatively antisocial and only interning for the magazine for the sake of broadening his resume, Darius is left to get the story on Kenneth herself.

What follows is a carefully painted picture of how film characters act when they exhibit actual human behavior, and lo and behold, the filmmakers manage to accomplish this without use of the cheap “found footage” or “documentary style” narrative, which often involves shaky-cam and contrived storytelling meant to mimic “realism.”  Since characters, especially in a film, are still characters and not people, Darius and the others remain bound by the rules of narrative, and thus certain plot points must be unraveled before the end, but Safety Not Guaranteed handles film formula in such an adept way that the events play out naturally.  The ending is too delicious and well-delivered to spoil, but Darius and Kenneth’s motives for time travel evolve with their respective characters, and if (but especially when) time travel has taken place is something to talk about while the credits are rolling.  The film manages to forgo all of the time-travel-tropes – the fish out of water story (a modern character travels to the past and tries to blend in, or vice versa), the epic adventure (characters return to a pivotal time period in order to correct a problem), and even the doom-and-gloom story (a character’s life is saved by time travel, albeit only temporarily), and the film does this without becoming a full-on comedy (Back to the Future; A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), an adventure movie with flat characters (The Time Machine; Timeline), a tragedy (The Time Traveler’s Wife; Donnie Darko), and even without resorting to convoluted time-travel science (Primer).  The wonderfully human performances by Plaza, Duplass, and Johnson reinforce the humanity of the characters, who remain passionate about things real people are passionate about, even in the face of the fantastical: love, money, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the approval of a supervisor.  Even Jeff’s story, which involves his misguided attempt to reunite with Liz, armed only with his rusty wit and unbridled misogyny, ends the way it’s supposed to.

Aubrey Plaza is excellent in her first major leading role, and I would love to see her break further away from her April Ludgate deadpan style (although she’s very good at it) in future roles; with this film, it’s plain to see she’s got plenty of diversity in her.

It’s also interesting to note that Darius is not only a male name, but it was the name of three different Persian kings.  As the Persians and Spartans didn’t much care for one another, consider, then, a character like Darius (and a film like Safety Not Guaranteed) the antithesis to the Explosion/Hunter-Gatherer films that we (the writers, thinkers, and attention-payers) no longer want to be dragged to and deafened by.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012); written by Derek Connolly; directed by Colin Trevorrow; starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and Jake Johnson.