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In the year 2047, time travel has not yet been invented. Thirty years later, however, it has – and it is immediately outlawed. The technology is then only used illegally by the mob to cleanly dispose of bodies. When they want someone to disappear, they simply send them back to 2047, where a specialized assassin called a ‘looper’ quickly carries out the hit and disposes of the body, eliminating the target from the future. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of the most respected loopers in the business. He is well paid and lives a good life by sticking to the rule that he never lets a target escape. Then, one day, Joe comes face to face with his latest target – his future self (Bruce Willis) – and hesitates long enough for Old Joe to escape. Now, in order to avoid the wrath of his underworld boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), Joe must ‘close the loop’ and kill his older self.

 Looper
Looper had the misfortune of being released to a public that was expecting a traditional sci-fi action opus. Audiences surely expected to be challenged by the mind-bending mechanic of time travel, but it’s doubtful most mainstream congregations were prepared to read the plot and action as secondary elements. Looper is, ultimately, a movie about themes and structure, not traditional narrative momentum. This isn’t to say writer/director Rian Johnson somehow neglected his plot or practiced abstract narrative methods ( Looper isn’t an art film), it’s just that the film’s most substantial, long-term values are layered beneath the surface. Calling it the ‘best’ film of 2012 is dubious (such labels are inflammatory at best), but it was definitely my subjective favourite of the year. Because I want to discuss the subtext, I don’t see any way of writing this review entirely spoiler-free. I’m trying to avoid specifics, but my hints will likely give too much away. Please tread with caution if you have not seen the film and plan on going in as blindly as possible; though it’s probably nice to note that Looper doesn’t feature any huge ‘shocker’ moments. It’s not a Twilight Zone episode. Well, it’s kind of a Twilight Zone episode, just not that kind of Twilight Zone episode.

Looper’s obvious theme is that of the nature of love and sacrifice, but more specifically (and ultimately more importantly), the role parenthood plays in love and sacrifice. This is most conspicuous in terms of young Cid (Pierce Gagnon) and his mother Sara’s (Emily Blunt) place in the film. Cid’s destiny as a superhero or a supervillain depends entirely on Sara’s involvement in his life. The comparative simplicity of this conclusion is arguable (Cid might still be evil, despite his mother’s love), but its thematic purpose permeates throughout the film. Joe’s history with his own mother plays a heavy role in his characterization. This is first revealed when he seeks comfort in showgirl/prostitute Suzie (Piper Perabo). Instead of committing to sex, Joe roundaboutly asks Suzie to run her fingers through his hair, like he remembers his mother doing when he was small. Abe fills the slot of a primary father figure (he may be the actual father of Noah Segan’s Kid Blue, which could explain the character’s animosity towards Joe), as explained in parts by both Abe and then by Joe himself to little Cid. In explaining his history to Cid, Joe recognizes himself in the boy and realizes that perhaps a loving mother would’ve made all the difference in his life. Old Joe’s parental influences seem rather clear, even somewhat oedipal or perhaps Buddhist (the entire concept of the film is vaguely Buddhist). He doesn’t only represent a secondary father figure to his younger self (after Abe) on a metaphorical level, Johnson also makes the connection for the audience later when Jesse the Gat Man (Garret Dillahunt) shows Sara a picture of the two Joes and refers to them as father and son. There is also a hint that Old Joe and his wife were planning on having children, made apparent by the line ‘She would’ve been a great mother.’ This could mean many things (perhaps Joe’s drug use mangled his ability to father a child), but seems to be punctuated by the image of Xu Qing taking a gunshot directly to the gut. Was she perhaps pregnant when she died or was Johnson just ironically representing her inability to have children after death?

 Looper
Johnson’s script is itself a practice in ‘looping.’ Beneath the more incidental callbacks (like Old Joe’s superficial details about the Rainmaker being accurate by film’s end) is the more important thematic moebius strip of Joe’s changing moral compass. Young Joe is introduced as a caustic guy that sells out his best friend, shrouds his guilt with eyeball heroin, and stops at nothing to murder his older self. Old Joe is introduced as an extension of his younger self’s narcissistic, shortsighted behavior, but is ‘saved’ by the love of a good woman. When he tries to explain his spiritual awakening Young Joe doesn’t only refuse to listen to the sentiment, he claims he’s going to go out of his way to avoid the love of this particular good woman --– distinguishing the two Joes as diametrically ethically opposed, despite the shared DNA. But, as the movie continues, Young Joe’s ire is cooled by the affection of a good woman and (perhaps?) the promise of surrogate fatherhood while Old Joe’s obsessive need to hang on to his past turns from touching to terrifying. The two characters effectively change ethical positions, but the newly valiant Young Joe recognizes the loop in his own personality and closes it. Occasionally, Johnson draws too much attention to his cyclical details (such as the moment where Abe refers to ‘everything coming around again, just like your goddamn ties’) and he arguable overuses the Chekhov’s Gun trope (hover-cycles that break down, guns with extremely limited firing ranges), but the more gauche thematic echoes are usually masked by the strong performances.

Even if it had ultimately been a failure, Looper would be interesting as a piece of Johnson’s small filmic canon. Like Brick and The Brothers Bloom, this film exists in a vacuum where all the characters imitate the speech and mannerisms usually consigned to hardboiled crime fiction from the ‘30s and ‘40s. When Abe complains about Joe’s generation’s obsessions with ‘goddamn 20th century affectations’ and informs him that ‘the movies he’s dressing like are just copying other movies,’ one can’t help but wonder if Johnson is calling himself out or at least winking at his critics. Some of Johnson’s goddamn 20th century affectations do feel extraneous, such as Joe’s relationship to a hooker with a heart of gold. Suzie fulfills other thematic purposes, being a mother herself, and Old Joe’s familiarity with her makes his willingness to murder her child all the more chilling, but their relationship comes off as somewhat hackneyed (there is more to it in the deleted scenes). On the whole, however, Looper (more so than even Brick) blends its hard boiled pretense with its more affecting themes and narrative.

 Looper
Perhaps the additional use of traditional science fiction and action movie conventions helps disguise the ‘sore thumb’ noirish dialogue, but I find Johnson’s cultivation of genre clichés even more impressive based on their sheer quantities. Looper is full of direct references to other films, but Johnson isn’t content to merely ‘copy movies that copy other movies’ – he ingrains aspects of these references in the subtext. Sure, he’ll whip out a direct visual reference every once and a while (‘La Belle Aurore’ is a lift from Casablanca, for example), but the more interesting stuff is acknowledged on a character level. The best example of this is found in the way Johnson uses his audience’s familiarity with James Cameron’s first two Terminator movies. Any time someone makes a time travel movie, The Terminator is bound to come up and the similarities between it and Looper are certainly striking. Old Joe’s plan is slapped together in a much less efficient fashion than Skynet’s similar plan*, but it is generally the same plan – kill the kid, save the future from his reign. And both plans feature generally the same stumbling block – the murderer is unclear on exactly which past timeline person to murder. The comparisons grow more interesting when Old Joe kills the first of the three children on his list, souring his initially noble intentions. He rises from a good cry, sheds his last shred of humanity, and turns into a preternatural killing machine, not at all unlike the Terminator. Johnson doesn’t expressly point to this parallel (though I suppose he comes close by having Old Joe level a heavily fortified stronghold), but he lets it settle and even cloaks it with Willis’ wonderfully sympathetic performance.

Ultimately, it is the sci-fi aspects that fail Johnson the most, though more often in vague aesthetic terms than truly damning ones. The simpler he keeps his sci-fi, the better it works for his story. Some brief sequences that explore the visual aspects of time travel leave a bit to be desired, but I find the dissection of the sci-fi elements intrinsic to the story of Looper an exhausting exercise in missing the point. I agree that everything doesn’t add up when put under the microscope of concrete logic, specifically that the film’s basic concept of murder being so difficult in the future that crime syndicates have to use Loopers in the first place (especially when it appears that they have, indeed, killed Old Joe’s wife and burned the house down to make it look like Old Joe did it himself). But, again, that’s not the point of the exercise. Suspension of disbelief is entirely subjective, but harping on the encompassing concept of the film seems rather similar to harping on a zombie movie, because you can’t wrap your brain around zombies as a concept. People that care about the mechanics of time travel should probably stay away from most time travel movies as a rule – or at least limit their viewing habits to thematically dry and wit-free movies, like The Butterfly Effect and A Sound of Thunder (and maybe Primer, I haven’t seen that one).

 Looper

Video


It seems unlikely that a guy obsessed with ‘goddamn 20th century affectations’ would be too quick to adapt goddamn 21st century filming techniques, so it’s not surprising that Looper was shot anamorphic 35mm. When I saw the film in theaters, it was in the form of a 2K digital scan, which is, more or less, the same thing as watching a Blu-ray projection (definitely more than less). Assuming what I was an accurate digital portrait of a film-based feature, I’d say this 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray is a topnotch home video representation. Whatever one’s opinion of the film’s narrative and thematic success, it’s difficult to argue that Looper isn’t a good looking movie. Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin embrace the format’s artefacts, which makes for a relatively grainy, highly naturalistic look. It’s also a very dark movie (in keeping with the Noir tradition) and much of its lighting is taken from naturally occurring sources or at least sources that are made to appear natural. Details are sharp mostly in close-up, since Johnson and Yedlin tend to leave a lot of their backgrounds out of focus. Wide shots get a little mushy due to the minor limitations of the format at times. Sharpening effects are rarely an issue, though there is a tinge of edge enhancement peppered throughout the film. Some of the colour design is relatively washed-out in an effort to create a subtly dystopian look, but there’s definitely enough warmth in the frame to set Looper apart from stuff like Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake. The key word is, again, ‘natural’ and this extends to the skin tones and basic environments. Occasionally, something like the La Belle Aurore club punches things up with a little neon and those pesky blue lens flares pop-up every once and a while, but the palette’s chief role seems to be the contrasting of the city (blue and cold) and countryside environments (warm and green). The colours are consistently well-separated along sharply focused edges and blend nicely when details are a little fuzzy. Black levels are inconsistent due to the natural film look – there are no signs of digital grading practices and contrast levels are set somewhere short of the harshness we’d normally expect from Film Noir. Some of the blacks are simply grayish while others tend to absorb the colours around them.

 Looper

Audio


Looper comes fitted with a strong, dynamically dramatic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Outside of the obviously impressive punch of sudden and loud gunshots (when I saw it in theaters the audience jumped out of their seats every time someone used a blunderbuss), this particular soundtrack is also defined by a lot of multi-channel ambience. This is especially useful in either setting up a location (inner city environments are warm, quiet, and stale while the farmhouse is teeming with the sounds of nature) or echoing the aftereffect of something loud, usually a gunshot or slamming door of some kind. The clarity of the sound and accuracy of these directional embellishments really helps sell the immersive scale of the soundscape, though, on occasion, the whispered dialogue is lost in the mix. The ‘sci-fi’ sound design is kept to a minimum, which helps to sell stuff like flying cars when the need arises – these elements are positively alien in the otherwise modern environment. Johnson takes a Martin Scorsese approach with his montage-style musical editing and continues the practice of altering the sound of music depending on location without changing the song, which he started doing with Brick. What’s interesting here is that most of the music is, in fact, a part of composer Nathan Johnson’s original score, not an acquired piece of pop. Sometimes, a song will start a sequence blaring at full volume from the front channels with only minimal surround enhancement, then will segue into a more muffled state within the surround channels, creating a solid sense of space. This score, which turns into something more omnipresent as the film progresses, is extremely eclectic –spanning electronica, rock, jazz and traditional symphonic genres – and was mostly produced via remixing found sounds, rather than instruments.

 Looper

Extras


This is weird, but I invested so much time thinking about Looper that I don’t really want to listen to Rian Johnson’s commentary track. I wrote the entire feature section of this review without even sticking the Blu-ray in the player and would rather discuss my theories with friends and readers than know what the filmmaker specifically intended for the material. This is the exact reason people like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino don’t do commentaries, a practice I tend to complain about. In the end, this is my job, so I have to at least sample the track, which I did, but only enough to get the gist of the tone and content. The track features Johnson working with actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt. Johnson is clearly in charge with Levitt and Blunt interjecting occasionally with ‘uh huhs,’ ‘yeps,’ and a few minimal factoids about the behind-the-scenes process. Perhaps it is the presence of the actors that keeps Johnson on the subject of technical direction and editing, rather than his writing or thematic purposes, which means he didn’t quite ruin my subtext-based assumptions. The bits I sampled didn’t feature any major lulls in content and the participants appear to be having fun throughout. As a fan, I was particularly happy to hear Johnson discusses taking inspiration from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu comic series.

Up next are 22 deleted/extended scenes, featuring optional commentary from Johnson and actor Noah Segan (36:50, HD). These scenes fill out minor plot points, most of which are already well-established in the final film, and widen the scope of the film’s environments. Some of these are definitely valuable on their own (mostly from a performance standpoint), but I don’t think the film would’ve been much better off without them and don’t believe the film’s detractors would change their minds, had they been included. You may ask yourself why Segan is part of the commentary – this is because his second and third act subplot, where he’s left on the run and forced to find Old Joe as his only means back into the fold, was deleted. A piece of dialogue revealing that Abe has put a price on his head seems to negate the possibility of them being the same person.

 Looper
The Future from the Beginning (7:50, HD) is a pretty fluffy EPK, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Johnson, producer Ram Bergman, cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and actors Levitt, Segan, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Piper Perabo. Brian Clegg, the author of How to Build a Time Machine discusses the literary history and real science of time travel in the aptly titled The Science of Time Travel (8:30, HD). This featurette also features further fluffy interviews with the cast and crew. Scoring Looper (16:20, HD) finishes out the featurettes and is divided into three chapters: Field Recordings, Percussion, and Melodic Instruments. It appears to have been originally released on the internet. Here, composer Nathan Johnson discusses the process of putting together the film’s unique score, including footage of him gathering recordings of everyday objects, mixing the organic sounds into melodies and rhythms, followed by samples from the final film. The extras are completed with an animated trailer and trailers for other Sony releases.

 Looper

Overall


I had a lot to say about Looper. I wanted to compare it to Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and also intended to address the issue of the initial advertised concept that promised more of an exploration of the process of meeting oneself. Apparently, some viewers found that a single scene of Old and Young Joe having a face to face confrontation was disappointingly thin. To those people, I suggest watching (or re-watching) Duncan Jones’ masterful Moon. This Blu-ray doesn’t disappoint in the audio or video departments, but may disappoint some viewers with its extra content, though the 36 minutes of deleted/extended footage and commentary are certainly strong supplemental material.

* Cameron wasn’t the first to come up with the concept of changing the future by killing a significant historical figure in the past or even the first to insert a killing machine into the mix (he was sued by Harlin Ellison for supposedly swiping the idea from an episode of The Outer Limits Ellison wrote), but it is most commonly attributed in the greater pop-culture zeitgeist.

** Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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