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To paraphrase Dean Pelton from Community, “time travel is really hard.” To wit, writers who are able to do it well seem to exclusively be Steven Moffat, J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof (it’s weird how three of those individuals are involved with the greatest science fiction show of all time). Writers seem to either hand-wave the ontological paradoxes they inadvertently create or they bury themselves under technobabble explaining the pseudoscience their premise seems to be operating on. Great time travel stories are lean and efficient, write as few paradoxes into their tale as possible (or none at all if you’re 12 Monkeys), and give characters a front-and-center view. It’s what’s made Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who years work and it’s what made season five of Lost so brilliant. The third directorial feature from Brick‘s Rian Johnson now puts him in the ranks of the time travel masters with the thrilling and wicked smart Looper.

In the year 2042, time travel hasn’t been invented yet. But in about thirty years, it will (I think I might be directly quoting exposition from the film at this point). Joe (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a “Looper.” Time travel will become illegal, and the only one’s that use it are criminal organizations. They send people they want killed back to the past so that hit men called Loopers can kill them and dispose of bodies that don’t even technically exist yet. It’s an easy job for easy money but there’s a catch. Time travel becomes such a touchy subject in the future that the criminal syndicates force Loopers to “close their own loop.” If the Looper is still alive in the future, he’s sent back to the 2040s where the present time Looper has to kill his future self. And he severs ties with the syndicate to enjoy his remaining thirty years.

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Joe’s life is one of beautiful women, fast cars, eye-drop drugs, and old-fashioned guns. With his telekinetic fellow Looper Seth (Paul Dano), Joe is living the life until it’s time for him to finally close his own loop. After a moment’s hesitation, Joe is unable to pull the trigger on future Joe (Bruce Willis) and future Joe gets away. Now both young Joe and old Joe are being hunted by the criminal syndicate who wants to take them both out before either can screw things up even more. Young Joe wants to find and kill Old Joe so that he can get what remains of his life back and Old Joe wants to find the young version of the head of the crime family from his time and kill him before he can start closing everyone’s loop. And so young Joe finds the boy and vows to protect him and his mother (The Adjustment Bureau‘s Emily Blunt) as he waits for Old Joe to make his move.

I don’t know exactly when Joseph Gordon-Levitt became the thinking-man’s action star (although my guess is that Inception was as good a launching pad as any) but god bless America that that finally happened. With a subtle application of make-up (or maybe not so subtle if you know what Joseph Gordon-Levitt actually looks like), Levitt becomes Bruce Willis. I mean it. If you’ve ever seen a  Bruce Willis movie, you know all of Bruce’s mannerisms. The way he manages to both open his eyes wide but also seem to somehow be closing them at the same time. The little drawl he uses when he talks. The cocky swagger. Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds all of it. If there’s ever a Bruce Willis biopic, I nominate Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the role. Yet, he also (as he does in virtually all of his roles) adds the emotional pathos needed for the role and to have us cheering for someone who is more or less nothing other than a hired gun.

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Anybody who’s seen Brick or either of the episodes of Breaking Bad that Rian Johnson directed know that Johnson (who also wrote the film) is a master of both pulp dialogue and head-spinning visuals. And Looper is no exception. We’re about ten films deep into our current 50 film crop (for the superlatives of the last 50, you can go here), and out of those so far, Looper has been the only one with a real sense of visual flair. Johnson’s world-building is impeccable and the film’s western/mobster/steampunk vibe is one of the most original sci-fi aesthetics this side of Firefly. And much like Children of Men (which became an allegory for illegal immigration at times), Looper infuses it’s future tech with a sense that mankind is slowly destroying itself through greed and violence. And a recurring visual motif is one of desolate economic squalor.

Now what I’m about to say may seem contradictory but bear with me. Looper‘s only flaws lie in some pacing problems that drag down the middle section of the film. A more lean, 90 minute run time could have made this an all-time classic. Rian Johnson admirably tries to build up the characters during quieter moments of the film and mostly he succeeds. We watch as Bruce Willis struggles to retain the memories of his past life as new memories are constantly being created as he broken the causality of his previous life. We watch Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt bond as he comes to care for her and her child. But not everything works as smoothly, and when scenes seem artificial (the first stirring of romance rather than simple affection between Blunt and Levitt or the implied ease that Willis has in killing children to save his future wife), the film starts to drag and you wish that Johson could return to the kinetic pace of the opening sections of the film.

Emily Blunt;Joseph Gordon Levitt

Despite its flaws and the occasional thinness of its characterizations, Looper is a hell of a ride. We are living in a golden age of intelligent science fiction from District 9 to Children of Men to Watchmen. I’m not saying that Looper is as good as those films (it’s certainly nowhere near as good as Children of Men) but for fans of sci-fi with brains and a little bit of testosterone, Looper gets the job done. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to establish himself as one of the most exciting and fresh young faces in Hollywood and Bruce Willis continues his bad-ass ride into the sunset as one of Hollywood’s premier bad-asses. Don’t miss one of the best science fiction films of last year.

Final Score: A-

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