Contrary to the false impressions spawned by its trailers, Rian Johnson's 2012 science fiction film Looper falls far short of the high-suspense action thriller.
On the surface it recalls the glory days of M. Night Shyamalan's career and pays homage to the Die Hard films, but it also makes a laudable attempt to incorporate the classic noir suspense of Chinatown with the intellectual insight of The Matrix and an epic spoonful of Star Wars.
Thirty years from today, contract killers known as loopers (because they close time loops) kill marks sent to them by a criminal organization that illegally employs the use of time travel, thus erasing the marks from existence. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper whose life pulls a 180 when he sees that one of his marks is his future self (Bruce Willis).
Unable to bring himself to kill him instinctively, Joe's older self takes advantage of the situation to escape, so Joe must close his loop before his superiors catch up to him and kill him for his failure.
The fascinating universe feels like Gotham City without the Wayne Family: a bleak, hopeless world overrun by crime and lacking conscience. Looper does not go out of its way to show its audience its futuristic setting: characters drive new car models and take optical narcotics, but the use of modern technology as well as outdated models such as the loopers' blunderbusses and pocket watches, to say nothing of the gold and silver by which the loopers are paid, rather than bills, offers an interesting commentary on the concept of time.
This medley of timeframes provides a well-executed symbolism that time is simultaneous rather than sequential, a concept demonstrated so well that it would make Dr. Manhattan proud.
Looper's nearly two-hour running time hinders its presentation. After a first act bordering on masterful, fatigue seeps into the second act. When Joe takes refuge with Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Sid (Pierce Gagnon), Looper's tone changes from high-octane thriller to a philosophical debate between two geniuses so engaged in their discussion that they alienate the audience. The philosophical elements in Looper would have worked if they remained an underlying theme rather than the focal point of the story halfway through, thus leaving the audience behind.
The cast poses another obstacle. Gordon-Levitt and Willis highlight Looper, with Blunt, Paul Dano, Frank Brennan, Garrett Dillahunt, and Jeff Daniels turning in notable performances. That's especially true of Brennan, who plays Dano's character from the future in a torture scene where Seth (Dano) is being brutally mangled and dismembered. No blood or violence transpires onscreen; the older Seth loses limbs and his nose as others make grisly work of his younger counterpart. The audience has no choice but to feel overcome by the sense of terror that the older Seth is feeling.
However, the audience's connection doesn't last long. As Looper progresses, it misuses its brilliant cast, specifically in the relationship between Gordon-Levitt and Willis, who are more than qualified for their roles, but playing the same character shows the difference in caliber they provide. Gordon-Levitt, while talented, cannot reach the same level as veteran actor Bruce Willis, which makes for a mismatched and inconsistent portrayal of the same character. The other actors seem obsolete in their roles, ultimately making their performances expendable. This disengagement cripples a movie so heavily story- and character-driven.
None of this qualifies Looper as bad. It can be equated to a college football player being scouted by major NFL teams, but somewhere along the way wants to become a doctor with no prior classwork or even the grades. Looper does not start off sprinting; it smartly starts off the race running. It takes the time to draw the audience into its futuristic universe and its own understanding of time travel but does so without indulging itself as Inception did.
Looper becomes unsatisfied with itself and tries to exceed its own potential, losing its story and thus shattering its characters' connection with the audience. However, Looper is a noble effort by director Rian Johnson, and could be considered a study in near-perfect universe creation. But a story cannot count on its universe alone, which is where Looper misses the mark.