Rian Johnson clearly understands genre film. His Brick used its noir trappings to emphasize the overblown emotions of adolescence, while Brothers Bloom added a hefty dose of whimsy into a heist flick (of sorts) to get at the artistry of the con. Both were sometimes accused of indulging style over substance, but those criticisms miss the point completely: In Johnson’s hands, style communicates what pure substance never could.
Even though it’s a time-travel action flick co-starring Bruce Willis, Looper is probably Johnson’s most substantive film to date. I say probably because on first viewing, it’s easy to get lost in the style. The film creates a near-future of rocket-powered bikes, intense class warfare and designer drugs that’s fully realized in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, trusting audiences to pick up on background details and casual asides that he’ll eventually pull into the foreground. He does help the audience on the key points: Joseph Gordon Levitt provides plenty of narration to establish the world, and the film does take a lengthy breather in its second half that helps the themes come into focus. But it’s still all too easy (and satisfying) just taking in the action and watching as the pieces of Johnson’s intricate plotting click into place.
You might’ve noticed I’m not talking about plot details at all. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the basics — maybe even more than you need to. It’s the kind of story that’s a lot of fun if you don’t know anything about it, so I’m avoiding spoilers, but I don’t think they’d ruin the experience. The performances, the setpieces and the world-building are all too well done to be ruined by knowledge of a few twists, and details like the much-talked-about makeup job on Joseph Gordon Levitt are effective enough that they don’t really need addressing. I’d rather just say what I think is important: Namely, that time-travel is well thought out, with only one or two paradoxes thrown into the mix — pretty much impossible to avoid unless you’re taking the Primer approach and making an engineering thesis that doubles as sci-fi. More importantly, the few niggling details don’t really matter, partly because Johnson builds in enough wiggle-room to allow for them and partly because his use of the time-travel mechanic, and his future world in general, is inventive enough that just watching him play with it makes up for any logic traps.
What really impresses about Looper is that beyond being a compelling sci-fi action flick (and an original one, too, which is frustratingly rare), it uses the genre to examine real anxieties. And not in the “let’s raise this issue so people think we’re deep, then drop it” way that the new Total Recall did. Like the authors who elevated sci-fi in the first place, Johnson understands a fundamental truth about technology: It is an extension of humanity, and because of that, all technology is a reflection of human needs and desires. That’s what makes sci-fi an ideal lens for self-examination. Even when it’s dressed up in whiz-bang action, it’s the emotion underneath that sticks.