CINEMA: News Weekly
Time-travelling crime gangs and hitmen
, October 27, 2012
An American science-fiction action film, Looper (rated MA), is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Looper is fast becoming one of the most critically acclaimed sci-fi films of recent times. It’s being praised for its acting, its script, its cinematography and its concept.
It certainly seems to tick all the boxes for intelligent, but still popular, cinema; and yet it feels as if some key element is missing. It is therefore more of a promising concept than a completed film.
Time travel has been invented in 2074, but has been immediately outlawed. Its main use seems to be by organised crime identities, who use it to send back targets for execution to the year 2044. They do this because there’s no way of disposing of bodies in the future.
The hitmen are called loopers and are well paid for their efforts. Otherwise the world depicted is grubby, gritty and violent, with the United States having suffered severe economic collapse and the social breakdown that inevitably follows.
Joe Simmons (ably played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper, living the “good life”. That is, until more and more older loopers are sent back to be terminated by their younger selves, thus “closing the loop”, by some supremely powerful mega-boss called the Rainmaker.
Finally, it’s Joe’s turn; but instead of the usual bound, gagged and hooded victim, he’s faced by his older self (Bruce Willis) who’s not free of constraint and has his own, terrifying agenda.
Rian Johnson’s previous films include the stylish and compelling high school noir, Brick (2005), also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the charming, ultra-stylised and clever conman caper, The Brothers Bloom (2009), which is a marvellous movie. He can certainly make intelligent popular movies, but something in this one just doesn’t work.
From the first, we have Joe’s ever-present narration which gives the bulk of the exposition. Much more is told in this film than shown, and yet, the sequence showing Joe as he ages into Bruce Willis is superbly done and masterfully cinematic. There is a sense that the exposition is there because it is what is done in noir; but in classic noir, the voice-over narration is primarily stylistic, rather than the main vehicle for exposition.
The act of telling, in classic noir and hard-boiled detective fiction à la Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet, tends towards deception and dissimulation, not truth-telling. It is an exercise in manipulation, and an illustration of the discrepancies between words and deeds.
Classic film noir is incredibly cinematic and visually dramatic. It is dominated by chiaroscuro (“light-dark”) lighting, and stylised imagery. Everything is suggested, and under-played; and it is often as if there’s a fog of confusion over the proceedings.
Orson Welles’ work forms a keen example of masterful noir, with its sophisticated blend of evocative cinematography and deadpan narration, each complementing the other. He managed to take the tropes of popular literature and imbue them with a wit and compelling aesthetic that still make his movies a delight.
But this is not the case in Looper, where the narration seems as if it ought to be the world-weary cynicism of the detective, but instead is merely the simple recounting of events. And the cinematography is gritty and grimy and grubby, as if social decay requires decrepit photography to record it accurately.
Unlike the classic Humphrey Bogart flick, where the seediest surrounds will still look stunning because of how the recorded image was composed, and would probably allude to all manner of philosophical and social and historical themes, in Looper they merely document the brutality and poverty of this future existence. This is doubly odd, as Johnson’s other films are distinguished by their sublime photography.
Admittedly, this film has been through the genre blender, and there has been a tendency for noir in recent years to be equated with gritty social realism, which has naught to do with traditional noir, made as it was by men trained in fine art and literature; but when it comes to the sci-fi element it still seems odd.
Time travel tales tend towards paradoxes and all manner of problems regarding causality, logic and comprehension; but Looper, rather than seeking to answer these common queries, evades them. It does so quite cleverly with Bruce Willis taking off so many other present-self/future-self dialogues, but still they linger. The movie is not so compelling that one forgets the compulsion to have them answered.
All in all, Looper is a serviceable and incredibly violent thriller; one that asks many questions, and then neglects to answer them. There is something in it, but more than that, there is something missing from it.
While the performances are excellent, the characters are neither comic, nor imbued with tragic grandeur. This matters little, though, as Looper is enjoying near universal acclaim and making lots of money — much like the loopers themselves.