Movie Review: Looper

I vaguely remember a snippet of a review that said Looper is basically No Country for Old Men meets Back to the Future, and actually that’s pretty accurate. It’s as if the time travel problems in Back to the Future had to be solved with suspense/action instead of comedy. Alternately, it’s the sci-fi version of No Country for Old Men, except it has a point.

From the trailer, I expected Rian Johnson’s Looper to be a fairly interesting sci-fi concept that got beaten up and destroyed by mainstream action, like the I, Robot movie or possibly The Adjustment Bureau. I expected all the intricacies and oddities of time travel to get completely swallowed up by yet another Bruce Willis action movie. But then people started saying it was good.

I already said what Looper actually felt like: Back to the Future meets No Country for Old Men. Not that there’s much Back to the Future in the story; the time travel and the abstract issues surrounding it just happen to work mostly the same way. Like Back to the Future, there are plotholes related to the time travel, but they’re not really worth worrying about. And for me to say that about a sci-fi film is pretty good—it means they set it up so that the level of attempted realism matched my suspension of disbelief.

As far as the action goes, it’s never really any more than what’s in the trailer. Which was oddly disappointing because I went in sort of expecting to enjoy some action/fight sequences, and didn’t get much of that. Instead, there’s suspense and grit.

By far the thing that bothered me most about the movie was the overuse of narration. It wasn’t quite as bad as Blade Runner in this way1, but it was still far too much “telling” that could have been “showing”, which is bad enough in a book but even worse in a film. It turns out that narration actually plays a role in the climax, but still I can think of other ways that scene could have been done.

A less important criticism: the movie takes quite a bit of time to set up the world. It’s not a long movie (well, not by today’s average; it’s two hours), but the time spent establishing the setting felt slow. And just when things start picking up, it turns out it’s a short story prequel, designed to raise the stakes for the “main” movie. (I’m talking about the part with Seth, the first guy who fails to “close his loop”.) I’m not exactly sure how this could be cut more, but it should have been cut more.

There are a number of Chekov’s guns in the movie, ranging from moderately surprising (“oh wow, I thought that was just a one-off scene but nooo…”) to moderately obvious (“…aaaand here’s where that gets used”). Actually, in retrospect Johnson seems to really enjoy this one-two pattern, but for the most part it’s not a bad thing.

The thing that’s getting me is that everyone’s calling it a “smart” film. It’s “smarter” than the average mainstream action or sci-fi movie, sure…but that’s not saying much. It’s not as smart as District 9, or (IMHO) Inception, and certainly not as smart as Gattaca.2 I’m all for movies that make you think, but this is like complimenting someone for successfully making canned chicken soup on the stove instead of microwaving a frozen dinner. It’s…just not that impressive.

But even though I’ve been fairly critical of Looper, I’d actually say it’s still worth watching, in the same way that an interesting science fiction story is still worth reading even when it’s not the best thing ever written. Johnson has a fairly good premise and gets to run with it in a couple different directions; the movie manages to do so in a way that is very accessible and hardly ever confusing. And at the same time, it gets No Country for Old Men’s suspense and pairs it with emotions other than just “fear”. Finally, the ending remained a surprise for me—not completely out of nowhere, but not something I had been expecting, either.

It won’t be the best thing you’ve ever seen, but it’s good. You should watch it.

Random Comments With Minor Spoilers

  • Why did Bruce Willis’s wife have to be that much younger than him? I get that she’s supposed to be attractive to the target audience (20-something males like me), but it looked like it was pushing the Standard Creepiness Rule. Or maybe I’m just really bad at judging ages.

  • While it was obvious that Cid was the one just by virtue of Young Joe showing up there first, the entire conceit of why he grew up that way was also kinda obvious. I think it clicked the first or second time Sara said “As long as I’m there”.

  • The TK seemed really spurious…until it turned out to be a plot point. I would have liked to see other minor psychic abilities, though, to make it stand out less. This was sort of one of the things where Johnson put it in because it was necessary for the story, but it still felt a bit grafted on.

  • While Cid might say “she’s not my mom”, shame on Joe (and Johnson) for repeating that instead of assuming he was adopted. I mean, really. Adopted parents have more claim on “mom” than a biological mother who gave a kid up for adoption. (Which isn’t what happened here, but…)

  • HEY THIS MOVIE IS A LOT LIKE TERMINATOR 2. EXCEPT KINDA BACKWARDS.

  1. Apparently, Blade Runner’s awful narration was only present in the theatrical releases; I’m fairly convinced that watching another version would instantly make it a better movie. ↩︎

  2. Though Gattaca tries so hard to be clever that it ends up feeling “constructed”. ↩︎

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