Johnson knows that great science fiction starts not just with world-building or dazzling effects, although Looper does both very well, but with ground-level characters, recognizable personalities who happen to find themselves in fantastical scenarios. Take for instance the man who will be both protagonist and antagonist in this film, sometimes even at the same time. His name is Joe. He kills people for a living. More accurately, he kills people from the future. The year is 2044 and although time travel has yet to be invented, it will be soon enough. In 2074, time travel is illegal and thus only used by a crime syndicate for the sole purpose of disposing bodies. That’s where Joe and his co-workers come in.
By the time this happens, the world of the film feels sturdy, convincing. High-tech embellishments create a world that feels almost like our own, close enough to recognize, advanced enough to feel foreign. The characters are all world-weary men, doing a messy job with professionalism. This new wrinkle in their day-to-day grind of violence by day and hard partying by night is treated with a tired tension, an urgency that is both intense and unsurprising. Something like this was bound to happen. Indeed, we’ve seen that it has at least once, but that time clean up was relatively easy. Both Joes are hard to catch. The older Joe roams the cityscape – Johnson imagines a future with both hoverbikes and pervasive homelessness – on a mission to change his fate. The younger Joe hides out with a tough farm woman (Emily Blunt) and her little boy (the adorable Pierce Gagnon).
This film thrillingly skirts past all the usual pitfalls and creates an exciting and cohesive film that is violent and cynical, but romantic and humanistic as well. Johnson embraces these apparent contradictions to follow loops of plot to the kind of climax that feels at once startling and wholly inevitable. Looking back on its entirety, it’s easy to see how fully and neatly Johnson has led us to this point. This ingeniously structured movie, neat and tidy by the end, is skillfully complex, a movie that operates from a set of rules that seem fully thought through, inhabiting a world rather than using it as narratively convenient. With Steve Yedlin’s warm yet precise cinematography of great pictorial beauty, from the steel-and-concrete, graffiti-covered streets of downtown to the dusty fields of farmland, recalling the casual gracefulness in the down-to-earth sci-fi of early Spielberg, it’s a story of imagination and emotion set against a detailed futuristic environment that feels detailed in compelling ways that nonetheless remain in the background with minimal fuss. This is a world, not merely a stage.
Johnson patiently complicates the scenario, sketching details of plot with camera moves that silently reveal new information and shot compositions that cement tension and power dynamics. He off-handedly introduces concepts that will come roaring back into focus later. Here is a movie about fate that feels inevitable but vibrant, a movie about choices that feels carefully designed. Like all the best time travel movies, when it ended I felt the pleasant confusion that made me want to see it again, to diagram the timelines and figure out what, in the end, remains real and what has been cancelled out. Best of all, I felt confident that I very well could do just that. Looper is a film so emotionally engaged and technologically accomplished, so confident in the rules of its universe, that there’s a feeling that its implications resonate far beyond any given frame, beyond the focus of this particular story. Johnson has created the rare film that seems to expand.