‘Looper’ an aesthetically dazzling disappointment

By Sam Flancher

The critical and commercial success of 2010’s “Inception” was a refreshing change of pace for many filmgoers. Love it or hate it, the film was something of an anomaly in modern Hollywood—a gamble on an original screenplay in an era of adaptations, sequels and reboots. Though hampered by expositional and structural faults, “Inception” ushered in something new. “Looper,” the latest film from director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”) attempts to capture that same high-concept experimentation but is ultimately crushed under the weight of its manymoving parts.

“Looper” begins by explicitly stating its basic premise through voice-over. Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt—whose face has been digitally reconstructed to match Bruce Willis’ gruff mug—explains that, in the future, time travel is both possible and highly illegal. In the year 2044, Joe makes his living as a Looper, an assassin employed by a crime syndicate that exists even further in the future. The mob pays men like Joe to erase any trace of their victims who are sent from a later time. While out on assignment, Joe is shocked to find that his usually anonymous victim is a version of himself from the future, played by Bruce Willis. Willis, on a mission of his own, escapes his execution and sets the film in motion by avoiding Gordon-Levitt’s blunderbuss and running free in his past.

Narratively, “Looper” feels jumbled and confused. Excessive exposition outlines the finer points of the film’s conceptual framework, and things become overwhelming as a result. Too many plot points, concepts and characters are presented, and by the film’s end, none feel as though they were given adequate attention.

At one point during the film, Gordon-Levitt sits with Willis at a diner. In this first confrontation between present and future Joe, the two begin to talk about time travel when Willis angrily yells, “I don’t want to talk about that time travel s**t … It doesn’t matter.” It’s a shame the film doesn’t take Willis’ advice. The characters spend too much time explaining the intricacies of their futuristic world and not enough time experiencing it.

The film is well-crafted technically, and Johnson’s feel for genre is impressive. “Looper’s” style is reliant on a crafty intermingling of generic conventions meshing elements from film noir, gangster, western and science fiction films. Men from the future wear cowboy hats, and the influence of organized crime is pervasive. The cinematography is flashy and sleek, the performances adequately move the plot along and the editing is polished and economical. Gratuitous violence dominates the action sequences, which feature choreography reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino at his most decadent.

It’s no secret that Johnson is something of a cinematic stylist. His debut film, “Brick,” won critical acclaim because it favors inventive narrative over thematic exploration. Johnson takes things a step further in “Looper,” opting to dazzle visually with a self-indulgent aesthetic rather than explore the potentially rich allegorical material right in front of him.

Making a film for the sake of spectacle isn’t an inherent negative—his previous “Brick” was an enjoyable experience and last year’s “Drive” is not without brilliant moments. “Looper” begins to disappoint when Johnson attempts to inject forced intellectual and emotional gravitas. The film is too concerned with its own overly stylized narrative, and any attempt at emotional profundity feels forced. For all of its consciousness of genre and style, the film lacks a similar awareness of its shallowness.