October 27


A plot analysis of the film Looper (Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

My brother asked me what I thought of the sci fi film Looper, so here is a little analysis what I think it did well and what poorly. WARNING: this commentary assumes you have seen the film. It is ALL plot spoiler.

I enjoyed two portions of the film immensely: the opening exposition, where we see Levitt's character wandering around his future city, killing people, doing drugs, impersonating Bruce Willis. It was confident, skilled film-making. I also really enjoyed the farm house scenes, as we slowly realise that the precocious boy is a lot more than he first appears.

A personal note:

I watched this film in Knoxville, in the Gay Street cinema. After about halfway through, a woman six seats down started exclaiming at every major turning point.

When Emily Blunt is lying in bed, sexily strokes her own thigh, then calls Levitt up to her room, this woman exclaimed, “Somebody about to have RELATIONS!”

When that fellow killer dude comes back to the house, and the boy starts to raise all the furniture in the living room, and tears the guy apart, she hoarsely whispered, “Shut yo mouth…”

When Bruce Willis picks up the automatic weapons and begins killing the mobsters, she cried, “Yippie-Ki-Yay, MotherF******!”

Obviously, after watching the film's ending, a viewer has one central question: does the time travel / younger self vs older self stuff make sense? Is it possible for Joseph Gordon Levitt to shoot himself in order to prevent Bruce Willis shooting someone else, and thus ensure a better future? My instinct says not really. After all, if there are two futures, one good, one bad, and we begin the film heading for the bad future, but then a guy comes back in time to (he thinks) change things so we get the good future, but the younger version of himself realises that this is exactly what will produce the bad future, and so kills himself to stop his older self, thus (ironically) shifting us to head towards the good future, how is the original, bad future able to send the older version of him back in the first place, and thus alert the younger him to not allow the bad future to be created? More simply: how can Bruce Willis, in the future, be worried about a character, the terrible mob boss The Rainmaker, who he hasn't created yet?

But in this case, I give the film a pass: that's the conceit, so it seems rude to examine it too much.

Here's my bigger problem with the film: its plot. It goes to great length to create a fascinating and complex set up: the idea of past and future selves travelling in time, killing each other and so on. It's great. Unfortunately, the film doesn't know what do with this set up. By the time that the two protagonists meet in the diner, that plot line is running out of steam: for the rest of the film, time travel might as well not exist. We essentially have a quite different film, about a scoundrel being transformed by the kindness of a gorgeous woman and the quirkiness of her mutant son. All the paradoxes and multiple futures that make time travel stories so much fun are absent; we stop recycling motifs from Back to the Future and Blade Runner, and instead start pulling in motifs from Tender Mercies and The Sixth Sense.

I felt this plot failure coming. The moment Emily Blunt's character appeared on the screen, I sighed in concern: a completely new plot thread was being introduced.

Had it been a private screening for me and that loud woman six seats down, I would have exclaimed, “Get back to the PLOT, idiots!”

A sign of how irrelevant the time travel is to the second half of the film: the exact reason why the Rainmaker must die is not explained. What exactly is so bad about this Rainmaker: isn't he just another mob boss? Perhaps he arranges to have Bruce Willis killed, but only at the thirty year mark that Willis had already agreed to.

This lack of badness in the bad guy means that the audience sees no conflict in Levitt's decision. If it is between A: saving a cool kid with magic powers and B: shooting him dead, obviously we will pick option A. And this lack of moral complexity reduces Bruce Willis, as soon as he shoots the first child, to a mere plot device. We don't give a shit about him, because we haven't been asked to consider what valid reason he could have to commit kidacide. Had the evilness of the Rainmaker been drip fed to us through the second act, his danger to the entire human race becoming more and more clear, then Levitt's final decision would have had real power.

As it was, both myself and the loud woman left the cinema a touch unmoved.



audience participation, time travel plot

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  • Yes.

    I enjoyed the movie for the performances and the above-average cinematography. The characters were well-executed (I particularly liked the main gangster villain[1]) and the whole thing *looked* pretty good.

    But you are correct that the movie was really two movies shoe-horned together. The first movie is a fast-paced sci-fi action movie with a really cool central conceit, a la The Matrix, Inception, (“assassination via time travel!”) and the second movie is a bizarre supernatural protect-the-child-of-destiny story.

    The problem is that considered individually, the movies don’t work, and considered together, they still don’t really work. For sci-fi conceits to work, they have to be internally consistent – they have to *make sense* – but this one didn’t. It decided to have its cake and eat it by having time travel, without actually thinking through how it would work in a rigorous fashion[2].

    The second movie was basically Terminator. Well, fine, but as you say, this takes Bruce Willis and turns him into a psycho-killer, when it’s clear in the first half we are expected to at least vaguely empathise with him.

    Eh. It reminds me of Inception. A well-shot, well-performed action movie that was a lot less clever than it wanted to be.

    [1]: There were a lot of little subplots and characters that looked promising but were never really developed. The bit about telekinesis. The relationship between the villain and the incompetent sub-villain with the big gun. JGL’s girlfriend. The first guy who fails to close his loop. All this made me want to like the movie a lot more than it really deserves, because it respected the little characters and details that lend verisimilitude to an imagined world. But ultimately it didn’t quite work.

    [2]: As you say, it’s bad manners to over-analyse something as intrinsically problematic as time travel, especially as they went to the effort of including all those almost-4th-wall-breaking scenes telling the audience not to worry about it. That would’ve been fine *if* they had made it all about the quasi-father-son relationship between Willis and JGL, or focused on one of the other sub-plots. But turning Willis into irrational-psycho-terminator kind of ruined that possibility.

  • Hi TACJ:

    Yes, it was one of those films where the parts were better than the whole. And, like you say, one wouldn’t quibble about the time travel logic if the film took the time travel seriously.

    Agree, too, that we are meant to like Bruce Willis, at first, and then suddenly we are not. Then we are supposed to like him again when he is killing the gangsters, then not like him again when he comes to the farm.

    The moment when he offers Levitt’s character all that money was quite peculiar: how is the audience supposed to react to it? A friend pointed out what a strangely well meaning monster Willis’s character is: he actually thinks handing over the cash will sway his younger self.

    It makes me wonder about the script development process. Was there originally a coherent, but (in someone’s opinion) not interesting enough script, purely about gangsters and time travel? Then the re-writers came in, liked the opening sections, threw in some telekinesis stuff as foreshadowing, then built up the “monster super child in danger” storyline…

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