Any attempt to explain time travel inevitably fails. The reason for this is simple: Time travel is impossible. And so, some of the worst scenes ever written by good writers feature characters fruitlessly attempting to describe the science of time travel. As a plot point, time travel is not interesting in itself; what’s interesting is how storytellers use time travel. And for most of the running time of Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson plays with the idea of time travel in all sorts of eccentric and interesting ways. He does this by explicitly having his characters state that the “how” doesn’t matter. Early in the movie, world-weary traveler from the future Jeff Daniels says, “This time travel s— fries your brain.” Later, fellow time-tourist Bruce Willis angrily explains why he doesn’t want to talk about the science of chrono-hopping: “If we start talking about it we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws!”
Fair enough. One of the most thrilling scenes in the movie makes zero sense, and is all the more enjoyable because it doesn’t try to be logical. (SPOILERS from here.) When a future version of Paul Dano’s character Seth goes on the run, the mob captures Dano and starts slicing off his limbs. We don’t actually see this happen. We just watch as parts of Future-Dano’ body slowly disappear. There’s no blood – all these injuries happened thirty years ago, after all. He just suddenly doesn’t have a nose. At one point, he’s running down a street, and he falls over… because he has no legs anymore. It’s at once goofy and terrifying, the rare scene equally influenced by Buster Keaton and Saw.
There is a rather obvious conundrum here: If Present-Day Dano spends the next thirty years of his life as a limbless burn-victim invalid, how does Future-Dano go on the run in the first place? But again, logic doesn’t matter. At least for its first hour, the movie is about the character of Joe, and how the decisions he makes as a young man affect his future. The movie’s best scene features Young Joe and Old Joe sitting in a diner, insulting each other: At one point, Young Joe tells Old Joe “Why don’t you do what old men do and die?”
But then Young Joe finds himself on a remote farm, and the movie takes a complete turn. The plot gradually becomes about the fate of the young child Cid, who is revealed as an incredibly powerful telekinetic being. Cid, we learn, will grow up to be a mega-criminal named The Rainmaker – who winds up killing Joe’s wife in the future.
The movie ultimately builds to a final standoff. At the climax of the movie, Cid is running away from the murderous Old Joe; Old Joe is aiming a gun at Cid; and Cid’s mother, played by Emily Blunt, is the only thing which stands between them. Young Joe watches all this from far away, and in a moment, he sees how this will all turn out: Old Joe will kill the mother; Cid will escape, burning with rage and on his way to becoming a supervillain. So Young Joe makes a decision: He kills himself, thus making Old Joe evaporate into non-existence.
Let’s get the two logical problems out of the way here:
1. Old Joe is coming from a future where the Rainmaker exists. That means that the Rainmaker already existed before Old Joe came back in time. So it doesn’t matter whether Emily Blunt lives or dies.
2. Old Joe is holding his pistol in his right hand. According to the Looper Theory of Cross-Chronal Limb Removal, wouldn’t it make more sense for Young Joe to just aim his huge gun at his right hand? Or he could put Old Joe off-balance by shooting off his own foot. I guess you could argue that Young Joe was just thinking quickly, but wouldn’t he at least try to ponder for a millisecond some way to not kill himself?
But the bigger problem I had with this final twist was narrative, not logical. Looper begins with a sharp focus on the character of Joe, who thinks he knows exactly what he wants: Lots of money. Various incidents force Joe to question that desire, which means that the first half of Looper is really about a very universal topic: A man trying to figure out what it is, precisely, that he wants. Will his youthful desires ultimately ruin him? This question super-charges every scene with vivid subtext: When Young Joe offers half his money to his favorite stripper, is he attempting to do something good? Or does he just need someone to assure him that he’s not really such a bad guy? And where does Old Joe get off lecturing to Young Joe? After all, he is Young Joe.
After that scene in the diner, though, all that falls by the wayside. By the end of Looper, the stakes have been raised to the level of a superhero comic, with Cid as a kind of simultaneous Christ/Anti-Christ figure who could save the world or destroy it. Young Joe’s decision seems heroic, but it’s actually very clear-cut: Will he rescue the angelic woman he loves so that she can make sure her child doesn’t grow up to be a mass-murderer? It’s not exactly a complicated moral quandary.
Don’t get me wrong, I can recognize the immediate dramatic oomph of having Young Joe kill himself. (I might be a lapsed Catholic, but I still have a gut-wrench passion for martyrs.) And yet, the actual emotional stakes have been sharpened to a dull point.It feels like the movie starts off playing with very lofty existential sci-fi ideas, and then winds up reducing its vision of time travel to a very simple question: Will the world be saved by the redemptive maternal influence of Emily Blunt?
Fellow moviegoers, what did you think of the time travel in Looper? Did the ending feel a little bit too straightforward? Or should we just be satisfied that the movie didn’t go a twist too far and make Cid a younger version of Joe?
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