It’s probably too soon to rejoice that a golden age of action-cum-sci-fi filmmaking is upon us, but there are at least glimmers of a trend, thanks to recent releases such as Inception, The Book of Eli, In Time, The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless, and, now, Rian Johnson’s Looper. After a period where science fiction was merely a backdrop on which to paint increasingly complex visual effects — nothing wrong with that, certainly, but just how many movies could we watch where there was nothing but these visuals? — it’s a relief to witness films that cleave to the median between suspense-fuelled thrills and the what-if wistfulness of science fiction.
Few audiences had the stomach for a pure, glacially paced science fiction feature like Duncan Jones’ excellent Moon, whose truck was with ideas and not action, but a larger audience warmed up to his next film, Source Code, which made us feel smart even as our visceral responses were being manipulated in the more conventional ways of commercial filmmaking.
Looper, too, is built on tried-and-tested tropes. You could say that it’s the film Terrence Malick might have made from a Stephen King-meets-The Terminator scenario — a going-back-in-time plot revolving around an apple-cheeked child with fearsome telekinetic powers, and set amidst a cane field so thick and so silent that it looks like God’s own burned-out backyard.
The references to James Cameron’s great sci-fi thriller are inescapable. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper,” an assassin who disposes of people sent to him from the future by the mob. Imagine his surprise when he’s awaiting his next target, shotgun cocked, and ends up staring at an older version of himself (Bruce Willis). Older Joe, like Arnold Schwarzenegger from the Cameron film, is on a chilling mission, though one leavened with more rueful emotion. Even the name of the frazzled cigarette-smoking single mother (played by Emily Blunt, channelling Linda Hamilton’s predilection for heavy weaponry, like axes and rock salt-filled guns) is the same: Sarah.
The story takes a while to get going, looking to be, at first, more Moon than Source Code. The director isn’t after flashy effects. His future-world is one of graffiti-splattered buildings and overflowing trash cans, and even his time machine is devoid of dazzle. But once we see who’s doing what to whom and why, we realise that the film isn’t as deep as it appeared.
Looper, finally, morphs into a tense thriller, punctuated by terrific action scenes (including an Alien-like chest explosion) and an exquisitely wordless flashback involving Willis. The actor is in top form, and the authority with which he calls his younger self a mere boy is a testament to the kind of wearily masculine hero the laddish-looking Gordon-Levitt can only hope to become in his most fervent dreams. Worse, Gordon-Levitt is burdened with the film’s sole miscalculation. In an attempt to embody a more youthful version of Willis, he slaps on a smirk and a pair of thick eyebrows. He ends up resembling a more youthful version of Joan Crawford. Now that’s real science fiction.