“Looper”: Five-Film Sci-Fi Mash-Up is Terrifying, Tear-Jerking, Terrific

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "Looper"The short, spoiler-free version of my impression of Looper: the film is a knotty but ingenious cat-and-mouse thriller that moves from urban squalor to rural tranquility with an enviable dexterity while contemplating the effects of poor choices on our lives (our own as well as others’), the things we’ll sacrifice to stay true to our selfish nature, and what we’re willing to sacrifice if we think harder about what’s most important in the grand scheme. Other reviews have already noted the effectiveness of the makeup, the subtlety of the near-future visual designs, and the fun of watching Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing different versions of the same character. Consider those thoughts seconded here, since I can’t think of a good reason to retype them in my own redundant words.

However, I wouldn’t go so far as to grade it A+++++. I recognized more than a few moving parts from other films, albeit parts that are shuffled together skillfully, retooled for improved functionality, and kept as far removed from the trailers as possible.

Before proceeding, I brake here for COURTESY SPOILER ALERT for those who plan to see it but have been too busy or who avoid theaters. Now is your moment to escape for the sake of your future moviegoing experience, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.

I found resemblances to five different notable films before I left the theater, and thought of a few fainter instances afterward. With every such element, writer/director Rian Johnson managed to one-up the predecessor in some mightily creative manner. Setting aside the gangster genre in general, the following reminders popped into my head while I watched, but were swiftly set aside as the film kept getting even better with every subsequent scene.

Back to the Future:
Something borrowed: Time traveler returns to pivotal moment, disrupts his own history. A conversation at a restaurant turns ugly. Things disappear or reappear as adjustments occur.
Something better: Disruption of history is intentional on the traveler’s part as a means to command his own destiny, not a luckless slapstick accident. In the department of drink orders, instead of obsolete jokes about Tab and Pepsi-Free, we see Old Joe takes his coffee black, not with cream as Young Joe does — a subtle hint of their degrees of separation, which only intensify as we begin to fathom Old Joe’s agenda.

The Terminator:
Something borrowed: Traveler’s plan requires a specific murder, one of three possible targets. At least one casualty is the wrong person. Gratuitous topless scene does nothing for me.
Something better: The magnitude of evil inherent in Old Joe’s plan is a shocking reminder that he was a lifelong killer, not a good guy. The aging process didn’t soften him, and the loss of his wife only sent him even further over the edge. Emily Blunt plays a strong female character who’s allowed to retain clothes and dignity with equal completeness, instead working overtime to overcome the mistakes of her wasted youth.

Something borrowed: Memories decay as the film progresses. At least one sequence is shown chronologically out of order. Communication through dermal self-mutilation is a key plot device.
Something better: Old Joe successfully clings to the accurate memory of his wife’s death, rather than succumbing to a rewrite. Whereas such a victory would have made a world of difference for Leonard Shelby, the image keeps Old Joe firmly and tragically on his path of destruction.

The Omen:
Something borrowed: The lives of all the main characters are threatened by the actions of a tiny child with impressive, unquantifiable powers. If he grows up as-is, many may be doomed.
Something better: To me, the original Damien always seemed more bored and alienated than downright sinister. The disastrously gifted wunderkind Cid, as played by Pierce Gagnon (age 5), is the most frightening movie character I’ve seen in years. His performance was so intense, I kept trying to scoot down further into my seat so he wouldn’t see me and come after me. Part of me wondered if perhaps he was simply the greatest CGI performance since Gollum, but no — the Internet says young Mr. Gagnon is a real live boy. Possibly a real boy who can kill me with just a look.

The X-Men series:
Something borrowed: Two men vie to determine the fate of a young telekinetic with massive potential who turns uncontrollable in bad situations. Frontal assaults are generally not a good idea.
Something better: I’m pretty sure li’l Cid could mop the floor with young Jean Grey…or with Dark Phoenix, for that matter, given enough time, training, and tantrums.

Any number of movies about a heavily armed man avenging the tragic murder of his wife and the loss of everything he held dear:
Something borrowed: Um, all of what I just wrote. That old genre right there, though you have no idea it’s coming until the second half. Pick any film in this genre and assume I’m talking about that one.
Something better: Bruce Willis rises well above Charles Bronson, Steven Seagal, handful of Punishers, or veritable army of direct-to-video martial artists. Better still, Old Joe isn’t lionized for his reprehensible actions. Our sympathy turns to shock as he responds to being wronged by doing even more wrong in indefensible ways.

Something borrowed: One of the headlining actors sacrifices themselves violently so that others would live.
Something better: One ends with a snotty braggart sneering in your face; the other ends with a heart-swelling scene of restored peace and a hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Return of the Jedi:
Something borrowed: Speeder bikes!
Something better: No merchandisable Ewoks or Harrison Ford looking miserable.

…and for the record, Looper has no scene after the end credits. There’s also no promise of a sequel called Looper 2: Even Looperer.

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