Filmmakers are forever struggling to come up with a new take on time travel, and in his third film Looper, writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) toys with some familiar elements in a way that makes them feel fresh, exciting, original, and unpredictable. Add to that the compelling twist of Joseph Gordon-Levitt wearing his best Bruce Willis smirk, and you've got all the ingredients for a highly watchable, smartly written sci-fi actioner that adds up to more than the sum of its derivative parts.
In the year 2047, time travel has yet to be invented. Thirty years later, however, it has. Although immediately outlawed, time-travel technology is quickly appropriated by the mob, and used to cleanly dispose of anyone deemed a threat. The process is simple: When the mob wants someone to disappear, they simply send them back to the year 2047, where an assassin known as a "Looper" quickly carries out the hit, and then disposes of the body. Joe Simmons (Gordon-Levitt) is one of the most respected Loopers around. Each kill earns him a big payday, and he's got big plans to retire to France. Then, one day, as Joe patiently awaits the appearance of his next target near the edge of a remote corn field, he's shocked to come face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis). When the younger Joe hesitates, the older Joe makes a daring escape. Now, in order to avoid the wrath of his underworld boss (Jeff Daniels), young Joe must "close the loop" and kill his older counterpart. Meanwhile, the revelation that a powerful crime boss in the future has set the underworld ablaze pits the two Joes on a violent collision course, with the fate of a devoted mother (Emily Blunt) and her young son hanging in the balance.
A great concept can carry a film a long way. Even setting aside its stellar cast, assured sense of style, and careful attention to detail, Looper is nothing if not a great concept. Like a pulpy Twilight Zone episode served in future noir trappings, Johnson's screenplay wastes no time immersing us in the particulars as Joe knowingly introduces us to the concept of a Looper and details that initially seem incidental gradually start assembling into a bigger, more vivid picture. Meanwhile, it's all presented against the backdrop of a future that feels particularly lived-in. From floating motorcycles that simply won't start to junk cars with solar panels hastily slapped on the hoods and doors, everything in Looper feels cutting-edge, yet somehow on the verge of collapse. It's an aesthetic that not only recalls Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys -- another inventive tale of time travel starring Willis -- but also offers a much welcomed change of scenery from the stereotypically slick, impossibly hi-tech gloss cast over most Hollywood sci-fi endeavors.
But none of this would work very well if the cast didn't sell it wholeheartedly, and thankfully everyone in the lineup, from the top-billed to the supporting players, put in the performances needed to immerse us in Johnson's ambitious story. Much as he did in Brick, Johnson creates a carefully drawn world in Looper that exists by its own particular set of rules. As laid out by Gordon-Levitt's character, and later, Jeff Daniels (doing most of his acting from behind a desk, but delivering a fantastic speech that establishes the high stakes of life as a Looper), those rules coalesce into something genuinely compelling, and Johnson adheres to them in a manner that's unwaveringly faithful without being rigid or clinical. Likewise, after the rules are established and the tone is set, Johnson's screenplay confronts viewers with an expertly conceived character conflict that adds an entirely new, somewhat dangerous, dynamic to the story. It's a small yet logical touch that ups the stakes in ways we might not have foreseen, and while it's also the point where Looper may become a bit predictable for some, it's the kind of flourish that makes up in execution for what it lacks in originality, proving once again that Johnson is the kind of filmmaker capable of shaping the conceits of the past into a bold new vision.