Looper (2012) is an ingenious film that uses emotion to distract the mind from thinking about the implications of what the eyes see. For example, it’s about a mother who will die to save her son and about a man who will kill to save the wife he loves. Except that if the mother dies, the boy will grow up in a completely different way as an orphan, and even if the man completes his killing spree successfully, he can’t return to his wife. That’s not how these things work. Time travel is quite a common theme in all the media forms labelled as science fiction. Being old, I suppose I treasure memories like “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein because the author was at least trying to get the logic right in a deterministic universe, or The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold for a multiverse novel. But the majority of stories, in the broadest sense of the word, fail to come to grips with the practical problems inherent in the notion of travelling through time.
In this story, at some unspecified point in the future, some bright spark invents one-way time travel into the past. For reasons we need not concern ourselves with, the future is dominated by major criminal gangs who use this device to send people back in time to be killed. It seems inventing a time machine is no problem, but disposing of dead bodies in their time is really difficult. Enter the Loopers. These are the guys who are paid a small fortune in silver bullion to wack these future people as they pop on to an X-marks-the-spot bit of earth at a precisely designated time. They have been doing this for some years as part of a well-developed criminal organisation, and we start off the action in 2044. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a weird premise. It seems these one-way time machines can drop people literally in the crosshairs of a gun. So why not follow the example of South American dictators and disappear people into the Atlantic? Indeed, to reduce the chances of anyone being able to save themselves, they could be dropped from a great height into the ocean, or they could be dropped into the ocean in 600 AD or 1 million BC. Any of these simple strategies disposes of the unwanted bodies without anyone being at risk and without the need for truck loads of silver (and gold for reasons we need not discuss). So I’m feeling seriously disappointed after the first two minutes of the film starting. How can anyone with any intelligence have come up with a plot like this?
But wait. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it gets worse. Our genius-level criminals have access to written history and know exactly what happened to the operation in 2044. So, if this is a deterministic universe, nothing can change that past. For these purposes, we need to consider two entirely hypothetical possibilities.
1. Suppose all the criminal members of the gang in 2044 are killed. This is a relatively significant number of men who would all have sired children, killed people as ordered, and so on. Their deaths would have a major impact on the future. Similarly, this organisation was pumping a vast amount of wealth into the economy with gold and silver bullion fuelling expensive lifestyles for the gang members, all their employees, the corrupt law enforcement officers and everyone in local commerce who sold them goods and services. If all that money disappears from the economy overnight, the economy crashes and a very different future emerges in which criminal gangs can thrive and achieve a dominant position.
2. Suppose the organisation set up at some point during our century and continuing into 2044, not only survives but prospers by investing all the silver and gold bullion, wacking people from the future as ordered, and generally building a criminal empire, these criminals are obviously well-placed to take over the time machine technology when it’s invented — obviously, they know it’s coming — and keep building their power and influence.
So our future criminals must know which scenario worked for them and anything that gets in the way of that outcome is a paradox and fails. Except, Looper is presented as a mutable or probabilistic timeline. If A is injured in the past, it directly affects the future version of A. In this version of time travel, Old A travels back to 2044 and represents a threat, so the criminals find Young A and kill him. If Young A is dead, Old A cannot exist and literally disappears. This is drastic surgery because there may have been thirty years worth of living that no longer affects or influences the world. Just think how many things Young A will never do and how much that affects the future. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who takes the concept of mutability seriously except as fiction (that’s fantasy fiction and not science fiction) because no memories of the past or written records are fixed. All history is continuously overwritten as the past changes. But no culture or society can progress unless there’s accumulated experience and the people can learn from past mistakes. Without a reliable memory, the species stagnates and probably dies out, particularly if its ability to understand disappears after it has developed a sophisticated technological culture. If we do not remember how to grow food, extract oil from the ground to make fuel for delivery vehicles, run shops, give everyone access to money, and so on, how can the world continue? The generally accepted view of time in the academic science or philosophy departments is that you either have a deterministic universe where you cannot change the past, or you have a multiverse where an infinite number of worlds can exist in parallel.
Ergo, if we’re going to treat this as science fiction rather than some half-baked fantasy, everything we see in this film has to happen in exactly this way because, from the point of view of the Rainmaker (major bad guy sometime in the future), these are the events that shaped him and made him into the person he became.
OK so having got the theory out of the way without any real spoilers, is the film any good as entertainment? We need to start with Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Although there are supposed to be prosthetics applied to their faces to make them look as if they might be the same person, I didn’t think it mattered. They both give functional performances, neither being required to do much more than either look stoned by drugs, or conflicted by moral dilemmas (essentially the same fixed expression but a different look in the eyes). Obviously, in this version of time travel, we’re replaying the tired cliché plot of going back to kill someone like Hitler as a child, while both Old and Young Joe do their best to stay alive. But the one element that makes this film completely absorbing is the relationship between Sarah (Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). This is beautifully judged and presented without completely over-the-top effects. Whatever the faults of the film, these two actors and the work of writer/director Rian Johnson made them sympathetic. It’s entirely credible that Young Joe would feel protective. Put all this together and what you have is a fairly violent film that tries to address some interesting moral choices by using science fiction clichés. If you don’t care whether films like this make any sense, you will almost certainly enjoy Looper. If like me, you prefer films to stick to the rules of science as we currently understand them, you will still find enough to enjoy even though you would have preferred it to be better.
For the record, Looper won the Critics’ Choice Awards for Best SF/Horror Movie.
This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award.