Thursday, October 11, 2012

Musing Pictures: Looper

Like any really good sci-fi, "Looper" (directed by Rian Johnson, whose debut feature, Brick, is the millennial generation's El Mariachi) isn't really about science fiction.  Instead, it takes a common, compelling narrative theme (in this case, the "what if?" scenario of second chances) and re-frames it literally, using the elements of sci-fi to accomplish what "regular" fiction can only do with metaphors.

Time travel represents a unique narrative opportunity (paradoxes aside) to push "what if?" scenarios to the extreme.  What if you could go back in time to rectify a past wrong?  To make bad things better?  To intercede on your own behalf, or on behalf of others?

Undeveloped narratives (such as my own film, "Paradox in Purple", made in 11th grade) focus on the paradox itself, using it as a cautionary mechanism: don't mess with the past (as if we could!) lest your changes come back to haunt you!  In real terms, it's a caution not to worry ourselves with the past, since the path that leads to our present is complex beyond our capacity to comprehend.  The paradox-centric time travel narrative is there to pacify those of us who wish we had done things differently, or that others had done things differently on our behalf.  We rest easier at night knowing that our present coordinates are the sum of far more complex elements than a few moments in time.

"Looper" is a mature time travel narrative.  The paradox is not the obsessive focus of the story, and the painful lesson that the past is unchangeable is not a part of this film.  "Looper" avoids the issue by keeping its story rooted in "the past".  "The Terminator" does the same thing, posing the same fundamental question:  If we know the future, and we know it's bad, what is the extent of our responsibility to change it?  In other words, rather than asking "what if we could change the past?" the film asks "what if we could change the future?"

What I like about "Looper" is that it pushes this question to such an extreme that it becomes, yet again, something the ancient philosophers obsessed about:  Is preemptive punishment justified?  Even when you know the details and extent of the future crime?  "Minority Report" asks this question directly, in a more judicial context.  "Looper" brings it around and makes it personal:  If you know something terrible will happen, how responsible are you to prevent it, given the chance?

In "Looper," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis (who both play the same character, thirty years apart) have different takes on the answer to that question.  But the film doesn't leave us feeling certain that either of them was entirely right or entirely wrong.  The moral answer to the age-old question remains murky, and we've been left to continue pondering it for ourselves.

I think that's the profound sensation I felt when I left the theater: the sense that a profound question about responsibility and fate had been asked, but not answered.  It's not an unsatisfying sensation, because the story itself concludes clearly and cleanly, but it's unfamiliar, because most films these days take pains to come to a moral footing when their narratives conclude.  Johnson's background in Noir ("Brick" is firmly rooted in the '40s genre) may have something to do with the moral open-endedness, but "Looper" doesn't suggest a dark world without morality.  It suggests a world much like our own, where morality exists and motivates us, but doesn't make itself clear when the difficult decisions need to be made.


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