Review: Looper is terrible (massive spoilers)
Okay, nice things first.
Nice thing one: the make-up and acting of Joseph Double-Barreled to seem like a young Bruce Willis was exceptional.
Nice thing two: the kid actor was pretty fucking awesome too.
That’s enough nice things now.
Time-travel stories are like haikus or sestinas – there’s a constrained form you have to work within, which simultaneously makes them difficult and impressive to do well. Within 20 minutes of Looper, they’d broken a fundamental rule of a good time-travel film: anything that is true has always been true.
Oh yeah. Spoiler alert.
The mechanic of scarring a guy’s arm to send his future self a message, or punishing him by chopping bits off to make them disappear from his future self, is cute, but makes no sense. If he’s scarred or mutilated, he’s always been scarred or mutilated. If he’s missing a foot, he had always been missing a foot and there was no way he could have run away in the first place. To draw the line at killing him – keeping him on life support for 30 years – so that he can exist in the future to be sent back and not cause some terrible paradox is completely arbitrary. It was already ridiculous.
It was a nice piece of visceral horror, the voodoo-doll routine, but it makes no sense. So there’s that.
Now, there is another option for time-travel stories, which is the alternate-timeline framework. This is where changing something in the past sets things on the course for a different future. It’s actually an extension of the first rule, by saying that anything that is true in a given timeline has always been true, and therefore two things can be true and untrue at the same time, so long as they are in different alternate realities. In this case, Old Joe would have come back from Possible Future A, in the hopes of doing something that will make Possible Future B happen, and while in Possible Future B he would never have come back to the present, that’s okay because it’s not inconsistent with the Old Joe from Possible Future A still coming back.
Got that? Good.
Which would have been fine if that’s what they’d run with, but instead they tried to combine both present-causes-the-only-future time travel and present-can-make-different-co-existing-futures time travel and just failed at both. If Old Joe is from Possible Future A where he doesn’t have a scar on his arm, creating a new Possible Future B Old Joe with a scar on his arm isn’t going to send any messages in the right place.
And things aren’t helped by having a main character say, “Oh, don’t go thinking about time travel. You’ll get yourself a headache. I’ve just given you a precise explanation of a fuzzy mechanic.” You might as well have Austin Powers break the fourth wall and tell you it’s best not to think about it.
So that’s the first thing that pissed me off. Second thing. Telekinesis.
TK comes into the story about four times.
- Young Joe’s buddy plays around with it in the car and says the ladies love it.
- There’s a big billboard and some voiceover about how some people are telekinetic.
- Kid’s mother floats a lighter.
- KID IS AN OMEGA-LEVEL MUTANT WITH THE POWER TO EXTINGUISH SUNS WHICH IS WHY IT’S BELIEVABLE THAT HE’S SUCH A GLOBAL-SCALE SUPERVILLAIN IN THE FUTURE.
Here’s what happened in the writing process.
I’ve got this great idea about executioners being sent victims back from the future and a guy being faced with killing his older self.
Wait. Why would future criminals need to do that?
Uh… Something about how you can track anyone in the future. Sorted.
Wait. Why would the criminals send back loopers’ older selves to kill?
Uh… Something about leaving no evidence and a big final pay-off.
Wait. Why would the loopers not just let their older selves go and plan to live a long life?
Uh… The baddies are great at hunting down and punishing loopers who do this. Hey, great! We’ve got our story!
Wait. Why would someone who is such a cold-hearted merciless killer be a sympathetic character?
Uh… Old Joe was redeemed when he got older.
The love of a good woman who got him off the drugs.
Got it. So what’s Old Joe’s motivation now that he’s back?
He wants to save his wife who died in the future!
How’s he going to do that?
He’s going to murder children.
Wait. What? This is our sympathetic hero redeemed by true love we’re talking about, right?
Yes, well, one of the children is going to grow up to be reaaaaaaally bad.
He takes over all of the baddy syndicates in the future! All by himself!
How the hell does he do that?
Oh, fuck, I don’t know. Um… He’s super-telekinetic.
He’s what? Telekinesis?
Oh, sure, some people in the future are telekinetic.
Why on earth would you introduce that to the story at the last minute, Stephen King?
To explain how one kid can be such a massive supervillain in the future, of course. We’ll establish it with a few random examples near the start.
I’m not sure you can have a hero murdering children.
He has a big cry afterwards…
Yeah, still not enough.
Oh, well, I guess he’s not the hero. He’s the baddie.
So who’s the hero?
Young Joe the pre-redemption cold-hearted killer?
Yeah, but he gets redeemed.
He does? How?
The love of a good woman who got him off drugs.
That was… fast. Okay. So what’s Young Joe’s motivation?
Killing Old Joe and saving his own skin.
That doesn’t sound too heroic…
Let me finish! AAAAAND saving the kid.
The kid who grows up to be an omega-level telekinetic mass murderer?
Oh, sure. But he might not! He might have a lovely mother who raises him to be a goodie in the future.
Then… Wait a minute. Then why did he turn bad in the first place?
His mother was shot!
Oh, you’re going to love this. By Old Joe!
So… Wait. So… if Old Joe had never come back, he would never have shot the mother and created the monster who caused his whole reason for coming back in the first place?
You’re overthinking it. Guess how Young Joe stops him.
He shoots himself.
What the? How the hell did you know that?
Just a hunch. Why does he shoot himself?
To save the mother, and the kid, and the future.
Why does he care about all that?
He’s redeemed, remember? He went through a night of withdrawals and got clean. And maybe he sleeps with the mother. And the kid is, like, really cute.
You’re really just making this up as you go along.
The guns are called blunderbusses!
Stop. Just stop.