29 September 2012

Looper - Doomed To Repeat

This is also available at Beware The Spaceman.

Film noir is a much abused genre. The concept describes a series of tricks and techniques used to elevate the transition of hard-boiled crime stories from the inter war period of the 20th Century. Noir arose from a tension at that time between market demands and moral zeitgeist. People had an appetite for fiction about the excitement of the criminal underworld but moral propriety laid out a strict definition regarding the kinds of things that could occur in the stories.

Hardboiled fiction, in its original form, was a method of compromise, the characters readers wanted were present, but the consequences of their life choices were always harsh. It was impossible for bad people to truly succeed in the moralistic world of hardboiled fiction. To even out the odds authors often cynically put the point across that success was impossible for just about anyone and all apparent success was just a moment of transitory relief before pain, suffering and death weilded their inevitable grasp.

As this world view contains a grain of truth it is hard to escape, merely making life difficult for protagonists became a method of suggesting gritty reality without a story having to be all that realistic. In crime movies this can work, movies that feature precisely zero likeable characters who all suffer horribly have found an audience. The problems start to creep in when you mix elements of speculative fiction with the hardboiled world view.

Enter Looper.

Looper comes from director Rian Johnson, whom I think it's fair to say is a fan of the noir genre. His debut, Brick, was a twist on noir homages blending the hardboiled detective story with a teen movie. Brick also provided work for Joseph Gordon Levitt, an actor fast becoming one of the most important of this generation.

For director and star alike Looper provides the possibility of a big break. A high concept SF action thriller is the kind of vehicle that makes a star's name. It has also been known to elevate directors to unheard of heights of stardom. Both Levitt's performance and Johnson's direction are solid to say the very least.

Levitt's affectation of some Bruce Willis tics is confident and adds a vital layer of believability to the conceit that they are both the same man adrift in time by three decades. Johnson also does a neat trick in setting Looper in Kansas, where the hick town of tomorrow looks like the big city of today. It's a little like Inception and a little like Minority Report and, crucially, not much like Blade Runner except in a kind of "Hey! Look! I'm not trying to be Blade Runner!" kind of a way. The worst that could be said on that score is that Johnson pushes it a little too far the other way, making the Orient of the future infected with a kind of minimalist Westernism in an almost direct reversal of the Blade Runner aesthetic.

The supporting cast also turn in some fine moments. There's not one cast member who doesn't contribute some character moment that helps build the world and deepen the view we get of it. Jeff Daniels makes an excellently rumpled mob boss, developing the plot point that almost all of the mobsters he's supposed to be running are dangerously flaky when it comes to their performance on the job.

For the first forty minutes or so Johnson takes his time building the world of the loopers, a bunch of feckless, directionless psychopaths, killing people who don't exist yet in exchange for the transitory life style of sex, drugs and jazzy retro electronica (film noir, remember, no long haired hippie noise here). Levitt's character, Joe, does his looping in a corn field (appropriate for Kansas) and it is this that leads to the deeper dramatic revelations when he meets Sara, played by Emily Blunt.

Blunt is every bit as good as all the other cast members. However, it is in the introduction of this second plot layer that the wheels start to come off Looper. At the outset Looper is a story of the dealings of mobsters, making a comment on the consequences of such a lifestyle choice. In the second half the story takes a turn as Levitt stumbles onto Blunt's farm, from the first moment it is clear that the relationship between the two characters is going to get very messy.

If Looper had used the relationship between Levitt and Blunt as a foundation, so that the mystery of Levitt's past and future unfolded around that core, things might have been different. If Blunt's storyline had been cut, leaving the brutal and bloody Looper war front and centre the story stood a chance of working.

It's with these two strands jostling for attention that the story's flaws and contradictions start to weigh. All that's worst in film is here. Clumsy signposting, idea fatigue, plot bloat all of the sins of self-indulgence and ill-discipline rear their heads.

Looper clocks in at a fairly hefty 118 minutes. As with airport fiction, quantity is no indication of quality. In fact, the discipline to tell the important story would have trimmed the running time and probably hoovered up the multiple problems with the set up from the get go.

In order to remain spoiler free I can't enumerate and discuss any of the problems but anyone who's read around The Terminator and Terminator 2 will be well aware that no system of time travel is without logical flaws. There has come a tradition that discussing logical flaws in the mechanics of paradox is ungentlemanly and, indeed, I give Looper all the licence I can for the amusing parts of its set up.

Where I drew the line is at the point where statements are made and the consequences are not understood or explained adequately enough for anyone to understand them. At one point Jeff Daniels throws away a comment to the effect that killing someone today whom you know (because of time travel technology) to be alive in the future causes too much stress on the timeline to be a possible course for conflict resolution. This plot rule lasts as long as is convenient and then is merrily forgotten later on when it no longer serves a purpose.

This is the kind of sin in storytelling that puts Looper beyond my capacity to give it a break. Many parallels are going to be drawn between this and Inception, some have even gone so far as to compare Looper to the Matrix. The comparisons weaken Looper for it is neither as neatly tied togther as Inception, nor so grandly (but foolishly) ambitious as The Matrix Trilogy.

In fact Looper combines the worst elements of both these movies being sloppily constructed on the one hand but not grasping far enough to cause your head to ache with anything more than irritation. There are many many worthwhile things about Looper and I was rooting for it to be a surprise gem because no one wants to come out of the cinema feeling weary and disappointed. That's exactly how I felt upon leaving Looper. As its ponderous pulp indulgence loops in my brain the cycle is not broken.

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