The Dilemma of The Brainy Sci-Fi Blockbuster (BSFB): Looper

Flatiron Hot! Critic on those Sci-Fi BLockbusters …

Like many Brainy Sci-Fi Blockbusters (BSFBs), Looper begins with an emphasis on its intellectual side. The film’s basic premise is that in the distant future, crime syndicates have devised a new, foolproof way of making their enemies disappear: sending them back in time to be executed by agents known as Loopers. The moral implications of this concept bring up interesting thematic possibilities.

Promisingly, director Rian Johnson makes it crystal clear early on that his film will not bog itself down in the head-spinning minutiae of time travel, a well-worn cinematic convention that requires little explanation. In fact, Looper is at its most refreshing when poking fun at its sci-fi elements, almost, but not quite, to the point of self-parody. Instead of regaling the audience with lengthy expository dialogue in a fruitless attempt to make absurd sci-fi conceits seem credible, the characters dismiss them in an offhand, humorous manner.

There is an unmistakable meta quality to these gestures; the filmmakers are winking at a cinematic audience that has long since accepted sci-fi staples like time travel and psychedelic eyedrops (O.K., maybe the latter is not quite so familiar) as par for the course. With all logistical concerns dealt with in a few pithy one-liners, Johnson sets the stage for a thought-provoking examination of the human condition in which sci-fi, at its best, sheds light on our own reality by refracting it in outlandish, futuristic metaphors.

Early on, Johnson homes in on the endless intricacies of the human conscience. Particularly worthy of mention: a gruesome montage in which characters with identity-obscuring sacks over their heads materialize from the future, only to be summarily dispatched by waiting Looper agents like our protagonist.

This horrific montage provides an instructive example of how to portray extreme violence on screen in a non-exploitative manner, calling to mind a similarly-effective scene from AMC’s acclaimed TV drama Breaking Bad. Protagonist Walter White learns via a news report that his prison assassination scheme has gone off without a hitch, at the expense of 12 anonymous lives. All the while, he dandles his infant daughter, the epitome of innocence, on his knee.

Both sequences creatively convey timeless themes – the banality of evil, the fragility of the human conscience – in a unique, thought-provoking way. It is apparent that Looper’s Joe Simmons and Breaking Bad’s Walter White have had their consciences gradually eroded by the numbing effect of routine. Both characters illustrate the capacity of average human beings to forsake morality when they come to perceive evil actions as part of a job. It is easy to imagine that officials at Soviet Union Gulags and Nazi death camps experienced a similar psychological phenomenon.

Alas, for all of Looper’s innovative, thought-provoking sequences, there are an equivalent number of generic shootouts and special effects extravaganzas that serve little purpose other than whetting the appetites of the film’s mainstream audiences. It is painfully obvious that Looper is hamstrung by the expectations of modern Hollywood blockbusters.

And this is not only true when it comes to action. A considerable portion of the film’s middle section is devoted to fleshing out a forgettable romance, perhaps as a sop to female audience members dragged along by their boyfriends. The only thing saving Looper’s half-hearted romantic foray from disaster is the unexpected chemistry between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, who seem to care far more about their onscreen relationship than the film’s screenwriters do.

Unfortunately, any charm engendered by fledgling romance is squandered by the inclusion of Sara’s son, Cyd. Besides launching the film’s cuteness factor through the roof, the boy’s inclusion is actually key to the plot for reasons that should be clear to audience members who have been paying close attention.

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the writers decide to play into a now-ubiquitous Hollywood cliché, granting the boy–you guessed it–mysterious supernatural powers. Cyd’s psychic powers play absolutely no role in the plot, and one suspects that they exist only to allow for the film’s spectacular special effects climax.

This creative choice is especially egregious given that it contradicts one of the film’s wittiest conceits: that telekenesis, far from granting extraordinary powers, merely gives one the means to impress suitors with the likes of levitating coin tricks. But by this point, internal inconsistencies are the least of Looper’s problems. The film has already devolved into a series of generic shootouts and a laughably implausible escape attempt that prepares the film’s two central characters (or rather, one central character from different time periods) for their inevitable confrontation.

Looper is not a bad film. On the contrary, it is a quite decent one. Johnson deserves some credit for trying to instill substance in a genre that actively discourages it. Still, in spite of Looper’s stylistic flourishes, sci-fi quirks and thematic possibilities, a nagging feeling persists that its most intriguing elements are secondary to meeting a Hollywood-mandated quota of gun fights and explosions.

Read Part 1 of this article here for an in-depth explenation of the phenomenon of the BFSB

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