“Twentieth-Century Affectations”: A Review of Looper

by Gary Westfahl

There are at least three approaches one might take in evaluating Rian Johnson’s Looper. Considered in terms of what the film aspired to be – a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that would earn its creators lots of money – it seems a likely success: the film provides more than enough of the thrills and excitement that today’s audiences crave, and it admirably does so with a story that is far from predictable, to hold the interest of viewers seeking something to think about as well as something to raise their adrenaline levels. Placed within the context of the science fiction tradition that it is knowingly or unknowingly joining – the intricately constructed time-travel paradox – the film falls short of the standards set by its distinguished predecessors, though not in a manner that insults the intelligence of its audience or is beyond the possibility of repair. Finally, examined as one of many contemporary cultural documents conveying prevailing attitudes toward present-day society, this film is fascinating in ways that are challenging to articulate.

Since there seems little reason to expand upon this film’s qualities as a marketable Hollywood product, allow me to move immediately into its qualities as a work of science fiction. Long ago, genre writers discovered that time travel could be employed to have chrononauts return to the scene of particular events at various ages and interact with different versions of themselves to generate seemingly paradoxical outcomes or endless cycles; the classic examples I am thinking of include Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” (1942), Charles L. Harness’s Flight into Yesterday (1953), and Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” (1974). One dream provoked by this film is that someone might undertake a film adaptation of Heinlein’s delightful exercise, a story in which every character is the same person at different ages, or its successor “`All You Zombies –’” (1958), wherein a sex-change operation adds differently-gendered versions of the protagonist to the mix; the difficulty for a modern filmmaker, of course, would be interpolating the requisite number of gun battles and car chases into Heinlein’s intriguing but sedately unfolding narratives. Looper is not nearly so complicated, as it posits a future world of 2074 in which the underworld employs illegal time travel to first send trained assassins back to the year 2044 and then send its captured enemies to the same time so that the assassins can kill them and dispose of their bodies (since unspecified tracking devices make it impossible to safely dispose of dead bodies in the future). The assassins conclude their careers by killing future versions of themselves, their reward being thirty years of easy living until they are rounded up and sent back in time to be killed by their younger selves. Without revealing every twist of the plot, one can say that in this film, the young assassin Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to kill his older self (Bruce Willis), allowing the aged killer to embark upon a mission to locate and kill the small child destined to become the dreaded “Rainmaker” who is oppressing the world of 2074; the problem the old Joe faces is that he must prevent his younger self from killing him while also doing everything in his power to keep him alive, since if young Joe dies, old Joe will be erased from existence. Further complicating matters is that young Joe is becoming attached to one of the possible Rainmakers, a precocious boy named Cid Harrington (Pierce Gagnon), and his mother Sara (Emily Blunt).

If one accepts the common conceit that changing an event in the past would send ripples through the time stream that immediately change all subsequent events, then the way that the film ultimately resolves its dilemma to provide a reasonably happy ending can be defended, though the film certainly could have worked harder to tie up all of its loose ends. However, as I have noted in reviewing other films, filmmakers today lack the science fiction writer’s traditional concern for careful development of strange ideas, fearing that too much explanation will slow down the action, so that quibbles about the logic of time travel in this film may seem irrelevant, even old-fashioned. Indeed, when young Joe’s boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) complains about Joe’s habit of wearing a tie, calling it one of his “twentieth-century affectations,” he employs a term that might be applied to all such concerns: studying the science fiction films now being released, one might readily conclude that critiquing the scientific reasoning behind such narratives represents the anachronistic application of twentieth-century standards to a quite different, twenty-first-century genre more interested in appealing to wide audiences than living up to the expectations of the scientifically inclined.

Looper does a better job of wrestling with the moral implications of time travel, also a topic addressed by previous science fiction authors. That is, if one goes back in time and strangles Adolf Hitler in the cradle, the time traveler is certainly saving the world from a genocidal madman, but he or she is also murdering an innocent child. Remarkably, pondering both the short-term and long-term implications of what characters will or might do leads this film to depart from one of the firmest conventions of standard commercial filmmaking: that it is important to first establish viewpoint characters for audiences to like and identify with, and then to keep them sympathetic and central to the plot until they reach their happy endings. At various times in Looper, however, audiences are asked to alternately take the sides of different characters – young Joe, old Joe, and Sara and Cid – whose interests keep diverging and whose proclivities seem sometimes desirable and sometimes inimical. It is very odd that in one scene, viewers are rooting for old Joe to overcome young Joe, and in another scene they are hoping that young Joe will thwart old Joe, and in yet another scene they are worried that both old Joe and young Joe may be threatening the well-being of Sara and Cid, who have suddenly become the characters they are most concerned about. What Johnson is doing is not quite as radical as Alfred Hitchcock’s maneuver in Psycho (1960) – killing off his viewpoint character thirty minutes into the film – but it is unsettling nonetheless, and it also helps the film to generate a unique sort of suspense: we all know that the film will have a happy ending, but will it be a happy ending for young Joe, old Joe, Sara and Cid, or some combination of the above?

In the end, however, what I found most interesting about Looper had nothing to do with time travel or its other major prediction, the emergence of a mutation granting many individuals low-level telekinetic powers, but rather with its portrayal of America in the year 2044, which seems to epitomize a surprising new image of the future that is emerging in recent films. In my classes, whenever I address how science fiction characterizes humanity’s future, I tell students that, discounting apocalyptic scenarios, there are two common patterns. The first is what we now call a “retrofuture” of soaring skyscrapers, domed cities, moving sidewalks, flying cars, and helpful gadgets improving all aspects of everyday life for its contented, well-adjusted citizens; such futures are depicted in the conclusion of the film Things to Come (1936), novels like Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1954), and satirical homages like the animated series The Jetsons (1962-1963, 1985-1987) and Futurama (1993-2003, 2010- ). Later there came a radically different vision that might be termed the Blade Runner future, after the 1982 film that first brought it to prominence: it is darker, seedier, more multiethnic, and filled with drifters struggling to stay alive in a corrupt world dominated by multinational corporations and criminal syndicates. Brought into written science fiction by William Gibson’s influential Neuromancer (1984), such grim futures have also been observed in films ranging from Johnny Mnemonic (1995) to the recent remake of Total Recall (2012) (review here). Looper seems to confirm that a third, entirely different sort of future is now becoming commonplace, and the best descriptive term I can devise at the moment would be the Grapes of Wrath future, referencing John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel and its 1940 film adaptation; for essentially, several films are now predicting that people in the future will be returning to the lifestyle of America’s Great Depression.

I have been puzzled to see versions of such futures in other films I have recently reviewed, including Inception (2010 (review here), In Time (2011) (review here), and The Hunger Games (2012) (review here). These films offer, or suggest, different reasons why such a future might come about, and are dissimilar in several respects, but they all share certain characteristics. In some ways, they resemble the Blade Runner future, in that they are worlds of enormous economic inequality where a wealthy few enjoy pleasant, sheltered lives while the majority of citizens suffer in poverty, and they are worlds dominated by criminals and corruption. But there is nothing dark about these worlds; in fact, since most characters are outdoors much of the time, whether they are living on a farm or pushing a shopping cart down the street, their lives are filled with sunshine, and while they are poor, they do not necessarily seem unhappy. Characters like Katniss in the opening scenes of The Hunger Games and this film’s Sara face their share of difficulties, but in other respects their lives seem reasonably satisfying. Also, in contrast to the foreign languages, foods, and clothing that are observed in the Blade Runner futures, these futures invariably seem all-American, racially diverse but culturally monotonous, again recalling earlier eras in American history; as one conspicuous example, the isolated restaurant frequented by young Joe looks precisely like a diner from the 1930s, its only hint of modernity being a sign promoting “soy steak with gravy,” presumably because the real thing is now too expensive. Most strikingly, the Blade Runner future is dominated by all sorts of futuristic technology, and even the poorest people in films like Johnny Mnemonic have access to advanced gadgetry; in the Grapes of Wrath future, characters not only lack the sorts of technology one might reasonably predict, but they also lack most of the technology that we already have today. They never have cell phones or laptops; they don’t even have televisions or microwave ovens. There may be a few incongruously advanced devices in their lives – Sara turns on a flying machine to either water or fertilize her crops, and she teaches Cid math with an illuminated board – but they otherwise carry on without most of the machinery that has long been commonplace in American households; Sara dries her clothes on a clothesline, lacking a clothes dryer, and young Joe keeps track of time using an old-fashioned pocket watch, not a wristwatch with a digital display. The best way to explain Cid’s name is to assume that he was named after the recurring character in the Final Fantasy video games (since it is hard to imagine Sara deciding to employ the Spanish term for “lord” as a name for her son), but neither he nor anyone else in this film ever plays a video game, another pursuit that people in the future have apparently abandoned.

To account for such futures, one might say that filmmakers are responding to America’s recent economic downturn and are pessimistically predicting that the situation will keep getting worse and worse, forcing people to give up the technology they can no longer afford and return to the lifestyle of their great-grandparents. But such projections simply don’t seem logical; even during the Great Depression, most people still had watches and radios, and even during today’s hard times, most people still have televisions and cell phones. The erasure of post-1940s technology from the lives of these future people is simply too thoroughgoing and universal to be believable. Equally implausible is the envisioned return to the habits and fashion of 1930s America; again, people in the Great Depression did not go back to having taffy pulls or wearing bustles and corsets, and it is hard to see how ongoing economic difficulties will make people in the future give up eating tacos and sushi or wearing sunglasses. Another explanation would be that many people today are growing impatient, or dissatisfied, with all of the technology that surrounds them; even as they spend their days talking on their cell phones and posting updates on Facebook, they are growing nostalgic for the pastimes of long ago, when children rode on tricycles instead of playing video games and single men went to diners to socialize with waitresses instead of going home to put frozen dinners in their microwaves. Yet one struggles to observe signs of such attitudes elsewhere in American society, and filmmakers in any event could easily respond to these posited longings for the past with historical dramas; why are they crafting such backwards visions of the future?

A third answer would lie in the idea, expressed repeatedly by William Gibson and many others, that people today are already living in the future, already experiencing the futuristic lives filled with advanced technology that were once limited to science fiction’s visions of the future. From this perspective, it is the traditional futures of science fiction that now seem old-fashioned; that is, we may lack some particular features like moving sidewalks and flying cars, but we otherwise are already living in a retrofuture; and our environments may not be quite that polluted and multinational, but we otherwise are already living in a Blade Runner future. To contemporary viewers, such futures no longer seem all that different from their own present, and the problem cannot be solved by adding a few more technological bells and whistles to these now-familiar scenarios. Instead, to make their futures seem truly different from the present, filmmakers must remove our ubiquitous laptops, smartphones, and other advanced technology from the picture in order to create a truly unusual sort of future that recalls the past, with just a few bits of scientific wizardry thrown in to distinguish such futures from the actual past. In effect, they are constructing a genuinely novel future entirely out of “twentieth-century affectations,” making Abe’s remark even more applicable to the entire film.

In this regard, it may be illuminating that, although it is not specified in the film, it seems that the people in Looper have only mastered time travel into the past; certainly, it is the only form of time travel observed in the film, and if future criminals did have access to two-way time travel, they would certainly find it profitable to travel into the future as well as the past, for reasons ranging from getting their hands on new technologies to finding out the winners of upcoming sporting events, yet nothing like this is ever mentioned. Both literally and figuratively, then, Looper may be a film about people who can only travel into the past, even when their eyes are on the future, and hence it is only appropriate that its vision of the future is so deeply rooted in the past.

Of course, some science fiction writers do not find it difficult to envision distinctively different futures that neither resemble the past nor recall the retrofutures or Blade Runner futures of their predecessors, futures wherein humans are merely the pampered playthings of advanced artificial intelligences, or futures where everyone has chosen to abandon their physical bodies to live as computer simulations in virtual worlds. But such dangerous visions are not the sorts of futures that would lead to box-office success; most people want to watch stories about people like themselves, driving filmmakers who are no longer content with traditional futures to construct this new sort of old-fashioned future.

I could take these musings even further, but I have drifted far away from the official subject of this review, one particular film, so I really should loop back to Looper to offer some final observations about this particular film. It’s entertaining enough, if a bit disquieting at times and too violent to recommend for a date night, and the film can be thought-provoking in both ways that its writer-director anticipated and ways that he probably did not anticipate. And in all of my ramblings, I have somehow failed to mention the important fact that, even with a prosthetic nose, Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t really look like a young Bruce Willis. But I suspect that other film reviewers have already made that point.

Gary Westfahl’s works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009), its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009), the co-edited anthology Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future (2011), and The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012).

2 thoughts on ““Twentieth-Century Affectations”: A Review of Looper

  • September 29, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Gary –

    Great article, I enjoyed it. Very well done. I agree with your observation about the Grapes of Wrath-style future seems to be emerging, but I’ve always assumed it would be because – given our dependency on electronics – at some point in the future any kind of electromagnetic disruption will have serious consequences for society. It might be man-made – Christian fundamentalists with HERF guns or terrorists with EMP generators – or natural, due to some a solar flare or some kind of problem with the magnetic field. It might be some combination of the two – after a limited nuclear exchange which stops short of that armageddon that seemed so probable in the past, the increase in radiation caused by the detonation of missiles in high orbit that were intercepted in their trajectory makes satellite communications impossible.

    Practically speaking, it’s an inviting scenario for movies and television (note “Revolution”) because, since our world is already so bizarre, extrapolating the current technological curve into the future runs you up into a Vision Horizon – we can’t imagine what the future would look like.

    After reading your article, I went into my back yard where I have a 1982 Chevrolet Celebrity parked. I don’t drive it any more, but I’ve kept it, just in case there’s any kind of severe electromagnetic incident. It’s old enough not to have any electronics.

    I turned her over, and her “Iron Duke” engine still purrs like a pussycat.

    Anyhow, them’s me two cents. Good job!


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