The James Clayton Column: Going loopy with Looper

This week's arrival of Rian Johnson’s Looper leaves James in a temporal hell of butterfly effects and Bruce Willis paradoxes…

I really like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I really like Bruce Willis. I really like Rian Johnson. I really like cerebral science-fiction and assassin thrillers. I think, therefore, that in all likelihood I’m going to really like Looper.

Let me break this movie down along its exterior selling points. The director of the brilliant neo-noir high school film Brick is joining the confuzzled hero of 12 Monkeys and The Fifth Element with the lovable guy who made me cry through (500) Days Of Summer and 50/50 for a hitman flick set in the future. It appeals to me already, and that’s before we get into the finer details of Looper’s actual plot.

The premise of the movie is this: in the year 2042 Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an executioner whose job is to kill targets from the future who’ve been sent back in time by the mobsters of 2072. Unfortunately, Joe (whose character name is Joe, making him the second Killer Joe on cinema screens this year) ends up finding that he’s been assigned to whack Bruce Willis who is, in fact, his future self.

Looper thus gives us a nice variation on the great philosophical conundrum that’s been lobbed at many movie stars in Empire magazine over the ages: “What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and found you were Bruce Willis?” The difference here, though, is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is discovering that one day he will wake up, look in the mirror and see that he has, indeed, become Bruce Willis.

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This, I suppose, means that Bruce Willis is already inside him waiting patiently for the right time to bust out. I’m now getting images of Alien-style body horror happenings and our helpless young hero having a chestburster episode with Bruce’s bald head exploding from his torso, spilling blood all over the breakfast table.

Poor JGL has been receiving a lot of perturbing premonitions lately. In Premium Rush, he plays a bike courier with a special sixth sense that enables him to see traffic accidents before they happen. Though it’s a handy superpower to have on New York’s mean streets, it throws up some disconcerting visions enhanced with Google Street graphics. Gordon-Levitt gets to watch himself cycle straight into trucks and taxis subsequently to eat pavement, break bones and possibly die a tragic death in the midst of Manhattan rush hour.

The good news for two-wheel tearaway Wilee (named after the cartoon coyote) is that this second sight enables him to avert a coming catastrophe and plan an alternate safe route. For Joe in Looper, however, avoiding the foreseen isn’t so simple and straightforward. Not only is it more difficult to evade the future in the set-up of this picture, but it’s also a hell of a lot harder to get your head around. Putting myself in Gordon-Levitt’s shoes (sweat-drenched after all that cycling), I find myself overwhelmed by a cascade of conundrums that cut to the very core of both my being and my metaphysical comprehension.

Nothing good comes from being able to see the future. Clairvoyant abilities undoubtedly have their advantages on occasion and you can cultivate some street cred by showing off some psychic tricks, but ultimately it’s a terrible curse.

The future is unwritten, and it’s meant to be unwritten, because if you know what’s going to happen, what’s the point of now? Luke Wilson the cryo-frozen army librarian is crying out warnings from Idiocracy 500 years hence, telling us just how terrible it is to experience the future before we’re truly ready for it.

It’s even worse if you’re aware of events to come but remain clamped in the present day. Those who’ve seen the future but find themselves distanced from it and stuck in an earlier time end up crippled by a Cassandra Complex, pained at the notion of pre-destination and morbidly musing on their own doom or possible inability to alter what is ordained.

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Remember how it screwed up Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone and Bruce Willis (not an older Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this case) in 12 Monkeys? Minority Report is another movie illustrating the devastation caused by superhuman, supernatural prescience. Tom Cruise would have never had to go through a grim backstreet eye transplant if the Washington D.C. police force weren’t employing mutant pre-cogs as a paranormal crime prevention gimmick.

Coming back around to Looper, I imagine that encountering your future self opens up multiple cans of worms and prompts more trying questions than “how much is a pint of milk?” (Though I would like to ask Bruce Willis if cow-juice is reasonably priced in 2072 and if the cattle farmers get a decent share of the profits.)

Deciding how you’d handle a meeting with ‘future you’ is hard enough but working out whether you’d be able to execute your space-time continuum smashing doppelgänger is an even more intense issue and, indeed, a mind-bending prospect. Not only does it bring all the standard temporal paradoxes and troubling hypothetical time-travel problems to the fore, but it raises a lot of personal and psychological quandaries. How is Joe meant to go about life if he knows that at some point in the future he’ll be sent back by the mafia to be executed by the man he once was and deep down may still be?

Furthermore, it’s murder if you kill another human being but if that human being is yourself does it count as suicide instead? If it is suicide and if you adhere to particular religious doctrines and moral codes, does that mean you’re going to Hell? Mental images of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Inferno – spiked and bleeding on Satan’s gnarly thorn bushes as Harpies perpetually torment and peck at him – upsets me greatly.

It’s also troubling to think of my screen hero as the cold-blooded killer who finishes Bruce Willis off once and for all. I’m pretty sure there’s a special private circle of Hell reserved for the dastardly villain who succeeds in snuffing out the man who is John McClane. It’s not pleasant picturing JGL being damned to the ‘Die Hard, Death Harder’ chamber in the city of Dis with all its broken glass and helium-voiced demon imp fiends howling “yippee kay-ay!”

The big question is whether Young Joe can get out of killing Old Joe (Bruce-Joe, The-Willis-He-Shall-Be) and alter the future that greater forces have ordained. Can Joe handle the fact that his life has become a little like a mortifying version of Source Code in reverse or the Spanish thriller Timecrimes with a greater scope? Will he be able to grappling with the great existential anxiety and metaphysical questions about fate, predestination, freewill, personal moral power and the space-time-continuum that have been thrust upon him.

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We’ll know in the future when we’ve seen Looper. I just hope future me doesn’t come back and spoil it all before I’ve had chance to go to the cinema.

James Clayton has seen the future and it horrified him (Gasp! The milk prices!) so much he went and had his eyeballs changed, actually ending up with a pair that used to belong to Tom Cruise. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ last column here.

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