Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Looper review

I was looking forwards to this movie; it looked like it had a nice concept in the trailers, I like the actors, and I heard good things about it from friends and reviews. After I watched it, it got me thinking: is it me? Am I not capable of enjoying movies for what they are anymore? Am I just waiting for perceived flaws I can pounce on to rant about in my reviews? Do I have some specific personal hang-ups that I can't admit to which stop me from enjoying some movies, then I go through nit-picking and making mountains out of molehills just to justify why I didn't like it? Or is it really that some movies are not much good but everyone else just doesn't see all the problems and issues?

So no, I didn't like it much. There are some good ideas and some powerful scenes, but there's also too many plot holes and unanswered questions, and perhaps most importantly it seems to lose direction half way.

Time travel can be a very interesting mechanic in movies and other media. Some people may consider it over-used, or not enjoy it simply because it's so inherently paradoxical that it generally leads to confusion and plot holes. But I still find it interesting at times. Looper has one of the most thought-provoking time travel plots I've seen in a long time; the past and future versions of the same man are at odds, with the younger version trying to kill his future self - pretty crazy stuff.

The movie has a rather interesting take on time travel that is very effective in terms of the narrative; anything that happens to the past self becomes the past for the future self, but doesn't actually affect the past. Get it? No? How about this: the future self shoots the current self. Now the future self disappears since he was shot in his past and is therefore dead. However the past does not change, so the fact that the current self was shot does not change, nothing that the future self did in the current timeline changes, he just disappears. Get it now?

Unfortunately the setup is very quickly glossed over and it left me with some rather fundamental unanswered questions (more in the spoilers section). But what's more damaging than that is how the movie just seems to get bored of the young-vs-old angle and switch to a couple of different sci-fi tropes halfway through. To be honest, it felt as if it ran out of steam and out of desperation starting stealing from older movies. And the stories it steals aren't nearly as new and interesting, at least not to me.

Apart from some plot issues, I thought it was mostly well done. The action is pretty good without being over the top, although Bruce Willis does get the chance to cut loose near the end. The acting was all good - some great casting decisions I think, especially Pierce Gagnon as Cid, who manages to look both sympathetic and menacing in turn. There's some interesting visual elements, such as the subtle work on Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make him look more like Bruce Willis - watching the resemblance grow progressively stronger in one scene is quite interesting. There's a very powerful but very disturbing scene early on that I won't talk about, but suffice to say it will haunt my nightmares for years to come.

Perhaps my favourite scenes were the ones shown twice from different perspectives. This is something that I have seen different takes on before and always enjoyed, and it's very well done here. The first time each is shown with traditional "action" editing: quick camera cuts from very close perspectives. The second time each is show as a single cut from a farther perspective with minimal camera movement. It's interesting that the scenes are believable from both angles, and yet have such different impacts; initially being fast and in-your-face, then seeming deceptively sedate and detached. I can see these scenes being included in future film-making courses to highlight the effects of different camera and editing techniques.

Overall I'm giving it a 7/10; interesting, but it doesn't really live up to it's potential, and I felt let down at the end.


I mention that the film forgets it's own plot and starts to borrow from different movies near the end. The first "source" being Terminator. Well, we've already had three terminator movies about a killer from the future travelling back in time to kill a kid before he becomes a threat, with a protector hot on his heels, so I wasn't impressed seeing the exact same plot here. They even do the whole "not sure which Sarah Conner it is so I'll just kill them all" thing.

The second plot, or trope, is the "scary psychic kid" plot. Again, already seen it, it was called Akira. Or Carrie. Of which IMDB lists 3 movies with the same name and plot, and a sequel. With the same plot. Which of course are based on Stephen Kings' first published novel, Carrie. Then there's the recent Chronicle. Hell, you can even count Matilda if you think about it. Of course there's tons of manga and animé, like Elfen Lied for example (a 13 episode series about teenage girls with telekinetic powers murdering everyone). In fact I consider the X-Men to pretty much have the same core idea (only it's typically portrayed from the other side of the equation, and with less murdering and more fighting aliens and robots). So that's billions of comic issues, several cartoon series including a 2011 animé, and four movies that I know of (five if you include that Generation X piece of garbage). According to Wikipedia the X-Men were first published in 1963, making them almost 50 years old. So... not a new idea, no. Hell, one of the recurring villains the X-men face are robots sent back from the future to kill all mutants, so even the combination of tropes isn't new.

OK, truth is I didn't watch Chronicle and didn't like Akira, didn't read or watch any of the Carries, and while I was impressed by how powerful the series Elfen Lied was, I was also quite disturbed by it. So maybe the whole "super powerful kid" thing just doesn't appeal to me. I mean, I understand it, I understand how difficult an issue it would be to deal with and thus why it's a good issue to discuss in science fiction media, but I've seen it many times over the years so I'm not impressed. Perhaps others who haven't had my exposure to the trope will enjoy it more in Looper.

I will say that I wasn't overly impressed by how it was introduced either. Right from the beginning they mention telekinesis, which immediately seemed out of place - especially since they didn't take much time out to talk about anything else. Then it doesn't come up again for a while, so you know it's going to be important later. When we see the strange kid who knows too much and is far too smart... let's just say it wasn't too hard to guess what was going to happen.

While we're on the topic, if a significant portion of the world's population has telekinetic powers (what was it, 5, 10 percent? I don't remember), how come this is the only kid known to have any real degree of power? We are talking at least two orders of magnitude more strength than anyone else in the world. And not just for a while either; thirty years in the future no one has any idea how this one guy is single-handedly taking out whole criminal families. Why is he so special when no-one else is?

I did find Joe to be a rather interesting character; a rather small minded, self centered young man who has some potential to be a better man but doesn't actually wise up until many years in the future. His ultimate sacrifice worked well, except for one thing: before flipping his gun around he quotes his former boss talking about how he "took him off the dark path". Well, that would have been a lot more meaningful if the path his boss put him on hadn't been the path of a paid killer. So that didn't quite work for me, no.

The whole setup, that they send bodies back from the future to be disposed of, is very contrived. It's briefly mentioned that they can't dispose of the bodies in the future, but they never even try to explain why not. My question is, why don't they kill them before sending them back? Clearly they have no problem actually killing people in the future - they killed Joe's wife after all. Yes, that was an accident, but they were walking around with loaded pistols when we know they have non-lethal ranged weapons, so clearly they're not that worried about killing. And while we're on the subject, what did they do with her body? Why didn't they just take it to the time machine they took him to?  Plus there's never a good reason given for why the criminal organisations go out of their way to kill former employees who aren't causing any trouble, after they've left them alone for decades. There's just no reason for it. Hell, why not just hire them farther in the past so they'll die before "the present" anyway, then you won't have to round them up and send them back with a ton of gold?

By the way, the highly illegal time machine is sitting unguarded in an empty construction site? Not exactly where I'd hide something so important and illegal. Seriously, how did the crooks get a hold of time travel tech anyway? Are you honestly telling me the government doesn't use time travel, that they don't have some way of policing it, that, well, that the criminal organisations are really the only ones who use time travel, and the government can't or won't do anything about it? And that the only thing they use it for is disposing of bodies? Seriously, how completely devoid of imagination do you have to be to get your hands on a time machine and the only thing you can think of to do with it is dispose of bodies? I mean, come on, with that kind of power you could take over the world, or destroy it. There's no-one you couldn't kill, nothing you couldn't change, if you're smart enough. It's not like they're afraid to change the past; they are already actively meddling with it after all.

By the way, how did Joe figure out who the kid was anyway? Some random guy called him and told him that a random string of numbers would lead him to the guy? When did this happen? Clearly before his wife died, so who was that guy and why did he call Joe? How did he even get those numbers? How did Joe figure out that a long, random number string was three separate numbers that referred to a hospital and birth date? Instead of spending so much time focussing on young Akira boy, perhaps they should have spent more time on things like this?

Speaking of, if the kid hadn't turned out evil, old Joe wouldn't have tried to kill him, and so he wouldn't have killed his mother, and so he wouldn't have gone down the dark path? Well, he was evil, so either having his mother around doesn't stop him from turning evil, or somehow young Joe inspired him to not be evil (and as a result organised crime in the future will continue to operate unopposed)... or he actually does turn out evil anyway, or maybe he wasn't taking over crime families, he was taking them down because he wasn't evil. Who knows, I guess. I just felt that they never gave a reason why he "closed all the loops"; I assumed he had a grudge against loopers, possibly for killing his mother, but that doesn't happen in any version of the timeline so basically there's just no reason given. Maybe he doesn't need them because he disposes of bodies using his psychic powers?

One final thing, I want to talk about the weapons used in the movie. Single action revolvers? It's a movie set in the future about time travel and telekinesis, with people riding hover bikes and firing single action revolvers? Really? What's more, the revolver in question is a rather unique, somewhat expensive, 5-shot, large-frame hunting revolver (appropriately named the "BFR" - "Biggest, Finest Revolver"), so it's not like that's all they could get their hands on. Hey, maybe firearm laws outlawed even double-action revolvers, so in public they walk around with the biggest, scariest single-actions they can get? I don't know, we see people waving shotguns around in the street so that sounds unlikely. I just think it's a strange choice that's never explained.

My real issue is with the "blunderbuss". This gun is shown to be a pump-action repeater, but we never see any indication of how it works, what kind of ammunition it uses, where the ammo goes... honestly, it doesn't look functional at all to me. I get that it's supposed to look imposing yet rough, cheap, almost home-made. But still, there's just no thought gone into the functional aspect of the design. It just seems like lazy prop design to me. I mean, we never even see the (absurdly tiny) "pump" handle actually move, it doesn't look at all as if it can, even though we hear pump-action sounds and see the actors perform pumping movements.

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