The best sci-fi movies aren’t defined by their sci-fi elements. Hovercars, cool guns, time travel and other sci-fi tropes are merely used to put a unique spin and visual style on a story with themes universal to almost any genre. And if it does that by blowing your mind with some cool stuff? All the better.

Rian Johnson‘s Looper is very much in that vein. A time-travelling, sci-fi movie to be sure, ultimately the film features very unexpected, yet welcome, fundamental themes. It almost becomes something that feels out of place in a world of time-travelling assassins and hover bikes which, of course, is exactly the point. Johnson hooks you with big action and reels you in for bigger ideas and that’s why Looper is so damn good.

After the jump, continue reading my review of the film, which opens September 28 and just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and watch a 100% spoiler-free video blog about Looper.

Here’s our video review from “The Toronto Film Festival.” The written review (also non-spoiler) continues below.

The film’s title, Looper, is also a job title in the near future; 2044 to be exact. At that time, time travel has yet to be invented, but it soon will be, and once that happens it will be criminalized. In fact, the only people who use it are organized crime bosses who send their enemies back to 2044 to be killed and disposed of by assassins called loopers. They’re called that because eventually these killers will likely “close their loop” by killing their older self.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a brash young looper living the good life, until the day he’s forced to close his loop. His older self, Bruce Willis, returns to 2044, escapes, and wreaks havoc on Joe’s world, forcing him to question everything he’s seen and believed. That’s all I’ll say about the plot.

Looper is unique in that each of its acts could almost be their own short film. The first act sets up the story and includes most everything you’ve seen in the trailer. The second act takes things in an exciting direction featuring brand new time-travel ideas we’ve never seen before, and by the third act, you feel like you’re watching a whole new movie with a different tone and pacing that feels both wholly singular yet completely related and informed by the first two acts. There’s a surprise at every turn.

Many of those surprises come from Johnson’s new takes on classic time travel tropes. He takes ideas you’re likely familiar with from films like Back to the Future or The Terminator and gives them his own personal spin which is frequently disturbing. While the film feels light on language, its violence more than makes up for the R-rating.

Some of that violence is in the film’s action scenes, which are actually few and far between, Remember this is Rian Johnson, director of Brick and The Brothers Bloom, so he’s more interested in human drama and interaction – specifically the idea of meeting and interacting with your future self – than explosions and car chases. The film has both, but make no mistake: this is a drama with action elements, not the other way around.

Ultimately we buy that drama because Johnson doesn’t boggle the mind (too much) with the idea of time travel. Whenever a character begins to question the logistical loop holes and details of the idea, the inquiry is instantly squashed. That will certainly lead to some healthy debate about several major plot points, but it’s all in service of the story and the characters.

Those characters are mostly developed in the second act, which is where my one tiny gripe with the film takes place. As Johnson starts to veer off into an unexpected and radically different section of the film, the pacing has an equally radical change that feels a bit off. The movie loses you for moment until you finally catch up to Johnson’s forward thinking. At that point, you’re all-in, but when you’re expecting to see one film and you begin to see another, if things aren’t handled just right, it can be a distraction. In Looper, it’s a small distraction but quickly a revelation.

Rian Johnson’s Looper is my favorite of this young filmmaker’s three films and lives up to every expectation we’ve had. It’s a classic drama in a sci-fi action mold with plenty of each to go around.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10

 

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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