The Daily Stream: 10 Years Ago, Looper Broke The Circle (Even If Hollywood Didn't)

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Looper" (2012)

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: In the year 2074, time travel has been invented. It's also been outlawed because, you know, it's time travel and can lead to things like someone becoming their own grandfather. Okay, maybe not in the "Looper" universe, but there are other, more valid concerns. That said, if you think some pesky laws are going to stop capitalism from finding a way to exploit this fuzzy scientific process, you've got another thing coming.

Among those committing crimes of the future (not those ones) is a Kansas City syndicate that's come up with a handy way of disposing of its enemies. It captures them and sends them back to 2044, where a hired killer or "looper" shoots them dead, collects the money they're owed, and disposes of the corpses (preventing their deaths from being traced back to the syndicate). It should also be noted these victims are sent back in time with hoods on their heads, so as to hide their identity from the loopers.

Why bring that up? Because, at a certain point, any loopers still alive in 2074 are sent back for their younger selves to kill, e.g. closing the loop. It's a terrible cycle, but that's fine with Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cynical, selfish looper who reasons the world sucks anyway, so you might as well get what you can. Enter Old Joe (Bruce Willis), who makes his way back in time with a plan to fix everything by killing a mysterious figure from the future (known as the Rainmaker) while they're still a child.

Why it's essential viewing

Almost exactly 10 years after its release in theaters, "Looper" remains a rarity in modern Hollywood. It's never gotten a sequel, nor has writer/director Rian Johnson expressed any real desire to revisit its universe with a spinoff or TV series. That's only fitting, too. The message at the core of the film — that you can't reform toxic circles (or, as Joe calls them, bad paths), you just have to break them — runs contrary to the very idea of a franchise. It also flies in the face of what studios and streaming services have spent the past decade preaching when it comes to their biggest intellectual properties.

While he's certainly not against tackling franchises or reviving older genres (as he's proven over the years), that's not what Johnson is going for with "Looper." It's a film that draws from a myriad of sources, lifting elements from classic movies like "Casablanca" and "Akira," only to remix them in a way that feels fresh and exciting. Then there's the meta-commentary on American action cinema, which comes through that much stronger thanks to Willis' casting. Even in 2022, the film is still pretty radical in the way it challenges a tenant of the genre (many superhero movies included): that violence can be used to solve cycles of violence.

'And the path was a circle. Round and round. So I changed it'

"Looper," of course, is far from perfect. Its time-travel logic ends up being pretty wobbly, no matter how much Johnson tries to lamp-shade this in a key scene where Joe converses with his older self. Then there's Johnson's decision to have Gordon-Levitt wear facial prosthetics so he looks more like a younger Willis, which ... doesn't work. It's a little distracting at first, too, but easier to ignore once the story kicks into gear.

Really, these flaws are superficial at most. In contrast to too many recent studio films, "Looper" is visually interesting and crisp, with gritty action scenes you can follow and horrifying imagery that will haunt you afterward (like one scene that messes with the laws of time-travel in a way that almost crosses over into body horror territory). Gordon-Levitt and Willis are similarly well-suited to their roles as the jaded antihero and his older, gruffer, and wiser self, as is Jeff Daniels as Joe's no-nonsense boss. There's also Emily Blunt, whose character is hard to talk about without getting into spoilers. Suffice it to say, though, she's outstanding as ever, particularly when she gets to flex her dramatic acting muscles.

Despite being a critical and box office hit, "Looper" didn't usher in a shiny new era of adult, original, mid-budget genre movies after it premiered in 2012. But just because Hollywood failed to learn the right lessons from its success, that's no reason not to finally give this one a look if you haven't before (or even if it's been a while). It might just be the change of pace you've been craving.