Tonight I snuck into a test screening of Rian Johnson's next film, Looper, which is scheduled to hit theaters next fall. Yes, a year from now. The cut I saw may not be the final one; it certainly did not have the final music and some of the FX were unfinished.
Looper represents a major leap for Johnson, a huge step forward in style and scope. It's smart and funny and thrilling, the kind of science fiction movie that wildly entertains while never shortchanging characters or ideas. Johnson tackles time travel with confidence; at first the rules are waved away, but eventually the ways that time travel works begins to become clear to us. The rules have to work, because Looper is tight as a drum, and any hiccup in how things work would send the story careening.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a Looper. Loopers live in the 2040s, 30 years before time travel is invented. When it is invented it's outlawed, so only powerful criminal organizations use it. For them time travel is a convenient means of disposing of bodies - people are sent back in time where Loopers await, shooting them to death.
Eventually a Looper closes his loop; when the future cops come too close to the criminals, they tie up all loose ends, and that includes the Looper of 30 years later. The Looper offs his own future self and is richly rewarded, getting to live out his remaining days in luxury. Sometimes Loopers blow it, unable to kill their own future selves (the system is set up so the Looper doesn't know who he's killing until it's too late, but systems sometimes fail), and that's when the Gat Men get involved. Loopers are much more blunt force employees - even their guns, blunderbusses, are low on precision and high on impact. The Gat Men, though, are the trained killers with excellent weaponry; if you fail to close your loop, they will find your future self and kill him - after all, it's not good to have a person from the future running around today. And while they can't kill you - too many repercussions on the future - they can use you to find your future self. There's an effective sequence where we see how the chipping away at a person today impacts their future self.
That scene, by the way, isn't just cool, it's also the epitome of how Johnson handles his time travel rules. It's all show, very little tell. There are not a lot of scenes of people sitting around discussing the mechanics of time travel; instead there are lots of scenes where we see time travel in action. Johnson plays with concepts we're familiar with, putting his own spin on them. Looper echoes Back to the Future and Terminator, among other time travel classics.
Anyway, Joe's future self gets sent back to be executed, but things don't go quite right. Future Joe, played by Bruce Willis, has a plan for the past. Current Joe needs to hunt down his future self, all while being hunted by the Gat Men himself. And the fate of the future might very well be at stake.
Gordon-Levitt makes a remarkable acting choice in Looper - he tries to become Bruce Willis as much as possible. He takes on Bruce's mannerisms, his accent, even his grin. He's aided by extensive make-up that flattens his nose and changes his lips; slightly disorienting at first, the make-up simply becomes part of the character. It isn't that Gordon-Levitt looks just like Willis, simply that he has features which strongly echo Willis'. It's a strong performance, and not the sort that budding Hollywood movie stars usually give - this isn't Gordon-Levitt playing a variation on his familiar persona, it's Gordon-Levitt subsuming himself into a character and creating a whole new persona.
Willis doesn't return the favor when it comes to make-up, but he definitely meets Gordon-Levitt somewhere in the middle. There are two great kinds of Bruce Willis performances: wisecracking badasses and tragic heroes. Future Joe is much more the tragic hero, but Johnson knows that if you have Bruce Willis in your movie you might want to let him waste legions of guys with machine guns. That happens in Looper. But more importantly Willis creates a character with a very human center of pain, and he does that largely in silence.
There are other strong performances in the film: Emily Blunt is wonderful as a tough single mother who gets caught up in the middle of this mess, and Noah Segan plays a great human punching bag in the role of the slightly ridiculous Kid Blue (there's a lot of comedy in the film, and it's always tonally perfect - and often perfectly times). Jeff Daniels is wonderfully laid back as the man from the future who runs the Looper program, and Garret Dillahunt is great as a Gat Man with an air of professional, polite menace. Johnson is great at casting and once again he has filled his film with terrific actors.
Looper is set in a strongly sketched future world that's just about two weeks from today. It's a film dotted with small details that feel thoroughly thought out, reminding me of what Duncan Jones did with Moon. The future world is intriguing, but it isn't the heart of what Johnson's doing here. Looper is a movie about confronting the person you used to be - in this case quite literally. It's about the idea that the you of today may not be the same person as the you of yesterday, thanks to years' worth of accumulated experiences.
What most intrigued me about Looper, though, is the way it examines what is heroic. It takes some of the standard moral and philosophical questions associated with time travel and puts a new spin on them - to say more would be to spoil some of the film's best reveals, but suffice it to say that this is a movie where your idea of who is the hero, and who is doing the right thing, shifts and changes.
There may yet be changes to Looper, but the movie I saw was great. Bigger than Johnson's last two films, Looper has one thing in common with them - like Brick and Brothers Bloom it's a film that plays in a genre, but never at the expense of characters. This is an action film, and Johnson proves that not only does he have excellent action chops, he has interesting ideas on how to shoot his action so that it doesn't look like every other action scene you've ever seen. Looper proves that Johnson is ready to move into the big, expensive movie game, and that he has the kind of instincts that might allow him to make a big, expensive movie that's actually good.
I'd like to return to this film when it's released; there's a lot more to talk about, especially stuff in the second half after some major reveals. I'll hold off for the time being - at least until more of you guys can join the discussion.