Dir. Rian Johnson
(2012, R, 118 minutes)

Looper is more a contraption than a story. The first twenty minutes or so are the instruction manual, consisting almost entirely of exposition, spoken by star Joseph Gordon-Levitt in voice-overs that are like a Wikipedia primer on life in the year 2042, when the film is set. There are assassins, called “loopers,” who kill and dispose of individuals from the future. If they live long enough to catch up with that future reality, they are sent back in time and killed by their younger selves.

There’s your first problem. Isn’t it illogical for organized criminals to force loopers to kill their older selves? They have too much invested. Send the old former loopers into the past and have a stranger kill them. This has the dual effect of being merciful to the young employees and preventing complications like the events of this film, which proves to be very bad for business. But if younger loopers didn’t have to kill their future selves, there would be no movie, so let’s move on.

There are also people known as “TKs.” In the three decades between now and the year the film is set, an unexplained genetic mutation has caused some people to develop minor telekinetic powers. Telekinesis seems to have little connection to the time-travel premise; that’s how we know it will become the key to a plot twist later on. This is a screenplay in which nothing exists that is not directly related to the plot.

That’s a shame, because there are a lot of questions that might have interesting, funny, or exciting answers. Time travel is illegal in the future, and “loopers” are by necessity employed in secret, but knowledge seems to have trickled out. What does the general public know and believe about time travel, which hasn’t been invented yet? Who invented time travel, and was he perhaps inspired by the strange reports of people who came from the future via the technology he hadn’t invented yet? Who are these criminals in the future using time travel to their advantage, and why send their victims back only 30 years? Why not 50 years, or 100, or 200? Far enough in the past that no one from that era would live long enough to become a liability.

Emily Blunt, as Sara

I love the idea of time travel. It opens up exciting avenues for storytelling – inventive puzzles, tantalizing paradoxes, troubling moral quandaries. One of my favorite TV shows is Doctor Who, which often uses time travel to overturn our narrative expectations.

Looper doesn’t capitalize enough on those possibilities, and it doesn’t want to. There’s a scene in which the two main characters begin to discuss their complex temporal connection. One of them dismisses the matter out of hand. If they start discussing it, he says, they’d be there all day, but I would have liked to see that scene play out, exploring how the logic swirls around itself, and how strange and absurd it must seem to those involved.

But the film simply establishes its rules and then builds a fairly routine chase movie on top. Gordon-Levitt plays Joe. Bruce Willis plays the older Joe, who gets the drop on his younger self, forcing both of them to flee from the shadowy criminal organization that hired him. Emily Blunt plays Sara, a single mother living on an isolated farm with whom the younger Joe crosses paths. The plot spins its wheels for a while, cutting back and forth between the farm and the elder Joe sneaking and hiding and doing very bad things to try to alter his future. This is punctuated at one point by a brainless shootout sequence during which I was unable to contain my laughter.

There’s an interesting character played by Jeff Daniels. He’s Abe, who was sent from the future to manage the loopers. Daniels brings a spark of wit and energy to his performance that is mostly lacking from the rest of the film. Of all the characters, he’s the one I wanted to learn more about.

But we don’t get enough of Abe, in part because the screenplay often forces him aside in favor of an unnecessary character named Kid Blue (Noah Segan). Kid Blue is an incompetent lackey, is irrelevant to the story, and his cartoonish bumbling is out of sync with the tone of the rest of the film. You could edit him out entirely and not miss a thing. Someone in 2042 should send all his footage back in time to 2012, and I’d dispose of it myself, free of charge.