Movie Review: Looper

Over the weekend, I watched two different distopian science fiction films. The first I intend to review is the movie Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. First, though, I'd like to make some comments about recent trends. (If you just want to read the movie review, skip the following section.)

Distopian Futures
It has been a growing trend among story-tellers to view the future as a distopian place. During the Cold War, writers had every reason to see the world as a radioactive wasteland, the aftermath of a world-wide nuclear war. Such stories were inspired by the world in which the writers lived, a world in which the communist countries and the (comparatively) capitalist ones we at odds with each other, both vying for essential control over the world's political system. Both were heavily armed with nuclear arsenals that could condemn the world to millennia of radioactive waste, that could potentially eradicate all life on Earth other than bugs and bacteria.

But this was the 70s and 80s. It was not always thus. From the 30s to the 60s, the science fiction genre was replete with stories about beautiful futures, with flying cars, space travel, and the eradication of disease. Political conflict, when present, was interplanetary. In general, human life was the glorious culmination of science and knowledge. Superstition had been abolished, and only knowledge and human peace remained.

This is perhaps best illustrated by Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, a story about a group of scientists charged with exploring the far corners of outer space. Every episode was a new tale - not of irreconcilable human conflict, but of scientific exploration. People of different races, sexual orientations, and even species from far-away planets, coexisted in relative peace and harmony. What conflicts did exist, primarily existed among foreign species. The human audience of the stories was there as third-party observers, curiously studying the conflicts of far-removed characters.

Undoubtedly, this was a hopeful future.

Go back a little further in time, and we have the early days of science fiction: the late-19th Century to about the 1920s. During that time, people did tell stories of distopian futures, most notably H.G Wells. These distopia were often inspired by Marxist dogma and described tumultuous futures in which the "haves" had evolved into superlative species who behaved a bit like Greek gods, while the "have-nots" had evolved into a kind of monkey or cave man, oppressed to the point of savagery. Enter the sermonic lessons of Marxist philosophy, warning us of things to come!

Interestingly, the distopian stories of the Wells era were a prelude to a period of war and oppression on a scale never before seen in human history. The hopeful stories of the future, in contrast, came at the dawn of a comparatively much more peaceful period of expanding civil rights (at least, with respect to race and gender equality) and steady, moderate economic growth.

Taken in total, I cannot help but feel uneasy about the recent trend toward distopian futures. Even in the 19th Century, the stories provided mankind with a way out: accept the Marxist dogma, and we may still march toward the future in harmony and order. Nowadays, the future is basically all dismal. No one has much of anything in the future. It is a dark ages.

On With The Movie Review
Looper is a remarkably philosophical novel, aiming straight at the heart of the notorious philosophical question: If you have a time machine, would you go back and kill Hitler? Or, the same question on a less grandiose scale: Which of your mistakes would you correct if you could travel back in time?

It is a story about a young gangster who executes people for a living. The story takes place in the year 2044, and thirty years later, time travel will have been invented, and outlawed. The only ones who use it are members of a mob, who use their time machine as a garbage disposal, sending people back in time to be executed and disposed-of by "loopers." The loopers are handsomely rewarded with lots of money, in the form of bars of silver and gold. They live what an early-20s no-good-nik would believe to be the high life: they are rich, they have access to drugs and beautiful prostitutes, and they live without a care for tomorrow.

Of these gangsters, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, Joe, is fairly typical, except that he has an intelligent streak in him. He saves his money. He studies French. He has hopes and dreams. That said, he is also a cold-hearted killer and a drug addict.

When Joe's future self is sent back in time to be killed (by Joe, effectively terminating his contract with the mafia), the movie takes off. And there is much to be said about what happens next, but I unfortunately cannot go there without spoiling the movie. So I won't.

What I will say is that, throughout the movie, Joe and the audience are confronted with some intensely philosophical recurring themes:

  • What would you change about the past, if you could?
  • For what and who would you be willing to make those changes? How far would you go for the sake of the future?
  • People are the product of their environment and their choices.
This last point is perhaps most important, because whereas the other two are thematic questions that arise constantly, this third issue is dealt with by assumption. That is, the movie accepts the concept of free will and rejects determinism.

In part, this is out of necessity. A story cannot properly deal with time travel without also introducing the concept of changing the future. In that sense, choices always matter. But to a remarkable degree, Looper embraces the idea that people are not born good or bad, but that they become who they are as a result of the people they meet and the choices they make. This kicks the philosophy into high gear.

It is incredibly good to see a movie embrace nurture over nature and free will over determinism. This is the first such (Hollywood) movie I can remember seeing in a long time.

All in all, the movie is a positive contribution to the time-travel genre and, despite its distopian backdrop, offers a more positive view of the future than we have been seeing lately. The movie is action-packed and very well-written. If you can handle a bit of violence and gore, this is a great movie to see, and I highly recommend it.