Sunday, October 7, 2012

In time

It would be pleasant to think kids are drawn to fantasy and science fiction because our consciousness starts off vast, and only gradually becomes small; that when you’re young it’s as natural to dream across physical and temporal boundaries as to feel shaped by them, until the inevitability of those boundaries forces itself upon you, for better or worse. When I was a kid I went through a big Dr. Who phase (peaking in the late Jon Pertwee/early Tom Baker period), a big Star Trek phase, and a big general science fiction phase, which then evolved into a broader passion for cinema, which has stuck with me ever since. Actually, fantasy and science fiction are relatively low on my list now; being no longer young, the genre for the most part doesn’t seem to offer an elevating form of “escape” so much as self-defeating denial (admittedly, there’s a lot in this world that one might wish to deny).

The butterfly effect

In its new incarnation, Dr. Who seems much more prone to melancholy and regret than I remember from the old show, frequently mulling on the cost of quasi-infinite power and longevity: too many people leaving or dying, weightlessness constantly proving itself heavy, unfettered capacity for action becoming tangled in paradoxes. Like many teenagers, I was astounded by the Ray Bradbury story A Sound of Thunder, in which by stepping on a butterfly during a trip to the past, a group of time travelers cause catastrophic changes in their future. Dr. Who never used to be worried about the “butterfly effect”, and probably at some point the show’s invented some rationale for why it’s not a problem, I can’t remember, but the most recent episode, The Angels take Manhattan, almost plunged back to basics, with a prohibition against reading an account of one’s present actions as set out in a book from the future, because knowledge of what’s in the book would influence those actions. Such inventions are fascinating of course, in a logic-problem kind of way, and maybe also oddly elevating, suggesting even God is only as powerful as the dashboard allows.

Some of the most beguiling time travel stories are less interested in external mechanics than in magnifying the effects of our own internal time machines, the reveries in which we drift away into the past, vividly reliving some high school incident while leaving our bodies in the morning meeting. Only a psychopath’s memories could be free of all loss or regret, and so by extension, how could the time traveler avoid frequent despair? All of which brings us to Rian Johnson’s Looper, which is now open commercially after being the opening gala at this year’s film festival. It’s set in 2044, in an America careening downhill; time travel hasn’t yet been invented, but by 2074 it will have been, although its only widespread use seems to be as a means for crime bosses to safely knock people off. The loopers, specialized assassins, kill the designated victims as they arrive from the future; it allows them to earn a good living, with the caveat that because their knowledge makes them dangerous, they’ll ultimately be sent back in time themselves to meet the same fate, a culling driven by a mysterious, all-powerful master criminal known as the “Rainmaker”.


After a happy retirement, the Rainmaker’s guys grab former looper Joe (Bruce Willis) to meet his fate, and they kill his wife in the process. He manages to make it alive into 2044, and then focuses on tracking down the Rainmaker, at that point only a kid, reasoning that if he prevents the kid from growing up, then his wife will never be killed. His main adversary is his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), determined to kill old Joe to preserve his standing with his bosses (imaginatively, Kansas City constitutes the urban hellhole here). Ground zero becomes a farmhouse occupied by a single mother (Emily Blunt) and her son, whose unusually intense telepathic powers (a result of a mutation that we’re told is fairly common by 2044) and volatile disposition may mark him as the future Rainmaker. This is, to put it mildly, a simplified and overly linear telling of a plot which, quite aptly, loops and ducks and pivots; I imagine only the most gifted mutants among viewers could avoid being confused once in a while.

Regardless, it works very well. Although much is driven by old Joe’s fear of loss, the film doesn’t primarily align itself with the “reverie” school of time travel stories: it rams home the premise through a flurry of exposition (i.e. the ground rules you simply have to sign onto if you want to come out and play) and then just keeps hitting the pedal. It avoids the feeling of pointless, digitized momentum that governs a lot of genre movies though. Johnson’s imagining of 2044 is impressive: you might think at times it’s too much like today, but it dawns on you that this is the measure of how bad things are, that the great payoffs of the technological revolution have accrued mainly to criminals; rural Kansas in contrast still doesn’t have reliable cellphone reception. The film benefits greatly from the contrast between city and country, between jarring sensation and serene but potentially eerie stillness, implicitly drawing on the anxiety in the current heartland.

The nature of time

As for the mechanics of time travel, well, I guess you have to draw a line somewhere: it implicitly posits for instance that if a younger man kills himself, then his future self will also cease to exist; however, if the future self – having returned from the future – is running round in the younger man’s time and space creating mayhem, then the consequences of that mayhem will remain even after that older self is canceled out from ever having existed (follow that?) Maybe the movie has some dialogue somewhere that notionally “explains” this – as I said, I wasn’t always keeping up. But even if it does, the broad point remains, that Looper ultimately has to privilege linearity over looping and paradox: Johnson can play with time, but not enough to deny us the sense of an ending (a respect, perhaps, in which movies have always lied about the nature of time).

Having said that, although the film closes the immediate narrative loop, it leaves plenty of grounds for disquiet. Some might see the use of telepathy as over-egging the pudding – can’t a movie just be content with one high-concept gimmick at a time? But I think Johnson’s intention is to evoke how shaky our existential fabric might be: if one set of scientific parameters becomes fallible or malleable, how can we count on others? The film suggests that even then, there ought to still be things we can count on – love, human instinct, nurturing – but at the very least, the odds of their making the right kind of difference become longer. Looper may stroke the unbound consciousness I talked about, but it also has a very grimly practical sense of earthly limits.

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