Driving home after seeing Rian Johnson’s film Looper, Michael C’s wife brought up the inherent flaw in any time travel movie: how could anyone go back in time and change something without changing the future? Michael C responded, “Time travel doesn’t exist, so debating it is kind of pointless.” (Nevertheless, we discussed time travel for the rest of the car ride.)
Which is fine with me because, when it comes to Looper, time travel is the least interesting thing about it. I’d rather discuss its heroes, or lack of them. Almost every person I know who saw Looper said, “I didn’t know who to root for!”
(For those who haven’t seen it, massive, movie-ruining spoilers ahead.)
At first, you root for Young Joe. This version of Joe works as a “looper”, a hitman who kills targets sent from the future. He does it for the money, but you like him; he’s the classic anti-hero.
Then, on the other side, you have old Joe, who grew old, lost his fortune, turned to crime, then fell in love, kicked his drug habit and started living a good life. Gangsters murder his wife, so he goes back in time to kill the man that ordered him to be killed.
Now you root for Old Joe because Young Joe is still, you know, killing people.
Except that Old Joe isn’t just killing the man that ordered him to be killed, but that man as a child. An innocent child.
Now you’re rooting against Old Joe, especially when Young Joe winds up on a farm with the child Old Joe is trying to kill...until you realize that this kid has crazy psychic powers and might be Hitler! And then Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis, goes on a crazy evil gangster killing spree. As Michael C pointed out to me, you’re now rooting for Old Joe, because who doesn’t root for Bruce Willis when he’s in a bad ass gangster-killing action scene? In the end, it isn’t clear who the audience should want to win.
Recently, I watched The Cabin in the Woods, and the same thing happened. On one side, you have innocent teenagers who drive off to a cabin and certain death. On the other side, you watch the engineers who orchestrate their deaths, and learn why they’re trying to kill the teenagers. You’re kind of rooting for them as well. (I’ll say no more, for fear of spoiling this movie.)
For a 21st century action movie in the age of comic book movies, this is kind of amazing.
Most movies, most popular fiction, simplifies our world to the point of absurdity. Good versus evil. Loki versus the Avengers. Batman versus Joker. Gandalf, Stryder and the Hobbits versus the evil Sauron and Saruman. The Expendables--who in two movies have only lost one guy, which makes them not very expendable--versus an evil central European gangster. Even most dramas make it clear that the viewer should root for the protagonist. (Think of Gladiator or The Insider or The Godfather or Erin Brockovich.)
The brilliance of Looper is that two protagonists--or three depending on how you judge the kid--play out their destinies, based on internal motivations, and the movie doesn’t tell you who to root for. You just watch the whole thing happen, hoping each character succeeds even though you know they can’t. Everything happens as it should and would. The Cabin in the Woods ends with the characters facing a moral choice. Viewers have to ask themselves, what would I do?
Oppositely, The Dark Knight Rises failed to reach its potential--at least the potential I saw in the trailer--because, though it said its villain Bane represented the working class and the 99%, he didn’t. Imagine a version of that film where the rich aristocrat--Batman--battles someone actually representing Occupy Wall Street and the people. Instead, Bane was just another comic book movie villain out to destroy the world--or Gotham.
I enjoy blockbuster summer films--at least the ones I mentioned above--but recognize that something was missing from most of them. Though I loved The Avengers, it’s missing something that Looper isn’t: moral complexity
Art is only as good as its understanding of the world we live in. The media--mainstream, new media, and Hollywood--tend to view the world in binary terms, a world of heroes and villains. Hitler, Nazis, communists, terrorists...all evil.
But the world isn’t that simple. It isn’t that binary. The choices aren’t that stark.
I wish more films were like Looper.