Welcome to the world of “Looper”: In the year 2042, time travel has not yet been invented. But by the year 2072 that is no longer the case. Nevertheless, it is outlawed and inaccessible to all but the most powerful and violent gangs in an economically repressed dystopia. Because of scientific advances of that era, it is impossible to dispose of a body without a trace. So criminal gangs use time travel for execution, sending the victims back in time to be knocked off by hit men, known as loopers.
A victim vanishes from 2072, but he never existed in 2042. Unless something goes terribly awry. Such is the setup of Rian Johnson’s bleak, brilliant sci-fi film “Looper,” a shrewd commentary on how we use technology, the value of a human life, and whether a destiny can be changed.
Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a very desirable and profitable position in a time overrun with vagrant raids, poverty, hopelessness, and violence. The job has a 30-year finite time span, at which time the looper is sent back into time to be exterminated, and a younger, genetically identical version of him starts the job all over again. This is called “closing the loop.” The consequences, shown early in the film, of not closing the loop are dire, both for the younger looper and his older counterpart.
Joe, an emotionally detached junkie, treats his executions with a regimented ennui, until the day a looper fails to show up at the expected hour. In a split second, Joe recognizes the man as the older version of himself (Willis) and hesitation allows him to escape, unleashing the fury of the warlords on both of them across the boundaries of time.
The future painted by Johnson is noir-lugubrious but stops short of the over-the-top postapocalyptic dreariness of “Blade Runner” or “Children of Men.” Instead, the issues of social equality, money, and humanity that we struggle with today are exaggerated under the umbrella of traditional sci-fi existentialism. The “Looper” future is also one filled with abject unfairness. Hungry vagrants who steal food out of desperation are shot immediately by armed citizens. A mobster (Daniels), sent from the future to run the loopers, quenches his boredom by running the city with tyranny, leaving the dirty work of closing loops to violent thugs. Worst of all is the news from the future of the appearance of a tyrannical warlord named the Rainmaker, who is closing all the loops one by one.
“Looper” wedges technological evolution into a future world not so unlike our own. There is time travel, a quirky genetic mutation that affects 10% of the population (they can levitate quarters!), and expected audiovisual upgrades to touch-screen technology. But there are also familiar elements—books, records, refrigerators, and even cars—that make these developments feel natural and real. Even time travel is treated not as an exotic luxury but a quotidian burden. The one and only scene of time travel in the film shows a rather simple metal tube that transports people to a time point in an empty field.
Whether time travel is possible in reality is a point of continuing contention among physicists. First popularized in H. G. Wells’s 1895 novella “The Time Machine,” the notion didn’t seem tenable until Albert Einstein unraveled the four dimensions of space and time with his theory of relativity in 1915. And of course, in theory, time travel is a very real occurrence, because we know that time passes more slowly the closer you approach the speed of light.
Physicists such as Stephen Hawking have grappled with other time-space phenomena such as wormholes and quantum theory that might facilitate time jumping. Most scientists, however, are unified in their belief that if a time machine were ever built, it would be exclusively for going forward in time, and not backward, because of many of the same quandaries proposed in “Looper,” particularly whether you can change the course of events that are destined to happen in the future.
But “Looper” doesn’t contend with any of that. It just assumes physicists have solved these hurdles and focuses on a smart, intricate, well-written story. It’s a film that treats its audience with respect, asking for patience in the more complicated plot points and rewarding it with a satisfying, shocking crescendo worthy of its metaphysical journey. Indeed, “Looper” might be the first film of the 21st century to provide a real purview into the ethical quandaries and frightening realities that time travel might present to us should it ever come to pass.