Okay, so Rian Johnson asked me to explain my criticism of Looper. I was just mouthing off on Twitter, like you do, and then suddenly there’s the writer/director of the film questioning my half-ass bitching about his film. Now, this is not what I would do, but he turned out to be pretty decent about it given what a dick I was, so decided that it was worth it to go a little deeper and provide a writerly critique. By “writerly” I mean that if a friend showed me this movie and asked me for my feedback before he sent it to his agent, here is more or less what I’d say. [Spoiler: It turns out that the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and I end up eating crow.]
First off, there are many things I quite liked about the movie. All of the social sf stuff was interesting and well-handled. The world felt lived-in and established. The fear and uncertainty of this post-depression world are palpable, and go a long way to explaining why our protagonist is who he is. The directing is spry, lean, and the film is gorgeous to look at. And fucking hell. Bruce Willis, right?
On twitter, I bitched about the “jaw-clenchingly sloppy” time-travel stuff, and I accused it of not adhering to a “strictly-defined set of plot rules.” I wasn’t expecting to have to defend those remarks, but guess what? It’s the 21st century and what you say in public is open to discussion. I wasn’t even drunk. I was just tired and in a bad mood. In retrospect, both of those statements are incorrect. But something about the film bugged me, so what was it?
There is nothing whatsoever sloppy about the plot of Looper. It’s very carefully crafted. It’s not the “rules of the plot” that bug me. What bugs me has to do with causality, and how it’s represented in Hollywood films about time-travel.
There’s a very clever scene early in the flim (mild spoiler here) in which a fleeing man from the future is abducted. The bad guys catch him by torturing his younger self, thus crippling him in the future. The conceit of the film, we come to learn, is that the past can be rewritten, and when we rewrite the past, the effects of that rewriting immediately overtake the events of someone who has returned from the future. Strictly as a storytelling device, there’s very little problem with this, I don’t think. Back to the Future employed essentially the same tactic: make changes in the past and those changes are immediately reflected in the history of someone visiting from the future. If we’re doing “time travel qua magic” which is essentially what’s happening here (and which is the only kind you can do, obviously) then you’re in the clear. There’s nothing wrong with the plot.
And the movie tells us this. Bruce Willis practically breaks the fourth wall in the diner scene explaining to his younger self that the temporal dynamics aren’t the point. He smacks the table and talks derisively about drawing diagrams. (And as he does so, dozens of fans of the movie Primer look down at their extensive diagrams and weep for their lost youth.)
So, fine. I admit it, Rian. You’re off the hook. You have defeated me. When I go back and think about all the things that I thought were plot holes, I realized that they’re all allowed in this framework. I think the word “sloppy” comes up because this framework covers a lot of sins. How was Bruce Willis able to return to the past in two entirely different ways: first hooded, and second not hooded? Which one “actually” happened? Well, the past was rewritten at some point along the line so we don’t have to worry about such things. We don’t have to draw the Feynman diagram for this because it doesn’t fucking matter. Hell, maybe it makes perfect sense, but I’ll never know because I’d have to be insane to want to work it out. See what I mean?
Two paragraphs of hair-splitting ensue:
1. What ultimately disturbs me about this, though—and I openly admit that this is some nerdy shit—is that it creates problems with actual physics and actual causality. Let’s say that I have written a note to my future self by scrawling it with a knife into my arm. The plot logic tells me that the future has now been changed, and that now it is always true that Joe has had this scar on his arm from the time he was in his mid-twenties. Simultaneously, the scar from that event appears on Old Joe’s arm. But since this event now must always have been true, it should be no surprise whatsoever that Old Joe has this scar on his arm because he has had it for thirty years. In other words, there is some timeline in which it is true that Joe’s cut has healed into scars. It must be true because we see the scars. But the plot requires that Old Joe not be aware of this scar until the moment in the past that its causal wound has been incised. So whose scar healed? Not young Joe, because he shot himself in a field. Not Old Joe, because the whole times we’ve seen him, he hasn’t had that scar.
2. Now, you might say, “But the past has been changed just now, so it’s only just now that he has that scar.” And you’d be right. But now he has always had that scar, so he should have the concomitant years-long memory of the scar, and — and here’s the point of all this— this memory should affect how he now behaves. The physical scar must also engender a thirty-year knowledge of that scar’s existence, giving the new version of Old Joe an abundance of new information. But it doesn’t. He behaves as thought the scar has only just appeared. The logic of causality doesn’t allow you to have it both ways.
But here’s the problem with the laws of causality and those of us who get real worked up about them: time travel breaks them out of the gate. So if you want to tell a fun time travel story, you have to tell logic to fuck off at some point. And you don’t get proper causality and a fun movie.
You can approximate it, but then you end up with Primer. Primer is a very difficult movie to watch. I thought it was really smart. But was it fun? I enjoyed Looper much more than I enjoyed Primer. I might argue that Primer is the greater artistic success, but then again, I’m a guy who once wrote a comic with an anthropomorphic taco in it, so “art” clearly isn’t something I know about or aspire to.
So that’s what I think about that.
As to Poul Anderson’s “only one fantastic assumption” rule. I think it’s a good, smart rule. I think that rules exist for a reason, and I think you should also immediately break them whenever it’s convenient for you to do so.
(What we mean, by the way, by “only one fantastic assumption” is that in an sfnal story, it’s a bad idea to significantly alter the world in more than one way. In the case of Looper, the “real world” is violated in two ways: time-travel, and telekinesis. )
Here’s the reason that the breakage of this rule bothered me in Looper. The message that I took away from the film is this: being given a second chance can save you from self-damnation. All three main characters exemplify this theme: young Joe gives Cid (the little kid) a second chance by blowing away his older self. Old Joe is given a second chance by his future wife (not to be confused with Lisa, Johnny’s “future wife” in The Room (if you don’t get that, you really need to watch The Room)). And of course Sara (Emily Blunt) has been given a second chance as a mother. The character stuff is all very well done here and Johnson never bashes you over the head with it. (As you can see, I’m talking myself into liking this goddamn movie the more I think about it.)
What does that have to do with breaking a rule of science fiction, though? Here’s what: time travel is the “fantastic assumption” that illuminates the theme of the film. It does so beautifully in the film’s climax, by tying all three main characters’ second chances together in a single tableau. (Fuck you, Johnson. I admit it. It’s a good movie.)
Telekinesis, however, does not do this. It’s not thematically related to anything, so far as I can tell. It serves the plot only obliquely, by creating future Cid as a terrifying boogeyman who sets the events of the film in motion. But it’s not necessary. Cid could have just grown up to have been a really vicious guy and it wouldn’t have changed the film any, from what I can tell. In other words, the fantastic assumption of telekinesis is irrelevant to the plot.
Is it cool? Sure. It, and its effect on society is beautifully portrayed when Sara is talking to Joe about how TK men hit on her and how she stymies them with her more powerful telekinesis. And it makes for a super badass climax with some really bitchin’ sfx. I didn’t understand, however, what any of this had to do with a movie about second chances. Was there a secondary theme running through the film that I missed? (It’s possible; I’m pretty stupid.) Was it just there to be cool, and it didn’t need another reason? (Not everything needs a reason.)
Either way it would have been fine. But here’s why it rubbed me the wrong way: it created in me an expectation that telekinesis was going to relate to the primary theme of the film, and/or that telekinesis and time travel were going to be correlated in some way by the plot, because I have internalized the rule of only one fantastic assumption (sometimes being a writer can fuck up your culture ingesting experience). We can’t hold filmmakers responsible for all of our misperceptions, but on the other hand, the job of a storyteller is to keep stupid people like me from getting false expectations. So when my expectation didn’t quite pay off, I was disappointed.
Here’s my question. When Young Joe makes his character-defining choice, he does so by shooting himself in the chest. It seemed to me, even at that moment, that he could have achieved the same effect by simply shooting off his own hand. This would have forced Bruce Willis to drop his gun, giving Young Joe time to cross the field and dispense with him and not die in the process. The reason I ask is that it seems to me like a plausible solution to the problem that allows the movie to have a happy ending, and also allows the first person narrator to not be narrating from the grave, which is something that always takes me out of a story. Plausible enough to think that it might have been a contender for an alternate “Hollywood” ending, and I wonder if it ever occurred to anyone.
Okay, there it is. I take it back. I’m man enough to admit that Looper is a good movie. It hangs together as a story. We can agree to disagree about the finer points of causality and the ”fantastic assumptions” thing, but ultimately that’s probably inside baseball stuff that nobody who’s not a writer even cared about.
Looper is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and probably Target and Wal-Mart, too, although I watched it on Amazon Instant Video because I could do that without standing up. It stars the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun, Bruce Willis, and Jeff Daniels. As a bad guy.