Around the Clock — Looper

This review contains devastating spoilers!

Review: Time travel functions with unique philosophical efficacy in science fiction and fantasy stories.  By nature, time travel tests mortality, explores sequences of moral cause and effect, and transcends cosmic expansion and collapse.  In other words, time travelers are analogous to storytellers — through their devices, they alter our perceptions, making us painfully aware of our human frailties even as they give us a god’s-eye-view.  Storytelling, like time travel, transcends the space-time continuum to which our bodies are bound.  Through them we revisit past mistakes and explore possible futures.  Therefore, the time travel conceit, as well as storytelling at large, are both permutations of spirituality.

Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper,’ by narrating a conflict between two versions of a self, embraces the mystical side of time travel.  Consequently, its logic is moral, rather than purely temporal.  Johnson’s script invokes temporal logic — namely, the titular loop — as a metaphor for a cosmological concept.  In this way, Johnson stands firmly within the tradition of classic science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, who used genre tropes to weave fables.  Young Joe  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in great make-up) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis, doing great work) constitute a temporal loop that, like Yogic philosophy’s wheel of samsaras, keeps recycling the same bad choices over and over.  In effect, Joe’s loop renders him eternal, as despite his inevitable death his choices lead inexorably from past to future to past and back again.

Now, I’m about to spoil the ending, but it’s necessary to make my point, as to quote FilmCritHulk, “the ending is the conceit.”  Joe’s eventual solution to the horrible cycle first requires a moment of clarity, discerning the loop — an insight analogous to Buddhist enlightenment — followed by redemptive self-destruction.  By death, Joe transcends death, as the destruction of his loop restores harmony to the story world.  Director Johnson’s latent Christianity suggests a Christ parallel, but it’s far more likely, given the thematic significance of cycles, that the Yogic — and by extension, Buddhist — interpretation better fits the film.  Joe’s self-sacrifice is analogous to ego-death, which, in Yogic philosophy, ends the painful cycle and liberates consciousness.  An individual, so liberated, brings balance to his or her surroundings and reduces suffering — exactly like Joe.

It gets better; not only does Johnson’s take on time travel befit mysticism, it speaks to an effective storytelling ethos.  Old Joe, in trying to prevent a tragedy, attempts to rewrite history.  We process time as narrative, splicing memories — like film strips — into logical order.  So Old Joe’s mission is to tell a new story.  However, like his younger self, ego blinds him.  He sees only the historical narrative’s tragic impact on his fortunes.  All other persons and interests become expendable before his ego; he is, therefore, unable to tell a new story.  Young Joe receives enlightenment when he realizes that Old Joe’s selfish (not to mention murderous) rewriting actually ends in the same way that Old Joe tries to prevent — hence the loop.  The only way to write a new story, then, is to wrest the pen away from ego.  Truly inspired, effective storytelling is by nature generous, transcending one person’s interests and harmonizing within the larger human community.

‘Looper’ works because Johnson embraces a thoughtful conceit and lets it structure the film like DNA. Every scene, character and subplot relates obliquely to this DNA strand, even embedding time travel’s mystical dimension into virtuoso sequences of sex and violence.  An all-around brilliantly conceived and executed film, ‘Looper’ vindicates its conceit, genre, performers and director.

Classic Review: The Sixth Sense

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A thoughtful, philosophical horror film that’s one of the best ever made.

Review:  Of all the films nominated for Best Picture, only four have been horror films; ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Jaws’, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Sixth Sense’.  What these works have in common is that they use horror as a gateway into otherwise inaccessible realms of human drama, in contrast to the low-brow horror film which promotes fear for fear’s sake.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ attempts to open the minds of the audience to the weight of human beings on their world.  Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it’s undeniable that the dead have a far-reaching influence on the lives of their loved ones and the places they inhabited.  The belief in ghosts is the belief that this influence is not limited to the past.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ counters the use of ghost stories for cheap scares with the conviction that true horror lies in the breakdown of communication between human beings, living and dead.

The central relationship is between Bruce Willis’ character, a child psychologist named Malcolm, and Haley Joel Osment’s character, a profoundly disturbed little boy named Cole.  All ghost stories are fundamentally about the collision between past and future.  Malcolm’s tragic past entangles him, and it creates a rift between him and Cole, whose ability to lucidly experience the supernatural both empowers and cripples him.

Cole’s subverted wide-eyed wonder is the fountainhead of the film’s horror and plays in a very Spielbergian manner.  It’s a remarkably simple premise and a testament to the proper use of ideas.  Too many films lack a powerful idea at the center and thus attempt to patch up their flaws with a thousand weak concepts.  Shyamalan, whatever his flaws, has steadfast faith in his simplest ideas, which is more than most filmmakers can show.  It’s that faith that has a hypnotic effect on the audience and makes cinema work.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ is slow, measured, and thoughtful, letting suspense build and the characters breathe and feel real.

It’s common in the postmodern world to deny the supernatural, but the belief in ghosts, true or not, says something profound about what people think of each other.  Ghosts are often seen as invaders, intruding on everyday life with the whispers of an unresolved past.  They’re scary because they’re people like us.  Perhaps in today’s world, we no longer believe in ghosts for the same reason we find it difficult to speak to our neighbors.  We want insulation.  Jean Paul Satre believed that hell was other people, and it’s a prevailing idea; hauntings suggest that we live in a very crowded hell.

‘The Sixth Sense’ is one of the best horror films ever made.  It’s paradoxically mature and child-like, which is the condition we’ll need to embrace if we want to start believing in ghosts again.

Cult Classic: Unbreakable

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary:  Introspective and powerful, M. Night’s second film touches the heart and stirs the mind.

You have to have the right kind of expectation.

You have to have the right kind of expectation.

Review:  After the smash hit ‘The Sixth Sense’ left horror/thriller fans and movie fans in general out of breath, many expected M. Night Shyamalan’s next film to repeat the success and leave another indelible imprint in our popular imagination.  Perhaps it did, but it did so in a way people did not expect.  Unfortunately for the ambitious director, the studio was intent on capitalizing on ‘The Sixth Sense’ to sell ‘Unbreakable’.  M. Night was not pleased.  They are completely different films, despite sharing the same star, a similar production crew, and twist ending.  ‘Unbreakable’ is a thoughtful, slow, careful drama that has the power to rend your heart and provoke your mind.  The studio didn’t sell it as such, leading to the disappointment of filmgoers.  Since its initial lackluster run, however, it has found new life and finally, a home in the hearts of a cult following.

It spins the tale of a security guard, David Dunn, played by a very quiet Bruce Willis.  He is haunted by a mysterious, handicapped, comic book historian, Elijah Price, who believes that David is some kind of superhero.  You see, David was involved in a horrific train wreck, which killed everyone on board, except him.  He doesn’t know what to think, but after unexplainable things begin to happen to him, he has to turn to Elijah for answers.

The film touches on the most universal of questions: The meaning of life.  Is there a reason why David survived?  Is there a reason why Elijah was born with his debilitating condition?

Wrapping up this story is a sense of art direction both subdued and unforgettable.  M. Night frames his shots as if they were frames in a comic book, and even uses certain colors and color coordination to draw our attention to certain people at certain times… just like a comic book.  This is brilliant.

Backing the emotion is James Newton Howard, M. Night Shyamalan’s composer of choice.  Mr. Howard brings no bombast or silliness, only a quiet, stirring reflective spirit, until the danger, both spiritual and physical, rises, when he unleashes the pent up emotions within the central themes.  Violins dominate the orchestral selection, except a quiet, almost mournful heroic tune, played by a sparse brass section.

Bruce Willis is excellent.  It’s hard to say more.  Samuel L. Jackson, as Elijah Price, makes you truly care about his often suspicious character.

As a unique take on the superhero genre, it definitely left a mark on my mind, and I’m sure it has on many others.