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.