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Ten Years Later, ‘Looper’ Is Worth Going Back in Time to Revisit

Before there was ‘The Last Jedi’ and ‘Knives Out,’ Rian Johnson directed an inventive, mid-budget sci-fi thriller that laid the groundwork for his mainstream success

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

While promoting his original sci-fi film Looper at Comic-Con in 2012, Rian Johnson was asked if he’d ever be tempted to work within an established franchise. “As long as I’ve got this little window where I’m able to make these things, I’m just gonna keep making original stuff, and see how long I can get away with it,” the filmmaker responded. Nobody can blame Johnson for backtracking on those comments two years later by signing up to direct a Star Wars movie—and a great one at that, no matter what toxic corners of the internet want you to believe. But at the same time, you can’t help but wonder what Johnson’s career might’ve looked like if he had followed a path that didn’t lead him to a galaxy far, far away.

It’s an interesting what-if, and it seems particularly appropriate to think about on the 10th anniversary of Looper, a film predicated on whether a person’s destiny is already set in stone, and what it would take to break from a self-perpetuating cycle. Set in 2044, Looper follows Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a triggerman, or “Looper,” working for a Kansas City crime syndicate from the future that sends targets back in time to be assassinated. By 2074, time travel will have been invented and immediately outlawed, but with forensic technology so advanced that it’s almost impossible to get away with murder, a criminal organization’s best bet is to clean up its messes in the past. For Joe, he gets cushy payouts for minimal effort—the victims are tied up and hooded by the time they’re sent through—with one important condition: At some point, he will have to murder his future self. (Or, per the movie’s parlance, “close the loop.”) Once that happens, Joe will have 30 years to live his best life before his time is up and the cycle repeats itself.

Joe’s situation is complicated when he fails to kill his older self, played by Bruce Willis, who goes into the past in order to save his—their?—future. We discover that Old Joe fell in love during his 30-year retirement, but his wife was then killed by the goons of a mob boss called the Rainmaker, who takes over all the Kansas City syndicates and begins closing every loop. Old Joe’s mission is to track down the Rainmaker as a child and kill him, thereby preventing any of this from ever happening. Essentially, Old Joe is trying to live out the Baby Hitler thought exercise as it relates to his future.

What’s so captivating about the premise of Looper is just how much Old Joe and Young Joe are at odds with one another: They might be literally the same person, but the decades separating their respective lives have made it difficult for them to find common ground. We all like to imagine that, if we were able to dole out advice to our younger selves, they would listen—Looper hinges on the friction between youth and experience. (Young Joe is annoyingly stubborn, but it doesn’t help that Old Joe looks at him with disdain over his own past choices.)

Whenever a film features time travel as prominently as Looper, it’s easy to get caught up in all the mechanics behind it. (An affliction also known as Christopher Nolan Brain.) But Looper makes it clear that the story and characters are more important than how, exactly, time travel ties everything together. As Old Joe bluntly tells Young Joe when they meet in a diner: “I don’t want to talk about time-travel shit, because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” But while Looper doesn’t foreground the science behind time travel, that doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t concerned about the larger world surrounding it: Perhaps the film’s most enduring legacy is how he’s able to craft a unique, fully formed universe from scratch.

The opening 30-odd minutes of Looper revel in all the eccentric details of its near future: There’s a new type of drug administered via eye drops that Young Joe is addicted to; a small percentage of humanity has developed minor telekinetic powers; and characters ride hoverbikes that look (and sound) like a smaller version of Star Wars’ podracers. It’s objectively silly stuff—it doesn’t help that Gordon-Levitt is sporting distracting facial prosthetics to more closely resemble Willis—but Johnson embraces the absurdity of it all with the same earnest conviction as his characters. It’s an approach that goes back to his excellent directorial debut, Brick, in which a bunch of modern high schoolers behaved like they were in a classic film noir: It feels ridiculous until you get on their wavelength.

Considering Johnson was able to create Looper on a relatively modest $30 million budget, you can see why he was an appealing choice to helm a Star Wars movie. (It probably didn’t hurt that he also directed “Ozymandias,” frequently hailed as Breaking Bad’s greatest episode, in 2013.) But another hallmark of Johnson’s filmography is that he loves subverting expectations in both his storytelling and the genre he’s working in—something that irked a vocal minority of Star Wars fans. (If you took a shot every time The Last Jedi trended on Twitter with people arguing about whether it’s good, you’d end up in the hospital.) I will always go to bat for The Last Jedi, but Johnson’s penchant for subversiveness certainly ruffled fewer feathers with Looper, which moves to an unlikely setting for the second half of the film on the way to a shocking yet inevitable conclusion.

Once Young Joe learns that Old Joe plans to find the younger Rainmaker and kill him, he tracks down one of the targets, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), on a farm outside the city. It’s there that Young Joe bonds with Cid’s mother, Sara (Emily Blunt), who gradually softens the edges of this contract killer. Naturally, Young Joe also discovers that Cid is the Rainmaker, who displays exceptional telekinetic powers that will allow him to rise up the ranks of Kansas City’s criminal underworld. Meanwhile, Old Joe’s commitment to what he believes is a worthy cause leads him to murder an innocent child in the city, a moment Willis plays with vintage pathos. (His character’s arc is basically that of the original Terminator hunting down Sarah Connor, only filled with a lot more regret over his actions.) It’s a brilliant reversal: After Young Joe is introduced as cruel and impetuous, he’s now all that stands in the way of his older self going down an even darker path.

When it comes to Looper’s version of the Baby Hitler dilemma, the movie stresses that solving violence with violence isn’t a worthy solution—it will only beget more violence. In that spirit, Looper ends with Young Joe realizing that Old Joe’s quest for vengeance is what prompts Cid to become the Rainmaker in the first place. The only way Young Joe can close the loop is by ending his own life, preventing Old Joe from finishing his mission in the process. It’s the final master stroke of Johnson’s film: In retrospect, it seems like the only way Looper could’ve ended.

After Looper became a critical and commercial success, it made perfect sense that Johnson would follow in the footsteps of countless contemporary directors who create an original hit before leveling up to direct a blockbuster tied to preestablished IP. But while it’s easy for filmmakers to get caught in an IP loop, Johnson has since made good on his promise of pursuing more original projects. Knives Out might have blossomed into a franchise of its own, but it started out as an inventive whodunit that, in typical Johnson fashion, subverted what audiences expect from a murder mystery. (The next installment of the franchise, Glass Onion, will hit theaters in November before streaming on Netflix the following month.)

Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without Looper, the kind of film that is becoming harder and harder to find just a decade after its release: a smart, original, mid-budget sci-fi completely assured in its vision. As good as Looper is, though, no movie can single-handedly disrupt the trend of IP-driven blockbusters, especially when its own director gets in on the action. But before he became the filmmaker that mainstream audiences know (and mostly love) for The Last Jedi and Knives Out, Looper showed why Rian Johnson is a true force in Hollywood.