Saturday, September 29, 2012

Looper - A Glossary of Terms

Writers of science-fiction novels just love inventing terminology for the trappings of their sci-fi worlds. Some novels pile on the terminology so thick that, thankfully, a glossary of terms is provided. (I find sci-fi novels like that very irritating; more artful are the novels that introduce invented terms sparingly in such a way that the story teaches you the terms as you go along and a glossary is not needed.)

The problem with some sci-fi movies is that they include so many gimmicky terms that you can’t keep them straight. This is not the problem with Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller, Looper. Mercifully, Johnson has not piled on the terminology to the point of obfuscation, and the terminology invented is clearly defined by the main character's voiceover. Though the film might lose you in respects to its time-travel conundrums, it doesn’t lose you in a sea of labels.

Still, I would like to supply a glossary just for fun. Mild spoilers ahead.

Glossary of Terms:

looper, noun: a hit man from the year 2042 who is hired by a mobster from 2072 (when time travel has been invented) to assassinate enemies sent back to 2042, bound, hooded, and strapped with a payment of silver bars, to be shot and disposed of without incriminating the future mobster. Clever! In Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper who is good at his job, as you see in a repetitious montage of hits so repetitious as to be entirely tedious.

Joe kneels next to cane field holding a shotgun. Joe looks at his watch. Victim suddenly appears on a tarp waiting to receive him. Joe shoots victim. Victim flies back off tarp. Done. (So why doesn’t he place the tarp behind the spot where the victim is predestined to land?) This sequence is repeated multiple times. (Also, for security reasons, you'd think the loopers would choose a different location for each hit. Change it up a little!)

Gordon-Levitt, who is supposed to look like a younger Bruce Willis by means of prosthetics and CGI, looks like someone who had a very bad experience with a surgical makeover to the point of looking frightening throughout the film. Nevertheless, through the fearsome mask, Gordon-Levitt is able to express Joe’s developing compassion as he learns the meaning of love and family and starts to salve over inner wounds. This aspect of Joe’s moral progress gives the film heart.

blunderbuss, noun: a blunderbuss; well, it’s a futuristic firearm that looks like a mortar, but it’s still called a blunderbuss. Loopers are issued blunderbusses so they won’t miss their targets.

gat, noun: a firearm, resembling a huge Western revolver, used by the body guards and enforcers of Abe (overacted by Jeff Daniels), a mobster sent from 2072 to run the looper racket in 2042. Turns out that Abe has a supply of futuristic automatic weapons. He’d be better defended, and the film’s central conflict avoided, if his enforcers and Joe had been armed with autos.

gat man, noun: a man armed with a gat. Gat men can’t shoot the broad side of a barn. In a tribute to all those Bruce Willis action movies, and Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, Older Joe stalks through Joe’s headquarters massacring gat men with the automatic weapons they should have been carrying.

TK, noun: a telekinetic; a mutant with telekinetic powers. Most TKs only have the power to suspend a coin a few inches in the air above their hands. Male TKs do this in singles bars to impress and pick up chicks. Sara (played well by Emily Blunt) is a TK, but she has enough power to raise a lighter. Once, in a bar, she toyed with a guy by forcing his coin down so that “he couldn’t get it up.” I laughed at that one. No one else in the theater did. I think the whole film is played so blandly that there are moments intended for humor but I don’t think anyone realized they were meant for humor.

to close the loop, verb: to kill one’s “loop,” one’s thirty-years-older self, sent back with a payment of gold bars, thereby terminating the services of the looper. Once a loop has been closed, the looper lives the life of Riley for thirty years and then reaches 2072, when he has been assassinated by being put in a time machine, and vanishes.

The action starts when Joe’s loop is closed, older Joe (Bruce Willis) appears, but he’s unhooded, and he escapes assassination.

Then the story loops, so to speak, through thirty years of Joe's life in what I took as a flashback; correct me if I'm wrong. He lives his decadent, empty life until he falls in love with a beautiful Chinese woman. I liked this nifty journey into the future, a nice break from the rather boring world of 2042. Finally reaching 2072, Joe is slated for loop closing, apprehended, and taken toward the time machine, but he struggles and is able to get into the machine without hood or bonds.

This presents one of those time-travel paradoxes that always give me a headache. Okay, time travel as depicted in books and movies is impossible, but, as in The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, the novel that started them all, you just go with the premise and enjoy. Still, when a character from the present meets his “self” from the future or past, as will happen in your time-travel novel or film, it all gets too headachy for me. How can . . . ? Oh, never mind!

Anyway, Younger Joe has a problem. He can’t live the life of Riley unless he offs Older Joe. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis Joe can’t go back and enjoy the life he had with his beautiful Chinese wife unless he kills the little boy who will grow up to be the Rainmaker, a ruthless mob boss who takes over the action and decides to close all the loops. In a film that sags during it’s aimless middle, this is one of the film’s nifty surprises. I had totally expected Younger Joe to team up with Older to solve their problems, somehow, in a time-travel twist on the buddy action movie.

Doesn’t happen! Bruce Willis Joe really wants to kill kids!! Meanwhile, Younger Joe meets Sara, who is taking care of a weird little kid name Cid, who just might grow up to be the Rainmaker. And, watch out, Cid (great name for a little kid!) is a . . . (see glossary above and take a guess).

Which leads me to the final term in this glossary, and a real side-splitter.

to let your loop run, verb: As quoted from Joe’s narration, “This means letting your loop run.” I kid you not! You see, you don’t need a glossary for this movie! Seth (Paul Dano in a performance that makes his performance in There Will Be Blood look understated) is a looper who lets his loop run.

Some elements of this story are seemingly as hilarious as the voiceover definition of the above term, but I’m not sure they are staged for laughs. The story takes place in such a drab, uninteresting world, and the violence is often so sordid that I had to make an effort to laugh. No one else in the theater was laughing.

I was sitting through Looper while my daughter watched Don’t Back Down, so walking out, which I considered, would have involved roaming around the mall, so I decided to take a nap instead as the film lost momentum in the middle. Then I perked up as the film’s direction changes. Won’t spoil that, and I must admit that the film’s final twenty minutes or so made it an ultimately worthwhile experience.

I enjoyed the story this film finally becomes, but I had trouble riding along with it as it plays out during its first two thirds, especially because of the stock action and the uninteresting world in which the entire film takes place, whether that’s 2042 or 2072. Especially in the 2042 scenes, there is hardly anything to look at. A lot of the action takes place near or in a cane field. Cane field. Brown. Or in empty rooms and corridors. I suppose this sort of minimalism makes a statement about our future, but when the story and the action aren’t engaging enough to fill that world with life, you get boredom. Considering many action movies this year, you don’t need a glossary for that word.

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