If you can get past the eyebrows, you might find yourself enthralled by one of the best sci-fi movies of the 2010s.
10 years ago, actor and skinny tie aficionado Joseph Gordon-Levitt was at the height of his leading man status when director Rian Johnson and artist Kazuhiro Tsuji gave one of the sexiest men alive uncomfortable blue contacts and prosthetic lips, nose, and eyebrows.
The goal was to make the actor resemble a young Bruce Willis, which is as strange to think about now as it was then. But it somehow works onscreen, most of the time. And everything else in Looper works so well it’s easy to forgive the subtle friction to the senses that is seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt with Charlie Chan eyebrows.
Looper, an original sci-fi with action noir seasoning, threw audiences for, well, a loop with its polished storytelling and refreshingly grounded worldbuilding. Released in the same summer that saw The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises rule theaters, Looper was one of the final gasps of original, non-IP movies making bank before Hollywood’s economics became severe. It’s also the sci-fi movie you need to see before it leaves Netflix on June 30.
In the year 2074, time travel is possible but illegal. It’s therefore a black market technology used by organized crime to send targets back to be murdered and disposed of without any trace of the crime happening. Those in 2044 who do the jobs are “loopers.” They get their name because, eventually, these hit men “close the loop” when they’re assigned to terminate their older selves. In exchange, they receive a fat stack of gold bars and a retirement of about 30 years to enjoy their wealth.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young looper living a life of luxury until the day to close his loop is messed up by his older self (Bruce Willis). Young Joe learns from old Joe that in the future their industry is dominated by a mysterious figure known as The Rainmaker, who’s forcibly closing all loops. Determined to save both their lives, young and old Joe engage in a complicated game of cat and mouse while searching for the Rainmaker’s past identity.
What’s most remarkable about Looper is its tight storytelling. It’s complicated, but Johnson’s deliberate pace and smart, entertaining filmmaking — Joe’s first murder in the movie is as abrupt as a jump scare — demonstrates an impressive balancing act of unwieldy complexity and easy-to-grasp simplicity. Plainly said, it’s just nice when a movie feels as effortless and efficient as Looper.
The action of Looper is also indicative of the movie’s lean, muscular stature. There’s plenty of gunfire and things that go boom, but the obvious green screen set pieces and comic book maximalism of 21st century blockbusters are absent. In a lot of ways Looper feels old school, comparable to the first Die Hard or Total Recall rather than its contemporaries.
A critical confrontation between the Joes, evocative of Pacino/de Niro in Heat, ends in what’s arguably one of the more tightly directed shootouts of modern cinema. It isn’t elaborate like 2009’s Wanted or fun like 2017’s Baby Driver, but again, there’s elegance in simplicity.
Looper even has artistic and structural hints of Johnson’s next movie, the divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Like Last Jedi, Looper has flashes of abrupt and ironic humor, characters spiritually tortured by an unknowable lineage, and long stretches in a remote, rural land (overseen in Looper by Emily Blunt’s Sara, a single mom) where the protagonist finds spiritual renewal.
But while The Last Jedi is clear about its championing of individuality, not to mention the power of belief in stories, Looper is more lost in the fields, unable to find a side in the conflict of fate and free will. It also places value in skepticism of whatever story people tell you about themselves.
Looper doesn’t quite foreshadow what was to come from Johnson as a storyteller. The Last Jedi was a big franchise sequel that found impossible zen amid corporate chaos, while 2019’s Knives Out was a deliciously funny satire of paperback murder mysteries and an excuse to dress an A-list ensemble in cozy sweaters. Looper, a sober sci-fi noir with more muted palettes, is crystallizing into an anomaly in Johnson’s increasingly colorful oeuvre. It may not be Rian Johnson’s best movie, but it’s one you cannot miss. Just don’t get distracted by the makeup.
Looper is streaming on Netflix until June 30.