Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
PART ONE: MY ORIGINAL REVIEW, SEPTEMBER 2012
Writing about time travel movies can often be a challenge. Not only are they usually difficult to explain, but the very thing that makes them difficult is what also makes them a kick to watch. The conundrums, the paradoxes, the surprises that arise from the participants doubling back on themselves, changing their fates, and altering the course of history as they know it. In fact, there couldn't be a more perfect title for Rian Johnson's new film than Looper. It's a movie that keeps turning on itself, achieving Inception-level contradictions and revelations, and you're going to love watching it go around and around like a ferris wheel all lit up with neon lights.
Looper is set in 2044, several decades before time travel is invented. But that's the trick of time travel, you see, it can be put to use to deal with events that happened before it even existed. And people in the past can be aware it is coming. In this reality, for instance, since time travel has been outlawed in the future, only outlaws use it. The criminal underworld has found a great way to get rid of bodies: they send their victims back across the timestream, where an assassin is waiting to finish the job and dispose of the body. These triggermen are called "loopers," because it's a job with a completion date. At some point during your contract, the bosses of tomorrow will send you your golden parachute today. Your time is up, you've closed the loop.
One such looper is Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, recently seen in The Dark Knight Rises and also the star of Rian Johnson's superb debut film Brick. (He likewise had a cameo in Johnson's criminally overlooked The Brothers Bloom.) Joe is good at his job. He was homeless when he got it, another kid lost in a timeline where the economy appears to have gone in the tank even harder than it has at the moment. Joe is learning French and stockpiling the silver ingots he earns as his fee so he can go to Paris when retirement comes. He is well liked by his supervisor, a gangster from the future sent back to watch over everything. Jeff Daniels chews up the role, clearly enjoying being able to cut lose and be a cerebral bad guy. He even strikes Joe a deal when one of Joe's friends (Paul Dano, Ruby Sparks) screws up. This makes Joe think he can make things right when he screws up himself.
The worst thing a looper can do is not kill the marked man sent his way. This is what happens to Joe when he is sent a condemned future Bruce Willis playing, essentially, the mega-dangerous Bruce Willis-type. Think Die Hard by way of Twelve Monkeys. Bruce knocks him out and goes on the lam. Joe is now in trouble with his gang, and he wants to catch the fugitive first and prove he didn't do it on purpose. Things go further wrong, as they are wont to do, and Joe eventually ends up hiding out on a farm with a woman (Emily Blunt, Five-Year Engagement) and her child (Pierce Gagnon, TV's "One Tree Hill"), who are connected to the future man yet don't know they are in trouble.
And that's about all I am willing to say. Any more, and the comments section is going to light up with an angry mob carrying pitchforks and torches and demanding my head. To be honest, I actually knew less than that before going into the screening of Looper, I just needed to see that Rian Johnson was writing and directing, and I was sold on this one. I've since seen the TV commercials and am kind of surprised the marketing isn't holding back more than it is. If you haven't seen the trailer, don't bother. Stay clean! Looper is a corker of a film, one that never stops being inventive and that keeps you guessing from start to finish. You want to be able to watch it the first time and just be along for the ride; debating story and looking for hidden plot details is best left for the second and third time, if you can even stop there. When Looper ended, I'd have happily hopped in a time machine and gone back two hours to start watching it again.
Because even forgetting about all the "what the hell just happened?" moments, Looper is that good a film. It's a smart action thriller that has laughs, shocks, and even some heartfelt, tearful moments. It's superbly acted by a stellar cast--young Pierce Gagnon is one of the best child actors I've seen in a while, particularly for playing a role that is as dark as Cid--and artfully directed by an auteur in full command of his craft. Johnson knows when and how to cut, making sure that the action is always exciting and yet also knowing when he needs to give his actors the spotlight and let them make his words come alive. There is an intense scene between Willis and Gordon-Levitt in a diner where, once the performers lock down, they completely own the screen. You could probably build a whole movie out of them just talking. My Dinner with John McClane.
On top of the good stuff I have said already, the best thing I can say about Looper is that Rian Johnson manages to dig himself into a deep hole, but he makes sure to carry with him all the tools he needs to climb out. Looper is not a time travel film that falls under its own weight, tangled up in all of its twists and convolutions; it's a movie with a real pay-off. It tells a complete story that includes a satisfying ending. Go into Looper and give it your trust. Every curveball it throws out at you has a reason behind it. Even when you think the script has just made a silly move or Johnson has gotten too fancy playing with style, keep trusting it. Every little bit comes back around.
PART TWO: THE SECOND-TIME AROUND, DECEMBER 2012
The Looper BD has a 1080p, 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. This is widescreen and in high-def and it looks remarkable. The colors really pop, with sparkling neons and dazzling lens flares. Skin tones and textiles look real, and the future city looks lived in with an impressive depth of detail. Black screens are really black with no visible crush. Lines are sharp, grain is consistent, this is just perfection. Even the effects hold up, the increased clarity doesn't bust the illusion. You should particularly compare the look of the city to the countryside; both look real even though the former is more manipulated than the latter. There is a contrast in colors and lighting, but only as they should be to differentiate the locales in a way that maintains authenticity. Stunning.
The main audio is an English 5.1 STS-HD MA soundtrack. The multichannel presentation is also excellent, with good ambient sound interacting well with big-boom sound effects and industrial orchestration. All the little bits of noise are placed appropriately, and the dialogue is crisp and clear.
The only alternate audio is an audio description option in English. Subtitles are English, English SDH, and Spanish.
The Looper Blu-Ray has a variety of extras, starting with the expected audio commentary, this one featuring writer/director Rian Johnson conversing with stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt. It's a detailed track, one that digs into both the story and the production, discussing both intent and also the practicalities of the daily shoot. Both actors show an interest in the process and so actually stimulate the conversation, giving Johnson places to go. (Note: This is not the commentary that Johnson released online for theatrical viewing; you can still find that for download quite easily, though.)
The usual making-of featurettes start off disappointingly. The 8-minute "Looper: From the Beginning" provides a solid foundation for how Looper got underway, but is mainly a pretty standard talking-heads documentary. Cut from the same cloth is the 8-and-a-half-minute "The Science of Time Travel", a Blu-Ray exclusive (so not on the DVD), in which Johnson, the cast, and Brian Clegg, author of a book called Build Your Own Time Machine, share theories on time travel, past and present.
Much better is the three-part, 16-minute "Scoring Looper" section with composer Nathan Johnson. This appears to have originally been created as an online teaser. It is broken into a trio of subjects. "Field Recordings" explains how Johnson began the scoring process by recording found sounds, such as the click of a gun or the sound of paper being crumpled, and manipulating them into being "virtual instruments." The second step, "Percussion" examines the integral element of creating rhythms and how he used industrial tools to do so. "Melodic Instruments" finishes up by demonstrating how he added his found sounds to a keyboard so they could be played to create a tune, and also the addition of real brass and strings to fill them out. Each section ends with an isolated example of the score, set over footage from the movie. If you watch any of the bonus features, make it this one.
There are almost 37-minutes of deleted scenes, most of which are exclusive to Blu-Ray (5 are also on DVD, 17 are not). These are mostly extended sequences and inconsequential trims, including a few that have unfinished effects elements. There is an optional commentary with Johnson and actor Noah Segan ("Kid Blue"). While there is some creative insight to be found in hearing why certain cuts were made, the explanations get fairly dull after a while. Plus, Segan has little to offer in scenes that don't feature him.
Finally, there is an animated trailer, which was another online teaser. It's not really a style of animation I care for. It looks like digital painting over the actual footage.
All extras are in high-definition, with English soundracks mixed in stereo and optional English subtitles.
Seeing Looper again only raised my appreciation for it. Now that I know all the "secrets," I was just able to sit back and marvel at how well all the pieces are put together. It still works even when you know what's coming. Better yet, I could see more of how the construct functions, and spot more connections. It's mostly small stuff, the way gestures and behaviors connect people, how all the things we do and all that matters really does circle around. How Joe learned not to give up people he cared about for money, how Sara strokes his hair the way his mother did, how life just repeats, even as we change it. If we do, it just might repeat for the better.
I could also appreciate it more in terms of craft. What Rian Johnson and director of photography Steve Yedlin create together is beautiful. The futuristic skylines are an awe-inspiring blend of pollution and neon. It's also mind-blowing to learn from the bonus features how many special effects were done in camera and how the score was manufactured from field recordings, and then to watch it again with an eye (and ear) on the particulars. Hell, just pay attention to the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt does such an insane Bruce Willis movie through the entire two hours without ever really turning to shtick or even really losing Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (Bruce Willis himself is eventually just doing an impression of the Terminator.) Looper is going to be one of those movies I can watch a million times, like Miller's Crossing, Children of Men, or Ocean's 11: intelligent, complex genre work that never fails to surprise and entertain.
And so, I rank the Looper Blu-Ray, for both content and technical presentation, amongst the DVD Talk Collector Series. The highest possible rating we give. Meaning everyone should have a copy of Looper in their collections.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.