Rian Johnson's stunning science-fiction thriller "Looper" is a movie that works because it takes time travel seriously.
Some filmmakers don't, which is how we get movies like "Men in Black 3." But Johnson thinks through the implications and ramifications of time travel, realizing that time is not linear but a never-ending series of back-and-forth elliptical progressions and regressions, each affecting and altering the next. Fans of the classic British series "Doctor Who," which also is serious about time travel even when it's whimsical in other areas, have been given a shorthand for this: "Timey-wimey."
"Looper" begins with a fascinating premise: In the future, about 2070 or so, time travel will be invented but it will be outlawed, and only crime syndicates will be able to use it. Also, "CSI"-style technology will advance to where it's impossible to dispose of a body, so crime lords will take care of matters by sending unwanted people 30 years into the past, where assassins called "loopers" will wait to kill the person and burn the evidence.
In Kansas, 2044, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a "looper" and gets paid handsomely for his work. Silver ingots are strapped to his victims just before they are sent back to him. Joe saves his money, except for what he uses to buy the era's current designer drug and entertain his stripper girlfriend (Piper Perabo).
Joe knows he won't live forever, because at some point the bosses in the future will "close the loop" by sending his older self back to be killed. His best friend, played by Paul Dano, becomes a case study in why it's not smart to "let your loop run" allowing your future self to live as Johnson reveals in an early sequence that's cleverly shocking.
But when Joe does meets his older self (played by Bruce Willis), something interesting happens. Actually, two interesting things happen. Johnson shows us the aftermath of one outcome which leads to another outcome 30 years later. Without getting all timey-wimey, just know that there's a multileveled chase as young Joe tries to find old Joe, while old Joe embarks on a desperate mission of his own.
Oh, and there's a farm woman (Emily Blunt) with a little boy (Pierce Gagnon) caught up in it all.
Gordon-Levitt and Willis pair up nicely, even though they scarcely look alike. Some prosthetic makeup work on Gordon-Levitt helps bridge the gap, as does his humorous re-creation of Willis' trademark mannerisms. In a scene opposite a crime boss, deftly played by Jeff Daniels, Gordon-Levitt gets the Willis squint down cold. The transition isn't perfect, but the exciting action lets you forgive and forget quickly.
Johnson, who worked with Gordon-Levitt in his high-school noir debut "Brick," creates in "Looper" a fascinating look at the future, alternately gritty and shiny, and without trafficking in too many "Blade Runner" references. Johnson's script is sharp and full of surprises, and his direction builds on the optimistic tone that is inherent in the best time-travel stories: the idea that there are always second chances to fix past mistakes.
An assassin is confronted with his future, and his past, in this smart and thrilling sci-fi drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 28.
Rating • R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content.
Running time • 118 minutes.