Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Time Paradox is Nothing but a Loop: Several Time Issues Within Looper

Within the movie Looper, there are several plays with time that come into effect not only for the story of the movie itself, but as a means of commentary on today’s society. The movie was released in 2012 and starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. Looper is based around a crime organization 30 years into the future from when the movie takes place, which is 2044. The crime organization uses time travel as a means of getting rid of bodies from the future when it is otherwise impossible to do so by sending them back in time. The people that live 30 years in the past are called loopers, they kill the people sent back and make money in the process. When the organization in the movie no longer needs the looper, they send their loop back in time with a giant pay day, which closes the loop for the looper.

One of the first elements that I noticed in this movie is the constant view of a clock. Throughout the movie the main character, Joe, looks at a pocket watch that he carries. Whenever he is hired to kill someone, he is left a note at his place that reads 11:30. When this happens, he goes to his kill site and watches his clock. As soon as 11:30 hits his target appears and he kills them. This plays an important role in two different ways for Joe. The first is that it shows the significance of time for Joe. He only watches and cares about the time in reference to when he is supposed to kill someone. The second is that it shows when in his life things change, as his older self appears late coming through time, indicating to him that something is off. Within the same context, the older Joe also carries the same watch. For him though, it is a reminder that he is fighting for his future wife. He keeps a picture of her in the watch. Whenever older Joe looks at it, it’s not the time he is looking at but at his wife. This subtly shows the changes between young Joe and old Joe. Finally, there are often points in the movie where various characters make references to clocks or watches or time. One of the big ones that stood out to me was the crime boss in 2044, Abe. He makes a comment about how he saved Joe after Joe had tried stealing a watch from one of his stores in town. This reference, along with Abe’s constant looks at the clock throughout the movie, indicate an importance of time for the movie.

Within this movie, there is also commentary on the time in which it was made. One thing I noted was the fact that early on in the movie, Joe speaks as a third person narrator to tell the audience about TKs. TKs were people that were able to use telekinesis and he makes a subtle reference to when it was first discovered. He mentions that the world believed they would get superheroes, instead they got a bunch of assholes that could hover a quarter in the air. I found this reference important for two reasons. The very first one was the fact that superhero movies were just beginning to slam the movie market. The same year that this movie came out, The Avengers came out as well. Besides The Avengers, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Series was being released, the X-Men franchise was still going on, and Spider-Man was back into reboot. I felt that this was a direct comment on the superhero franchise gaining power. It was a nod that, in the future, superheroes wouldn’t matter and the most we would get, is indeed, a bunch of assholes. Same could be said for the Rain Maker. Up until the very end of the movie, it’s known that in the future the Rain Maker is a powerful being that uses his powers for evil. Another commentary saying that even if we had superpowers, they would be used in the wrong way. In this view, and looking at it from the scope of a post 9/11 movie, it’s interesting to note that the world was more a dystopia. Gangs ruled certain areas and many of the loopers found their way into the business because they weren’t “very forward thinkers.” In the case of Joe, both his young self and old self find themselves in the predicament they’re in due to trauma, which seems to be a common theme with the play of time. Older Joe is there because of the lost of his wife. Younger Joe is there because his parents gave him away instead of taking care of him.

Getting back into the discussion of temporality itself in the movie, one of the big things that was at place was the idea of a time loop itself, or a time paradox. Within 30 minutes of the movie, the directors do a great job of trying to show the audience, and possibly even shove it down your throats a bit, that the movie is one giant loop up until the end. We get this idea right away with the quick montage scene with young Joe in the beginning. After the first time we see him kill a man, he cashes in his money, gets high on drugs, and parties through the night. After that, the director’s throw in a montage of the same things over and over again. Show Joe looking at his watch which shows 11:30, kill a man, go to a diner, get drugs, party. Rinse and repeat. It isn’t until his friend Seth’s older self escapes from Seth that the story changes and leaves the loop, but only for a short time. From there, we go to when Joe has to kill his loop and fails. The scene plays through, with Joe eventually falling and becoming unconscious. From there, we see a new scene play out, where Joe’s loop comes back in time and doesn’t escape and Joe kills him. It then plays out the rest of Joe’s life up until the present moment where young Joe is unconscious. From here the audience is left to understand that they are in a loop, or time paradox. The writers of the movie even take the time to have Joe explain the idea of a paradox at the end for those who don’t understand.

There was another aspect of the movie that also seemed to resonate with me in the idea of time, which is simply known as the butterfly effect. There aren’t a ton of things that happen to show this instance happening constantly, but enough to make the viewer realize that there is a cause and effect with time travel. One of the first is with Seth and his older self. After Joe sells out Seth, they begin to torture Seth and cutting off limbs before killing him. As this happens, Seth’s older self begins to mutate and become an amputee. This helps to prompt the viewers to know that whatever happens to the young version of a looper will affect the older version of the Looper. This idea then plays out with both versions of Joe. He carves into his arm to get his older version to meet him in a destination. His younger self gets part of his ear shot off, the older version has an disfigured ear. What was interesting to me was one small moment that they had later on the movie. Older Joe tells the younger version of himself that him and his wife would be unable to have children. Later on, after older Joe kills a child that turns out to not be the Rain Maker, he stumbles into a park and begins to cry. As he does, he has a flashback to his time with his wife. In this new flash back they are lying in bed and they can hear the cries of an infant and they smile. This indicates that the butterfly effect extends beyond just what happens to the looper.

This movie, despite a few critics saying that it ripped off other science fiction movies based around time, played with several key elements that are found in many narratives dealing with time and time travel. It hints at the importance of time itself. It gives social commentary about our current society. In a deals with potential trauma as a post 9/11 movie. It deals with the idea of a time paradox developing with the play of time travel. Finally, it also goes into the theory of the butterfly effect and the problems it can place on the future.


  1. It's interesting that Looper uses time as a motif rather than as a device, as in the movie that I watched (Jack). I've only seen the movie all the way through once and have watched portions maybe a couple times, so I only remembered the looping and having to kill his older self. I'm interested, though, in the social commentary. I think it's a very dystopian storyline; look at how we have created this control for the betterment of society through looping, when in reality only a few people benefit and many others are harmed by it. While I don't think it's arguing in favor of fate, I do think it's arguing in letting everything run its natural course. Since I didn't remember many details, applying the butterfly effect to this movie was new to me; it would be interesting to re-watch it now and look for those small differences that have large effects. I have taught "Sound of Thunder" many times and enjoy teaching the concept of the butterfly effect to my students (and then watching "The Simpsons" parody).

  2. It's interesting that you mention that time is associated with different things to different people, or at least different versions of them. As we did on the first day of class and discussed how our life could me measured, it seems like younger Joe measures his time in life with killing and money while the older Joe measures his with the time he can spend with his wife. I feel like at different points in our lives, we also associate time with different aspects of our current experiences.

    This movie seems to contradict the kind of time travel that is presented in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure that Kyle reviewed. The "future," if you will, is more of a utopia because of time travel rather than a dystopia, as presented in Looper. I agree that this is probably most likely due to a stronger focus on societal critiques. Even though in this movie they have the ability to time travel--they have this "most excellent" technology--it is still being used to the advantage of crime organizations. Whatever "assholes" can use to satisfy their wants to maintain their position in society, whatever that may look like, will be used in order to secure that position. These powerful technologies of our times (like guns and stolen identities through the Internet for now) are all too tempting to be used in less than noble ways.

  3. I never noticed the connection of TKs with Hollywood's depiction of superheroes in the 21st century, but I agree that in a future when time travel and other rapid technological advances occur, those with powers would most likely use them to their own advantage, not in a Christlike way of protecting the meek from themselves via an enlightened path. Both Looper and Source Code provide opportunities for questioning our ability as humans to control power, that is, not use it in a way that would exploit others for our own gain.

  4. As an undergraduate, I took a horror screenplay writing class, and one of our assignments included a 10 min. presentation on how a contemporary film, horror genre or not, could be considered truly horrific if we considered specific aspects of the film in regard to how the horror genre is defined. Our definition went something like this: The film must contain some type of inescapable fear in which the characters can only save themselves by dying or radically altering their sense of selves. I specifically remember one student using "Looper" as an example, so when you mentioned that most critics said it ripped off other science fiction films, I was quite surprised. If I remember correctly, the student explained the film and its use of time in a way that did indeed fit into our definition of horror—both the loop of time and the butterfly effect as means that ultimately do not allow for escape, other than through death. Because of this, I wonder if it isn't necessarily fair for critics to judge the film based on its qualifications as a science fiction film. I'm not claiming that time, temporality, memory structure, and the others topics we have been discussing in class can always be attributed to the horror genre, but I do think that "Looper" itself, although very much science fiction, might have been more well-received if the film had been viewed through the horror genre lens. What kind of things do we look for in a horror film that are present within "Looper"? Then again, what kind of things are present in a science fiction film that these critics believe that "Looper" either ripped off or executed poorly? Is there space ( for these two genres to coincide? Or is the variety between them too vast that it might even be considered silly to try?

    1. Your assignment raises a lot of important questions regarding genre, especially how problematic the term is, considering how confusing it is for some people, as it has different connotations. I think movies are generally marketed to fit, usually in a cookie-cutter way, a concrete genre, such as sci-fi or horror, but your point of reimagining movies in a way that disrupts monolithic categorization provides a unique opportunity to open up interpretation for viewers, as well as new ways for screenwriters to play with genre in productive ways.

  5. Ty, I thoroughly enjoyed your insights. Although I enjoy the film Looper quite a bit and have seen it many times, I never really gave any notice to the fact that Joe only really checks or cares about the time when a job and/or payday is involved. I appreciate your linking the article that criticizes the film as well, mostly because the author admits that there's is "no original idea" anymore before bashing Looper for "ripping off" other films and stories. The criticism points out some important things of note to the film.

    The time travel aspect of the film is obviously the most important, and the entire film could have went off of the aspect of time travel and its usage for the entire film. Instead, as you mention, they introduce the idea of "TKs" which then becomes the main aspect of the film (rather than the time travel). I am unsure if this was even necessary for the film (although it was necessary to the plot that was given). Like the critic, I feel that the TK aspect of the narrative is a bit contrived whereas the time travel aspect felt it was more important and reliable.

    I like that you pointed out (albeit with minor spoilers) about the use of time travel as a motif as element of the film as well. Because every time travel narrative uses time travel in different ways and creates different "rules" for time travel, it is important that you noted how time travel is allowed to work in the film, such as the Butterfly Effect example. In Looper, things that get changed in the past ultimately affect the future (such as the "young" Seth being tortured, leaving the "old" Seth to be mutilated onscreen in real time for the viewer). But unlike most Butterfly Effect narratives, Looper allows the past and future to be "connected" in a way that allows the different parts of the timeline to interact with one another rather than being independent timelines, such as the reboot Star Trek films (where in one timeline, the Romulan homeworld is destroyed and in the other it is intact, and Nero, a Romulan warlord, is stuck inbetween the timelines).

  6. "It was a nod that, in the future, superheroes wouldn’t matter and the most we would get, is indeed, a bunch of assholes." I laugh because the latest superhero movie was Deadpool: the asshole-iest asshole to ever asshole. I do believe that, should people get these extra powers, most wouldn't use them for good. Look at our government. They get another kind of power and it almost always goes to their heads. Superpowers will act the same way. I definitely see the critique of superheroes as a critique on people in power.