Monday, April 1, 2013

Alex Sayf Cummings: Time, Fate, and the History of the Future in Looper

Time, Fate, and the History of the Future in “Looper”
by Alex Sayf Cummings
Tropics of Meta

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

Time travel has not yet been invented but 30 years from now, it will have been. I am one of many specialized assassins in our present called loopers. So when criminal organizations in the future need someone gone, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future. Loopers are well paid. We live the good life and the only rule is never let your target escape, even if your target is you.

My furtive love for the dystopian sci-fi genre is no secret to regular readers of ToM. Children of Men is, to me, the superlative example of how to explore contemporary social issues and cultural anxieties by telling stories about the near future in recent film. Take Shelter, Melancholia, and numerous other works have contributed to this vein of filmmaking, even if they do not push the premise or scenario out very far into the future. Still, the fundamental questions that great science fiction poses—who are we, and who would we be in the event of drastically different, often catastrophic circumstances—are present in these films and many other, widely varying works, from LOST to Battlestar Galactica.

The new film Looper, by the wunderkind director of the much-loved indie gem Brick, Rian Johnson, addresses many of the classic themes of science fiction: fate, time travel, social injustice, and the role of the individual in the face of great, grinding processes of politics and technology. Like the classic characters in film noir and crime drama—think of Sterling Hayden in Kubrick’s early film The Killing, or Leonard DiCaprio in The Departed—the characters in Looper find themselves nearly outmatched by forces of bureaucracy, technology, organized crime, and even time itself. Can one person matter? Are the fates of people and societies “overdetermined,” as historians might put it, by structures of power and privilege that make only certain outcomes possible, regardless of what anyone does?

The contradictory premise of Looper does not help much in answering these questions, as even the most cursory inspection of the film’s plot results in dumbfoundment. The writer/director actually dismisses such qualms in his own script, having characters editorialize that “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws” and “This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.” Message: don’t worry about it. Just follow along and enjoy the dramatic and ethical dilemmas that arise, without worrying about the mechanics of time travel and causation.

It is a bold gambit on the part of Johnson, admitting, in effect, this won’t add up—it never does. But let me try out these dramatic scenarios on you, in a future (Kansas in the year 2044) that has a future of its own (2074), where time travel exists. In essence, America in 2044 is a kind-of, sort-of wasteland riddled by widespread poverty and drug addiction—seemingly symptoms of an economic crash—though some manage to make a decent living amid tent cities and vagrancy. An unnamed metropolis has emerged in the cornfields of Kansas, and it is home to the protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He is a ragamuffin who was sold into slavery by his junkie mother as a baby, and who only escaped by being offered a job as a “looper” by avuncular crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels).

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