On Time Travel Films 1
***SPOILERS for Looper***
Recently I saw Looper, the latest film featuring time travel, which joins the illustrious line of other films on this theme over the last 30 years or so. I love love love this theme in fiction, from the Terminator series, to the Back to the Future series, Flight of the Navigator, 12 Monkeys, Frequency, Kate & Leopold, Timeline, Primer, The Butterfly Effect, Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel, Source Code, and Midnight in Paris. And those are just the ones I can remember and care to mention here. It’s taken me a week to post this blog, though, for reasons that will become apparent below.
The above list is diverse in tone and sub-genre; some are comedies, some action; some are light, others very very dark. But like all good science fiction, the movies featuring time travel generally deal with the impact of the travelling on people. Preferably, they are people we care about. As is true of all stories.
Now, I liked Looper a lot. It liked its treatment of the time-travel world-rules. The first 30-45 mins were especially engaging: the premise was a good one and set up with minimal fuss and maximum impact. And that scene with the other escaped Loop? Oh my god, fantastic!! Around half-way, though, the movie takes what felt like a rather abrupt U-turn into a different kind of film. A discontinuity, which could be a nice touch considering the subject matter. And despite the end of the film becoming a blend of counter-T2, X-Men 3 and The Butterfly Effect, I still enjoyed it. So, that discontinuity itself isn’t what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to examine when I first wrote this blog is how that bump could have been a tad smoother; how I could have felt less like the movie the beginning set up wasn’t the one we got.
At first, I felt the principle reason for this was lack of future stakes. In any film where the plot asks a character to change the past in order to change the future (which isn’t all films in the genre), we get some idea of what that future could look like. In Terminator (1 and 2 – I pretend the others don’t exist) this is done with short, powerful sequences showing the rebels battling Skynet. In 12 Monkeys, we see the post-apocalyptic landscape. The Butterfly Effect spends all its sequences playing out the possible scenarios. So, when I first saw Looper, it felt glaring to me that Bruce Willis’s character is out to kill three children on the premise of a terrible future leader we never see. Yes, said leader has killed Bruce’s wife, but we don’t get invested in his relationship with her. So, it feels unbalanced – three kids for a wife doesn’t quite compute. And this twist in the plot comes so late in the film that it’s difficult to switch investment. We get a tantalising glimpse of said future with the pilgrim-hatted bad-guys who take Bruce to the time machine, but a glimpse is all it is.
But then, a friend pointed out that I’d kinda missed the point. And so I thought about it. And thought about it some more. Ok, so we’re not supposed to root for Bruce. He’s selfish; the end badness of a generally bad life. I couldn’t help feeling that the tension could have been greater if my allegiance could have been made as grey and morally ambiguous as the characters (which were well done generally, I thought). But, ok. Alright.
Then I started thinking about how the resolution relies so much on Emily Blunt’s character, who we don’t meet until an hour into the film. I still wanted to be convinced young Joe really believed the future was really such a bad place. But as I thought about it, I realised that wasn’t his motivation. He saw the badness in himself. He didn’t need to see the future. Ok, fine.
I went through a dozen other tracks of thought about why the film didn’t quite feel right. For instance, why does Bruce’s character not act to protect himself when he realises that young Joe is being stupid and not running away like he’s said to? After all, if young Joe gets himself killed, his plan is over. For a while in that first half of the movie, I expected the film would involve the two Joes teaming up. After watching Half in the Bag’s review, I then started thinking about the issue of plot – if disposing bodies is so hard in the future, why to the pilgrim-hatted bad guys randomly shoot Bruce’s wife in the first place? And then I realised, after all this, why it’s a good film. It hasn’t left me alone. I’ve been thinking about it non-stop, and not because it annoyed me (I’m looking at you, Prometheus) but because it was intriguing.
I still have an issue with the inconsistent tone. The first half was still more engaging than the second. But maybe this is one of those cases where, for the story to be told, there isn’t a ‘fix’ that makes it perfect. Looper is a good film. And when I see it again, I’m going to be wondering about that first-half/second-half dynamic again. I’d recommend it for any sci-fi fan. Then, if you haven’t seen it, see Primer. Consistent tone, and it will bend your mind.
Love and causality 🙂 Char.