/ Nathan Pensky / 9 am Fri, Oct 12 2012
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  • The Mixed Magic of “Looper” (SPOILERS)

    The Mixed Magic of “Looper” (SPOILERS)

    Looper is an elegant, beautifully rendered time travel story with quality performances and cool action sequences…completely hijacked in its second half by an evil kid who talks like a 50-year-old man.

    Looper is an elegant, beautifully rendered time travel story with quality performances and cool action sequences…completely hijacked in its second half by an evil kid who talks like a 50-year-old man.

    To be fair, I was expecting a lot from “Looper”. I’m a big fan of time travel movies, and I was more than ready for writer/director Rian Johnson, whose noir update “Brick” I absolutely adored, to offer an equally clever Science Fiction film. So to watch something as unique as the first half of “Looper” be ruined in the second was more than a little upsetting.

    Worse, the problems with the film were straight-forward. This was no amorphous conundrum floating in the back of my mind as I filed out the movie theater; I knew exactly what was wrong as soon as the credits rolled. The kid needed to be older, and all the telekinesis nonsense should have been thrown out the window.

    Concerning the first issue, there’s no reason why on God’s green earth a toddler should be trading dialogue with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. That’s just bizarre.

    How sad to see that tired old stock horror movie trope “the evil child” trotted out, followed closely by its dim-witted cousin “the unknowable genius”. The former deals in the visual expectations of the audience regarding children, as in “Why does that cute kid have that evil look on his face? And why does the lighting and score seem to position him as a villain? He’s a kid! He can’t be evil! That’s nutty!” The “unknowable genius” trope, on the other hand, only works well in stories set in a realistic world, where a clearly defined knowledge schema is well established before the “genius character” wildly surpasses it. Having a “genius character” in a science fiction setting, where time travel is possible, is no more or less interesting (though a lot more distracting) than the sudden appearance of flying cars in the third act.

    As for the second complaint, that takes a bit of explaining.

    Time travel is one of the classic Science Fiction sub-genres that start to break into Fantasy territory, where tech gadgetry pushes into the realm of magic. And as most Fantasy devotees will attest, magic needs rules. However, what isn’t talked about as much, or not as explicitly, is that Fantasy stories not only must follow rules mythologically, but the aesthetic forms presenting that mythology must cohere to their content.

    Typically time travel stories have a baseline level of conflict built into them. The time-travelling characters are practical-minded scientists who don’t consider the metaphysical underpinnings of subverting the normal experience of time. The classic illustration of the problem goes, “What would happen if you travelled back in time and killed your own grandfather?” Barring parallel universes -- which, as “LOST” showed us, make for terrible storytelling -- these metaphysical quandaries thematically distinguish between what science can do and what it should do. What comes of the exercise is that one shouldn’t trifle with time, that there are some things better left alone. But in the process of learning that lesson, a lot of fun adventures happen, where the characters try to get back to where (and when) they once belonged.

    But what’s important about all this is that time travelling characters have very little agency. They have rebelled against the natural order, and, finding that order to be bigger than them, they need to set things right.

    But stories with telekinesis need a different aesthetic approach. Stories involving telekinetic characters, who are typically mousy oddballs with unwanted powers, live on the complete opposite side on the “character agency” spectrum. Where time travel characters race against the clock, finding along the way that they must adhere to the natural order, telekinetic characters are, by definition, manipulating that order. Character-wise, they are coming of age and breaking out of classical forms, where time travellers are returning home to embrace classical forms.

    In other words, as Fantasy tropes go, time travel and telekinesis are very different animals.

    In the case of “Looper,” telekinesis being a more “agented” sort of magic, the creepy Rainmaker kid functions as an awful Deus Ex Machina to the other characters dealing with their typical time travel problems. Young Joe needs to kill his future self and set the time continuum right again? No problem. The Rainmaker will distract the audience from these tensions of setting and character by conjuring a hurricane out of nowhere and making stuff float for a while.

    And yet it’s important to note that this is an aesthetic distinction, not a mythological one. In one sense, the Rainmaker character doesn’t serve as a Deus Ex Machina at all. Plot-wise, he’s the one who needs saving after all. Mythologically, “Looper” goes to great pains in following its own rules, and that includes the telekinesis. Time travel and telekinesis don’t really intersect but run parallel, each with their own rules and their own sets of difficulties.

    Rather, the flaw that I mean has more to do with tone than plot. Because tonally the telekinesis and time travel don’t run parallel at all, but intersect often and clumsily. Once telekinesis is introduced as a serious force in the story, all the carefully crafted tensions inherent to the time travel aesthetic are (literally) exploded. Once the audience sees a kid who can overturn a truck with his mind, watching a man disappear to a different timeline seems hollow and pointless, a plot contrivance.

    Previously: An incredibly spoiler-filled take on Looper's MacGuffin (SPOILERS)

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