Rian Johnson’s new film, and his first foray into sci-fi, is of the rare sort in the genre that manages to create a well-defined world, compelling characters and a top-notch story.

Rian Johnson crafts a sci-fi film in the vein of Blade Runner and with a time travel story as circular and, yes, as confusing as Terminator 2. That confusion, unfortunately, is just part of the time travel trope but a great director can distract the audience from any implausibilities, and confusion, and just get on with the story. Johnson does this with aplomb by creating a future world, mostly set in 2044, that not only feels as fully fleshed out as anything since the benchmark Blade Runner but is also a world that serves the story rather than vice-versa. Too many sci-fi stories become caught up in the minutiae of the world it inhabits but, like any great film, it must be grounded in a good story and fully realized characters. Johnson has both in spades.

The film opens in 2044 and introduces Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a professional killer known as a Looper. In 30 years time—from 2044—time travel will be invented and immediately outlawed, with only crime syndicates using it to send back their marks to be killed and their bodies disposed of discreetly. Joe serves Abe (Jeff Daniels), who has been sent back from the future to watch over the Loopers and has become the puppet master of Kansas City in the meantime. Joe does his job, and he does it well. But soon other Loopers are tasked with closing their loop. That is, they’re tasked with killing their 30-year-old future selves. This is a necessary, and inevitable part of the job, to cut all loose ends. As compensation for having only 30 years left to live, they’re given a heftier pay day than usual and cut loose to live as they wish. However, it starts happening more frequently and word is there’s a new future boss, only known as The Rainmaker, who’s closing all loops for unknown reasons.

It really hits home for Joe after his best friend Seth (Paul Dano in a scene-stealing performance) allows his future self to run and is, therefore, on the run himself. Soon Joe meets his own elder self in Bruce Willis, who manages to knockout Young Joe and escape. Once Young Joe awakens, he knows all too well the consequences of allowing a mark, even if it’s himself, escape. Instead of death, Young Joe will be mutilated because killing the younger body would cause a paradox in the time travel loop. As Abe admits in a meeting with Young Joe, and one which Old Joe reiterates later, trying to understand the consequences and complexities of time travel is at once migraine-inducing and also useless as it won’t help the situation at hand. It’s at once a funny in-joke about the plausibility of time travel films but also a sincere statement from Johnson to suspend belief, when needed, and to just enjoy the ride. It helps that Johnson creates a story as intriguing as any in the genre — two men trying to survive in spite of each other, only they are actually the same person at different points in their lives.

Honestly, to say much more about the plot would rob the viewers of the surprise and subtlety of Johnson’s film, suffice it to say that Young Joe and Old Joe are ultimately at odds with each other. The real ingenuity, and biggest gamble, is to recreate Gordon-Levitt as a younger Bruce Willis. Willis is left unaltered, inhabiting Old Joe as himself, but Gordon-Levitt’s face and voice are transformed to resemble Willis. While not incredibly drastic, it’s just enough to truly believe they are the same and Gordon-Levitt loses himself fantastically in the role. For a film that excels in almost every way from special effects, a superb script to exceptional directing, it’s a uniformly excellent cast that puts the final nail in the coffin. Gordon-Levitt is the bow that ties it all together and it’s possibly his best role yet, as he inhibits Willis without any sort of CGI makover, instead using the age-old movie magic trick of makeup and great acting. Similarly, Willis and Daniels  are as good as they’ve ever been and, despite having a small role, Dano proves he’s one of the best, and possibly most underutilized, actors working today. Then there’s Emily Blunt (who Young Joe meets on a farm later) who also gives what’s most likely the best role of her career. And any fans of Johnson’s cult debut Brick will recognize Noah Segan as Kid Blue, a wily, young henchman of Abe’s. It’s rare that a film can come together in almost every possible way and still boast career-best performances from almost it’s entire cast.

Many will leave the theater debating the plausibility of the story, or trying to explain it. And while that’s part of the fun of any time travel flick –and, indeed, for Looper as well– that isn’t Rian Johnson’s endgame. Instead he creates a sci-fi flick that is as much a character piece as Brick or his criminally underrated second feature The Brothers Bloom. Johnson is definitely interested in exploring an alter-reality and playing within the genre but he’s ultimately focused on creating a film that’s just as emotionally satisfying. Fortunately, he pulls it off with a film that can stand up proudly next to any classic in the genre. More than that, it’s just an excellent film.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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