Deep into "Looper" we meet Sara (Emily Blunt), a young mother and cane farmer in the year 2044. The moment, for science fiction, is riskily quiet — in the first blush of dusk she mimes lighting a cigarette, taking a slow drag on imagined bliss. It's also, for all the film's nodding at the genre's past, a glimpse of where sci fi is going.
"Looper" does not want for action, from the speedy, sidewalk-climbing antics of a red Miata on city streets to a parade of death in the murky glow of an underworld lair. But director Rian Johnson's twisted caper, like "Brick," his excellent, high school-set update of classic film noir, does more than prove his genre chops. "Looper" is pitched at human volume, cracking through sci fi's schematics to examine how real people might fend off the future's ample terrors.
In a single montage — one that rivals the opening minutes of Pixar's "Up" for beautiful economy — Johnson traces thirty years, capturing how we meander through time as though unaware of what's ultimately coming. Like Sara, silent on her farmhouse porch, "Looper" derives its momentum from introspection; with characters this well-drawn, the badass action sequences can't help but be compelling.
The movie crystallizes, in form if not distribution, the genre's increasing migration from multiplex to art house. Of course, the trend isn't wholly new — "Carrie," "Alien," and "Blade Runner," films to which "Looper" is clearly indebted, come to mind as earlier examples of audacious, character-driven science fiction, colored in the gray shades of a world in decay.
But in recent years, as expensive tentpoles flopped, sometimes dramatically ("John Carter"), and audiences evinced sequel fatigue, bonafide high stylists took up the apocalypse and gave it new life, in such films as "Children of Men," "Contagion," and "Melancholia," whether by breathless tracking shots, pummeling sound, or pared-down chill. In "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Andy Serkis made motion capture — and its prophetic possibilities — more emotive than live action. Even films with questionable premises ("The Adjustment Bureau") or too many untidy strands of plot ("Prometheus") suffered from too many ideas rather than too few.
More inclusive, indeed more loosely defined, science fiction in film now probes the political and personal depths that novelists working in the genre, like Margaret Atwood, have been plumbing for years. Thus "Melancholia" imagines the end of the world within its story of a failed wedding and a flailing family, rather than making its characters exist only to kill them off in the finale (it does that, too). Thus "Contagion" gives us two heroes who never come in contact, playing intertwined games with different rules — the valiant, protective father (Matt Damon), keeping quarantine as though it's the last thing left, and the cold, sharp scientist (Jennifer Ehle), breaking quarantine to save us all.
If this is where science fiction is going, to more intimate, individual, and unexpected realms, I'm in. Indeed, Johnson's film, though more rough-hewn and dirty than these, is similarly measured. Without losing the creative, predictive aspect that brings us into the cinema for sci fi — the high production value of the bird's-eye view — it always comes back to Earth, to the quiet porches, rural diners, and humming cityscapes in which the best stories seem always to be found.
Thus "Looper," though it passes through Kansas and Shanghai, through mob murders and bad tempers, becomes a first-rate origin story. It asks not how we'll look in the future so much as how that future came to be.
"Looper" is now playing in theatres nationwide. Read TOH's interview with Emily Blunt here.