The time-travel action film Looper closely resembles James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi classic The Terminator, reiterating that film’s futuristic vision of a murderous dystopia relieved and even redeemed, ultimately, by sacrifice, heroism, and love. The story is set three decades from now, in a future that is itself the past to an even more remote future. This canny two-stage structure allows writer-director Rian Johnson to double down on the sense of doom. The world of 2044 is bad enough; what in God’s name will come after that?
Summarizing the plot is a challenge, but here goes. In the ultra-authoritarian world of 2074, disposing of bodies is difficult, and detection highly proficient, so gangsters who want to murder people have devised a novel means of doing it: sending them back through time to 2044—the “present” of the movie—where they materialize, already bound and hooded, to be instantly executed, via a shotgun blast, by paid bounty hunters known as loopers: “taking out the future’s garbage,” as our protagonist, a young looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), mordantly calls it.
The whole shebang is run by a smoothly scary mobster from the future named Abe (Jeff Daniels, stealing the show with a small but brilliantly acted role), and there’s a big wrinkle: to keep the system secret, the loopers themselves—in their old age, in the future—are eventually done away with, via the same method. And so it happens that now and then a looper ends up having to execute his future self, an action known in the trade as “closing the loop”—after which he is paid off in gold ingots and set free to enjoy the thirty years that remain before he will be killed…by himself.
Got all that? Don’t worry if you don’t (“This time-travel shit fries your brain like an egg,” muses Daniels’s character on our behalf.) Suffice it to say that Joe eventually must close his loop. But when the moment arrives, instead of pulling the trigger on his older self (Bruce Willis), he hesitates just long enough for Willis to escape. I won’t divulge the mind-bending details that follow, except to say that the older Joe is on a desperate mission to avert the death, decades ahead, of the woman he will eventually marry, while the younger Joe increasingly fixes on the desperate hope for some sort of moral redemption. These objectives now clash, now converge, and so Joe and his older self set off, guns ablaze, on the ultimate buddy movie.
Futurist films score their satirical points through things observed on the margins, the casual facts of daily life that make for a predictive critique of where we are headed. In Looper the picture is grim. The cities of 2044 are sunk in grimy poverty and neglect, the streets crowded with vagrants who are treated as expendable by a scoffing elite careening around in flashy vehicles, hanging out at sex clubs, and remaining continuously high via a drip drug administered, appropriately enough, into one’s eyes—as if only an altered vision can bear to look at such a depraved reality.
Looper is perfectly paced, its propulsive action syncopated by plot consequences ricocheting back and forth across time frames, as actions by the young Joe instantly impact the body, memories, and even the existence of his older counterpart. Such time-tripping can challenge a viewer rather in the way of Christopher Nolan’s backward-running Memento, but the movie’s brain-teasing exercise is deepened by its reach for human connection, represented for the older Joe by his love for the woman who saves him from a life of dissolution, and for the younger Joe by his serendipitous relationship with a farmsteading woman and her uniquely precocious son. Looper achieves a nice balance between its futuristic, sci-fi elements and its timeless human ones. Somewhat surprisingly, the film has a heart. Churning toward an understanding of regret, even sin, it culminates in an act of ultimate sacrifice, and conveys beatitude with an attitude.
The setting for Looper’s 2044 dystopia could well be Detroit—the Detroit of today. Abandoned apartment blocks, derelict factories and public buildings, whole neighborhoods overrun by weeds and reverting to grassland: the city has lost 60 percent of its population over the past sixty years, an unprecedented development that presents misery galore to its remaining denizens, impossible choices for politicians, and a juicy subject for documentary filmmakers.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady spent a year in Detroit, chronicling the decline of a once-great American city. For those expecting a Michael Moore–like treatment of Motor City’s woes, Detropia will be a puzzlement—and, to some, a relief. Though we see beleaguered Mayor Dave Bing gamely facing constituents outraged by the cutback of basic city services, Ewing and Rachel aren’t focused on the politics of depopulation, but on the aesthetics, seemingly entranced by demise itself and by the stories of assorted city residents who have adapted to it: a video blogger who rambles rhapsodically through deserted buildings; a retired teacher whose bar and grill is a kind of reverse-frontier saloon, catering to a dwindling crowd of diehards; and a young pair of conceptual artists who represent, in the filmmakers’ implicit view, a hope for some kind of post-industrial rebirth for Detroit.
Detropia’s signature quality is its persistent discovery of grandeur within the grimness. The collapse of the twentieth century’s industrial regime in the city is clearly a catastrophe, but Ewing and Grady greet it with acceptance. An elusive sense of awe adheres to scenes set in derelict public buildings; serenity, rather than outrage or despair, is the prevailing tone. Some may find an unhelpful and even perverse fatalism in this attitude, one inimical for instance to the anger that drives political action. And there does seem at times to be a disconnect between what the filmmakers are recording and how they react. In one scene we listen in as a labor-union rep informs abject workers at an auto-parts plant that they must take further drastic pay cuts or face a likely plant shutdown—a choice they greet with understandable fury. But the scene goes nowhere; the filmmakers treat it not as a call to action, but merely as another catalogable species of the flora of decline.
What to make of this? Is Detropia merely an artifact, even a symptom, of post-Gen-X political lassitude? A mash note to, and manifesto for, the artists’ movements that spring up in the wasteland of decaying American cities? Or is it an attestation, above and beyond our particular moment, that civilizations do in fact rise and fall, and that what we bemoan as “blight” may represent mighty historical forces caught in motion and sparking intimations of the sublime? If so, is it obscene to perceive the sublime in such motions when the livelihoods of one’s fellow citizens are being ground up in the process? These are questions viewers will have to decide.
It’s possible to see Detropia as a treatise on the allure of ruins. Americans are accustomed to throw-away buildings—the abandoned mall, the boarded-up storefront—but as a society we are too young for the kind of ruins one finds in Europe or Asia, those relics of ancient temples, citadel cities, and long-vanished kings and gods. Civilizational ruins tell us that the past is all around us, that it was active, populous, and in some ways greater than the present. You are reminded daily that you walk in the footsteps of ghosts, and that you too will one day evanesce. In the romantic transaction, ruins bring home mortality, and mortality heightens one’s sense of beauty and of love.
Detropia is interspersed with excerpts from performances by Detroit’s opera company, and also includes an unforgettable scene in which one of the company’s star performers, transported (presumably by the filmmakers) into the crumbling and deserted Michigan Central Train Depot, sings a lovely aria from Puccini. The melody reverberating among the ruins cues up a moment of thrilling beauty, and sums up the power of this elegiac and strangely exhilarated film.