Looper uses time travel as plot device, not crutch

Looper, released in theaters Sept. 28, does the seemingly impossible: It sidesteps the usual problems of time travel movies and focuses instead on character. Directed by Rian Johnson, the film uses time travel as a tool throughout the story.

The film is set in the year 2044, when economic collapse has led to a wave of organized crime. Joe Simmons, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a member of a group of killers called “loopers,” which uses time travel to target its victims. The futuristic science fiction tale follows Simmons as he tries to track down his older self, played by Bruce Willis.

The movie handles time travel, dicey in the best of circumstances, with grace and humor. Instead of trying to explain the mechanics of something impossible, Johnson merely has the characters gloss over the finer points. This choice allows the audience to focus on the story and characters instead of getting bogged down by the nitty-gritty details of time travel theory; this is where Johnson shines in the movie.

Johnson shows real strength as a writer and director through his characters, especially through Simmons. Simmons is a romantically misunderstood hero; he is the type of character that Hollywood rarely laughs at, but Johnson isn’t afraid to portray him as endearingly incompetent. At one point, Simmons’ older self knocks out his younger self with a comically weak punch. Simmons is also rescued by a five-year-old twice.

Johnson’s light portrayal of Simmons is as amusing as it is refreshing, and this actually helps the time travel angle. Simmons is not the same as his older self; although they are the same person, older Simmons is more experienced than is his younger self. Younger Simmons’ occasional incompetency helps show that time travel has created two people who share the same memories, but that they are not the same person.

However, some of Johnson’s other characters lack the same freshness. Specifically, most of his female characters — there are only three in the entire movie — are stilted and unrealistic. Among them are a showgirl/prostitute and older Simmons’ wife, who looks entirely too young to be making out with Willis, and who literally never speaks.

The third is Sara, played by Emily Blunt. Of the three, Blunt’s character is the most well-developed. Sara’s relationship with younger Simmons is reasonably well-articulated, though the sexual relationship that inevitably develops has almost no real basis. Johnson leans on the typical Hollywood expectation that the beautiful boy and the beautiful girl, having been within 10 feet of each other, will obviously have sex. Given the strength of characterization of Simmons and his older self, this use of cliché is disappointing.

Although these problems of character have a negative impact on the plot, the movie is fantastically well done overall. Time travel is a storytelling tool, not a major focus of the movie, and the two main characters are fresh and interesting. Johnson takes a complex and convoluted story and tells it in a simple and extremely entertaining way.