Moving Pictures
Mar 26, 2013, 03:36AM

The Lost Boys

Unpacking the sociological implications of Looper.

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Somewhere, right now, somebody is arguing with somebody else about Looper on the Internet. There's a lot to argue about: the mechanics of time travel, the nature of free will, the weirdness of confronting one's older or younger self, whether super-heroic genetic mutations are viable cinematic fodder beyond the X-Men movies, and futuristic sci-fi tracking technologies. A lot has been made of the character-based elements of this movie. All of that is really interesting and thought provoking, and has been hashed out thousands of times in think pieces and blog posts and on message boards. Less frequently discussed, though, are the sociological contexts that permeates this movie and the implications bubbling just below the surface: this article is devoted to those, and assumes that the reader has seen the movie at least once, has at least a passing familiarity with the plot, and/or is not afraid of spoilers.

Telekinesis: Well, sure. We've spent centuries turning the planet into a toxic ecological petri dish; there's no reason to assume that humanity wouldn't eventually undergo a significant mutation or three.

Something Happened: Between the present and 2044, something happened to America. What that something is is the aching mystery lurking at the fringes of this movie. Was it a war, or a series or wars? A Black Death-level epidemic of some kind? Some Howard James Kunstler Long Emergency epic fail? Or just the distance between the rich and the poor widening beyond our wildest imaginings? What's definitive: tent cities are everywhere, people live in cars and buses that straddle avenues, the price of life is frightening cheap. The Kansas City of Looper is a third-world nightmare, full stop.

There's a fantastically poetic establishing scene early on in the movie, where a man unloads a crate from a broken-down school bus, and another man grabs the crate and tries to run away with it. The first man calmly assassinates him; no one bats an eyelash. The scene efficiently communicates where society's at: shit like that probably happens every day. Not Mad Max, yet, but certainly headed that way.

Communes: Could communes exist and thrive in this world? I don't know that they could.

Automobiles: Something definitely happened. Pretty much every car model in Looper is circa now, including the work truck Young Joe drives out into the country to pop his loops, and most of them have some weird, jury-rigged solar-paneling or whatever attached. The hover-bikes are the sole concession to future-fic eye-candy tropes, and those are driven by loopers and Gattmen. It's as though at some point, certain stuff just stopped cold, stopped changing or evolving.

Eye Drugs: I can think of at least one prior, future-set movie that treated eye-dropped narcotics as a significant plot point: Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Have you ever seen that? Tia Carrere is hot in it, but otherwise: total waste of time.

About Old Joe's Second Would-Be Child Kill: How probable was it that Old Joe (Bruce Willis) almost killed a kid that could possibly have been his own son?

We're Not In "Kansas" Kansas Anymore: Looper is set, primarily, in Kansas City. Because Kansas and Missouri are part of the psychic and spiritual heart of the country, writer/director Rian Johnson is able to convey how deeply moral, authoritative, and infrastructural rot has set in. One can imagine Kansas City being beyond the reach of coastal American power centers, and a concerted being a lack of concern about what goes on "out there"—allowing somebody like Abe, in the 2040s, to effectively take over. Staging Looper in New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago would’ve been too complex, too messy, but the fact that it didn't happen makes you wonder what those places are like in 2044. Given the population concentrations, probably unimaginable and uninhabitable: I always find myself flashing on the cannibalism scenes from The Road or the hijacked satellite images at the end of Super Sad True Love Story. Kansas, even bombed-out neo-Great Depression Kansas, is a pastoral paradise by comparison, and of course, there are those amazing, sprawling fields. Cane fields, some of them! In Kansas! Global warming sucks.

Down On The Farm, Down On The Farm: The farm scenes are so thick with tension you could cut it with a knife. "Pass me that Phillips," indeed.

Old Joe's Unnamed Looper Pal Calling Old Joe in 2074 With The Rainmaker's 2044 Coordinates: A thesis could be written about the implications of this scene. It's the only 2074 scene that is definitively set in the United States, and it's very brief and abrupt. Old Joe's looper pal is jabbering into a cell phone; we get a glimpse of the window to his left. Cars stream down a boulevard, but a cluster of military vehicles surround the looper pal's home. Something crashes through the window. The film switches to Old Joe. Then back to the looper pal, whose door is compromised, and then the call cuts off.

It's worth asking what was happening there, and the possibilities seem endless. By 2074 in this timeline, the military could be under the influence of the five crime syndicates, which were supposedly usurped by the Rainmaker himself—so this could be a Rainmaker-directed sting action, or something tangentially related, maybe the guy grew up to be a crime boss and he's being taken down. The implication is that the looper pal was probably killed, which plays against the whole reason that retired loopers and other mob enemies were sent back to 2044 from 2074 via time-travel anyway: because in 2074 everyone is tagged with technology that immediately informs authorities whenever someone dies. If the Rainmaker is as brazen and insane as an adult as this film makes him out to be, he wouldn't much care about authorities. This is unknowable meta territory, but the logistician in me needs to understand what went down.

About Jeff Daniels: Jeff Daniels plays Abe, who has been sent back in time from 2074 to oversee the looper program in 2044, with a sideline in organized criminal activity; it's strongly implied that he and his Gattmen run Kansas City and own the police. The character is a bizarre amalgamation of mobster, Star Wars guru-fashionista, hassled middle manager, and disillusioned father-figure; the dude just seems exhausted, and it's impossible to say whether this assignment counts as a promotion or demotion, a sort of ultimate Siberian exile. What, exactly, are the benefits of holding a job like this? Why would anyone even want it?

What can it possibly be like to know that somewhere out there in the world, you—a younger you—is running around and living life with no clue that somewhere, older you has been transported back to 2044 to preside over a criminal empire? What is it like to live with the worry that one or two missteps could irretrievably alter the future in all kinds of ways? Thinking about this stuff makes Abe a way, way more complicated and fascinating character to watch; the guy must be a bundle of nerves. Also, his blown-out beard and plush robes make for a hilarious contrast to the sense of menace and authority that the character is meant to inspire.

Drugs, Partying: Given the sheer horror of life in 2044, the desire to be constantly high makes too much sense to argue against. Sara's (Emily Blunt) late-in-the-film line—"I've seen so many men in the city, I look in their eyes and they're just lost"—defines the men who people Looper. Joe tells Cid the story of having been sold to a vagrant gang by his own mother, and given that everyone in this setting probably has an origin story along those lines, it's no wonder that the life of a hired killer has such allure. Suddenly you feel valued, and important, and maybe invulnerable too—you feel superior to the street-urchin masses among whom you once numbered, and you're totally unafraid to kill or threaten strangers. Nothing matters. It's not like going to school and becoming a lawyer or a social worker or doctor makes any sense in a world like this one.

Young Joe Sailing To China On A Sea-Faring Ship: Visually speaking this is patently brilliant while suggesting that airplane travel is non-existent or greatly reduced in 2044. On the other hand, Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is traveling with a metric ton of cash and/or silver bars, so maybe flying United wasn't a viable way to get where he wanted to go.

The Future Present: The scene where Joe and Seth almost hit the poor kid at night is instructional in the sense that a) Joe barely avoids running a kid whose life is probably identical to his over and b) it's possible that the kid was a powerful enough to contribute to halting the progress of the car.

"I'm an arranger, stranger": This scene, along with the blithe shooting-a-thief scene mentioned above, both nails the milieu and is penetratingly haunting in ways that are difficult to convey. It's worth noting that the only video we're shown in 2044 is closed-circuit footage and the goofy "Are you TK?" hologram billboard, which isn't video at all, really. Like, what media?

Old Joe's Wife Watching Cable News Footage of America in 2074: Holographic future television technology, where you can turn it off by swiping at the air, looks awesome. We catch a glimpse of it in China in 2074, when Old Joe's wife has the TV on, and the commentator is rattling off Chinese but throws in the phrase "Rainmaker" while images of widespread devastation are glimpsed.

"Mass Executions, Vagrant Purges": The deliciousness of Looper, as regards the Rainmaker, is that we're watching the planting of the seeds that will transform him into a future mutant despot: violence, cruelty, an onset of the homeless and unwashed. Seriously, a great calamity befell this timeline, maybe some genocidal thing, because Sara's farm should be overrun by wandering, starving people. That said, the firm does an able job of implying that bands of roving vagrants are a problem in 2044, and that this problem will inevitably get worse as the decades roll by—until an emotionally violent mutant kick-starts a takeover that Old Joe attempts to forestall.

Suburbia: Old Joe kills a kid he thinks might be the Rainmaker in a suburb of Kansas City, which is insane, because this city—and every city, probably—is so far gone and un-salvageable that the idea of driveways and white-picket fences and kids wandering home unassisted from school (really, schools? still?) seems untenable. The suburbs should be a smoking ruin, right? And the scene when Old Joe robs a convenience store in the city at night isn't funny because he holds the place up; it's funny because law and order doesn't exist, and running a convenience store in a lawless city at night is equivalent to being suicidal.

Women's Lot: Women in future America are whores and urchins, mostly, except when they're sugar-cane farmers toting shotguns full of rock salt.

Closing the Loops: The whole loop-closing thing is a drag; how these guys celebrate that is so nihilistic and mindless.

Looper Logistics: How are orders sent back from the future? How are successful executions conveyed from the past? How can anyone be sure of anything? How does Abe know that Young Joe is faking about emigrating to France, and really plans to abscond to China once his looper contract is up?

Absconding to China: In Looper, China is like the New World. It's almost the equivalent of what America used to be, where if you came up in a jerk-water broken country you'd dream of winding up in Baltimore or New York. By 2044 everything is totally different. 

Graffiti: Endemic. But it already is today.

The Time Machine Itself: The time machine existing in an empty building open to a large surrounding space in 2074: maybe the mob is so strong that they're major land owners, and maybe everyone with access just knows better than to fuck around with time machines. Also: where is the time machine? America? China? This is never quite made clear.

That Diner SceneJust, you know, damn. But the moment when you realize that Old Joe and Young Joe are suddenly the only two people in the place is Looper's one false moment. How would the patrons and employees know to clear out before the Gattmen storm in? Where did they go? This is theatrical dishonesty, and I don't understand why this was staged this way when the film did so much else right.

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