Looper handles genre tropes especially well — but here are a few specific lessons.
1) Use your widget sparingly
In tons of interviews before Looper came out, writer/director Rian Johnson kept saying that this wasn’t a film about time travel — Looper uses time travel to set up the story, similar to Terminator. Except, of course, that the whole second half of the film depends on time travel to set up Bruce Willis’ motivations. (Not unlike how Terminator depends on time travel to set up everything the T-800 and Kyle Reese do.) But what Johnson really meant was, time travel isn’t used gratuitously in the film — it’s not a widget that’s pulled out over and over again, or used as a “get out of fail free” card.
2) The genre elements are what make life difficult for people
We sort of touched on this in our review, so apologies if this point seems repetitive. But one way to think about genres of storytelling is that they’re what get people into trouble — people in a spy story are in trouble because of spy shit, people in a thriller are in trouble because they’re being stalked by a slasher. Any time the characters get too comfortable or happy, the genre elements pop up again to make their lives hell all over again. That’s definitely how Looper uses its genre elements — Joe’s life would basically be okay, if he didn’t have to deal with this “escaped future self” crap. By contrast, bad storytelling treats the genre elements as a set of points that have to be hit, or audience expectations that have to be met. If you’re doing a time travel scene, there has to be a scene where ________ happens — because that’s part of the genre. And that’s one way that you end up with crappy stories.
3) Character matters
It’s worth contrasting Looper with — picking more or less at random — Battleship. Both movies feature a main character who starts out as selfish and then grows over the course of the film. It’s a common trajectory for movie protagonists, but obviously a lot depends on execution. In Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character makes a number of choices over the course of the film, and the time-travel premise is just one way we learn more about him. Everything in the story is set up to illuminate Joe’s interior life or to provide more context for the decisions he makes. In Battleship, meanwhile, Taylor Kitsch’s character seems to be a one-dimensional loser until the film suddenly needs him to become someone different. The plot devices are just sort of a backdrop, or maybe Kitsch’s character arc is just window dressing for the plot.
4) Don’t be afraid to reclaim clichés
Looper is full of time travel clichés (including one that I grumbled about earlier this week.) Just when you think Looper has exhausted all of the classic time-travel story ideas at its disposal, the second half of the film is built around a doozy. But the movie never acts embarrassed to be bringing back some of the most overused time travel ideas. Nobody ever wisecracks about how this is just like some other time travel story. The movie never tries too hard to put its own spin on an idea that’s been done before — except where the story actually does go in a different direction. The movie seems to assume that either you’re not steeped in time travel lore, or you’re enough of a fan that you don’t mind seeing some plot devices you’ve seen before. Either way, the lack of apology or fancy dancing to get around the use of common tropes is one reason why, paradoxically, Looper feels fresh. By committing to the tropes with zero irony, you can make them feel new again.
5) Stories can be provocative without being political
Is there a political message in Looper? If so, I can’t find one, except maybe “criminals are bad and poverty is unpleasant.” Or maybe “violence begets violence” — but that’s hardly a political statement, per se. The film’s dystopian near future looks nasty, but it’s not a future that’s blamed on any particular thing. It’s just a nasty future. Contrast that with both Moon and District 9, which shared a similar sort of metaphor about evil corporations and what it means when someone else owns your body. The lack of an overt political message in Looper hardly detracts from its poignancy or depth — if anything, the sadism and weirdness sink in more, because you’re not processing a political message at the same time. (Not that we don’t love some polemical, political dystopias.)
Read more at What Looper Teaches Us About How to Do Genre Right.