How Looper's Time Travel Works

Looper Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis shooting in opposite directions

Don’t adjust your monitor, dear readers. If you felt like there was a bit of a shift in our time travel educational programming, you’re absolutely right. I’m still not sure what exactly happened, as my mind is a bit fuzzy on the details, but Future Mike has yet again entered the picture and thrown things slightly askew. Which makes sense, as our latest adventure from here to there in the now and then is none other than writer/director Rian Johnson’s officially eight-year-old noir action adventure, Looper.

We've arrived at the eighth anniversary of that time Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis played the same man, fighting it out for the sake of their own future. And how could we pass up the opportunity to crack this particular temporal egg, after almost a decade of Looper frying the audience’s brains? Keep your straws where they stand, as we won’t be needing any complicated diagrams to break down what happens in this particular tale. So let’s get started breaking down the world of Loopers, Gat Men, and The Rainmaker himself, detailing how the time travel in Looper really works.

Looper Joseph Gordon-Levitt checks his watch in front of a target

The Time Travel in Looper

Picture it: Kansas City, 2044. The world is a dystopian nightmare of vagrants and time travel assisted assassinations. 2074’s hits get sent 30 years back to be neatly killed and disposed of, with the assassins themselves subjected to that same treatment when they’re retired. It’s a system that works like clockwork… until Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has to outwit his older self (Bruce Willis) in order to uphold the system he’s a part of.

Who's Time Traveling?

A lot of unnamed targets and Loopers are sent back from the future to be taken out in a clean and easy manner. But our main time traveler is Older Joe, with a slight detour into the life of Joe’s friend and fellow Looper Seth (Paul Dano), who also has some problem with his older self (Frank Brennan).

From When To When?

The corridor of Looper’s time travel is a constant and exact window of 30 years, three months, two days, eight hours, and five seconds, between the future and the past. So for the film’s purpose, this window spans 2044 and 2074.

The Purpose Of Their Trip?

Under "business as usual" circumstances, victims and Loopers are sent back 30 years (and change) to be killed and disposed of. But between Older Joe losing his wife (Summer Qing), and the rise of the holy terror boss man known as the Rainmaker causing all sorts of chaos in 2074’s mob scene, the retired Looper is about to try and change the future for the better.

Looper Bruce Willis walks towards the time chamber

How Time Travel Happens In Looper

Traveling into the past of the Looper world is absolutely easy, or at least it feels that way because there’s not a lot of specific technique involved with the trips to the past shown in the film. But the lack of technique is made up for with a good number of rules that lock in the world of Rian Johnson’s script and how it uses time travel. According to the special feature, “The Science of Time Travel”, the following rules are the governing forces of this universe’s plot:

  • Time Travel cannot be adjusted.
  • Time Travel is a one-way ticket.
  • Both versions of you can exist.
  • Time Travel is illegal.
  • You can communicate across time.
  • The future has infinite possibilities.

Say you want to kill someone in 2074, but as we learned in Looper, tagging techniques and record keeping make it a pain in the ass to do so undetected. Using your most trusted thugs, you’d abduct this subject, dress them in rather interestingly colored rags, and strap some silver to their backs as payment to the Looper in 2044 that’ll do the deed for you. Stuffing your subject into the time chamber, they are transported to a predetermined location in the past, where a Looper offs them with a blunderbuss.

Dumping the corpse into a furnace 30 years and change in the past, the Looper collects their silver and goes about their merry criminal way. Of course, when it’s time to close their loop, a Looper’s older self takes that same path, with gold strapped to their back, waiting for their younger self to retire them in the same sort of manner. And before anyone gets any ideas of trying to change the world extensively in the past, Rian Johnson made sure that wasn’t possible with the following stipulation, as explained in the "Science of Time Travel" Blu-ray feature:

You can’t dial it up or down. Basically, it’s gonna send you exactly 30 years, three months, two days, eight hours, and five seconds back. It’s kind of like a sliding thing. So as time keeps going, the point at which you’re gonna be sent back to keeps sliding forward also.

However, if the right person had the right idea, and used the correct methodology to plan out a path to a new future that could take place 30 years, three months, two days, eight hours, and five seconds in the future? The world would be their oyster, as Looper is also pretty specific in its consequences and its viewpoint on history changing through potential usage of time travel.

Looper a scarring message on Older Seth's arm

Can History Be Changed As A Result Of Time Travel In Looper?

Yes, it very much can, as alterations in Looper’s space-time continuum are almost instantaneously depicted in the events of the film; much like you may be used to seeing in the Back to the Future trilogy. The greatest examples of this technique being that early sequence where Older Seth finds himself wasting away piece by piece, with an ultimatum to make his way to Wire Street in 15 minutes, or else. Moment by moment, Older Seth loses body parts, under the watchful supervision of Noah Segan’s Kid Blue and a professional known as “The Doc”.

But, of course, as we learn from Abe’s (Jeff Daniels) instructions, Seth is not to be killed, as it would be too cataclysmic to future events. Maiming and scarring on the body is fine, just so long as there’s no death. So there is an importance in not trying to change the world too much in the past. The beauty of Looper’s usage of time travel is, under typical circumstances, people from the future are being sent back to the past, through tightly controlled circumstances and limited stipulations, to be disposed of before they even existed. In practice, it’s a perfect loop; unless, of course, a disgruntled set of Loopers want to change the future.

Which leads to one of Looper’s key rules of time travel: “The future has infinite possibilities”. The moment Seth and Joe let their loops run, the established future becomes all the more uncertain, which leads to some rather interesting consequences when trying to change the past and remember the future.

Looper Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking at the diner

What Are The Consequences Of Time Travel In Looper?

Traveling back 30 years in his life, Older Joe has firm memories of his time with his future wife. He even carries a picture of her, helping along his memories of what he’s trying to maintain. However, once the story proper kicks into Looper’s narrative, all bets are off, as the ever changing present becomes a tempest for those who are trying to achieve very specific goals.

During the crucial moment in the diner, where Young and Old Joe talk about some of the finer points of time travel, Old Joe mentions that his memories of 2074 are clearer or cloudier, depending on what happens in 2044. Every action counts, as the conflict between two Joes affects the two key events Old Joe is playing around with, as he wants to kill the Rainmaker before he becomes the holy terror boss man, but still meet his wife and prevent her accidental death. But, as new actions change the ever fluid timeline, your mind is increasingly unreliable about what to do; so good luck trying to scuttle back to a cupboard and think away your mistakes.

On top of potentially developing new scars and losing limbs you might want to hang onto in the future, your memories will change depending on what you subject your past self to. As Older Joe plainly puts it, if he remembers anything, it’s after Younger Joe decisively does it. Up until that point, memories are subject to change and availability. Which brings us to the greatest consequence of all in Looper: the erasure of an entire person. In the final moments of Looper, Young Joe connects the dots of The Rainmaker’s legend to the moments taking place in front of him.

While Older Joe is trying to kill Cid (Pierce Gagnon), with the option of gunning down his mother Sara (Emily Blunt) to get the job done, a huge lightbulb goes off in Younger Joe’s mind. Recalling how Older Joe described The Rainmaker as being rumored to have his jaw shot off, and watching his mother die in front of him, Younger Joe decides that the best chance to try and prevent this cataclysmic future is to kill himself in the past. Knowing his future contains a whole bunch of pain and horrible decisions, he ultimately comes to the realization that if he dies, Joe doesn’t come back from the future to mess with the past. By killing himself, Younger Joe prevents the deaths of Cid and Sara, and in turn has a good chance of preventing The Rainmaker from becoming a major figure in the future of organized crime.

Looper Emily Blunt holds Pierce Gagnon in her arms in the field

One Circle Ends, But Another Has Yet To Begin

The journey of Joe is a sad, heroic redemption of a man who could have been a total waste, but ultimately gave himself for the common good. It all leads to the fact that if Looper was to be boiled down to one, crucial point of order, it’s the following statement that Rian Johnson made when discussing the complexities of time travel:

Time travel is messy. The smartest [people] in the future know one thing about time travel we don’t. They know to be scared to death of it.

Seeing how trying to change the future leads to unpredictable, and rather bloody results, Looper isn’t afraid to show the audience the messy and unrepentant lengths some will go to in order to bend the world to their will. And now, the loop on Johnson’s sci-fi noir has officially been closed, and a new future awaits us dear readers. Direct from the requests of you, the viewers, our next time travel journey will see us getting Lost in Space, and following some hinky temporal action dealing with the cinematic incarnation of the Jupiter 2 and its first family of space, The Robinsons! We’ll see you back here in the future, and remember, if you want to learn everything about traveling here and there in the then and now, CinemaBlend is the place you should be!

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.