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In the dingy, cruel and stratified future world of 2044 in Rian Johnson's Looper, time travel is not yet possible; a few decades later, though, it has been invented but it is illegal, which sets up an irresistible temptation for those who need to get rid of a body by sending it to a time when it won't exist yet. It's also an unbeatable setup for a sci-fi thriller as intricate and thoughtful as Looper, which takes pleasure in the details of its twists and big ideas, bringing up the usual time travel paradoxes to ask serious questions about the wages of violence and the irreversible nature of fate.
The headier particulars of this future world are explained a remarkably concise voiceover from Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Joe, but there's plenty of showing along with the telling, like the nifty telekinesis that 10% of the population has developed for no apparent reason, or even the slick but believable development of cell phones. Working on a studio budget for the first time, Johnson meticulously details his future world and the laws by which it operates, setting up a rich playground for a story that, for all its twists and rewards, winds up significantly less interesting than the world it's set in.
The biggest problem is in how the film builds to its terrific hook-- Joe is assigned to assassinate his older self (Bruce Willis)-- and then keeps the two Joes separate for almost the entire film, as the older Joe runs off on a mission to change his future and the younger hides out at a farmhouse occupied by tough country chick Sara (Emily Blunt) and her very precocious young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). By failing to kill the older Joe, or "close his loop," the younger one is under fierce pursuit from the rest of the Looper Network, led by a laid-back and terrifying Jeff Daniels and personified by the bloodhound-like Kid (Noah Segan, overacting fiercely). The stakes are high, and the threat of violence very real-- we see the gory result of what happens early on when Joe's colleague Seth (Paul Dano) fails to close his own loop-- and with the specifics of time travel logic cannily kept under wraps until the end, the fate of the world could very well be at stake.
There are so many different directions to head in a world filled with assassins and time travel and gadgets and Joseph Gordon-Levitt trying to kill Bruce Willis, but Looper veers off into the story at that farmhouse, and specifically the fate of the young, intelligent and potentially dangerous Cid. It all revolves around the kind of "Would you kill a young Hitler?" question that occupies many philosophical conversations, but just isn't dynamic enough to be the center of a film, especially when added to sentimentality and late-breaking optimism that doesn't really fit the hard-boiled vibe of the film's first act. Gordon-Levitt is as good a tough-ass hero as he was in Johnson's debut feature Brick, and it goes without saying that Willis is too; Looper seems to need more of their grime-filtered point of view, a noir with sci-fi leanings that gives over too much to its fantastical side in the end.
Lord knows we've seen enough sloppy, half-baked sci-fi-- some, like 2009's Surrogates, starring Willis himself-- to appreciate something as careful and heady as Looper, which creates a world so lively and well-wrought I'd happily see a dozen more movies set there. Stocked to the gills with strong performances (Tracie Thoms, Garret Dillahunt and Piper Perabo all make a nice impact in limited roles) and action scenes that constantly head in exciting and different directions, Looper is a solid step above most studio sci-fi output, better thought-out than Prometheus and more intellectually engaging than last year's Source Code. But for all its slickness and style, it still can't find the emotional depths it reaches for, and concludes on a giant wave of feeling that rings oddly hollow. The dual challenges of sci-fi are to create an engaging new world and a great story to go in it, and by accomplishing only that first goal, Looper shows glimpses of greatness that never quite add up.