I've been discussing the movie Looper with my husband and kids ever since we all saw it last weekend--it takes a lot of talking to get clear(er) about what happened and whether it's really possible.  Plus the movie raises some interesting ethical issues. 

SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to ruin the whole thing. Don't read this if you plan on seeing the movie.  Also, feel free to correct me if I have some of the details wrong. This is confusing!

So--it's 2074 and time-travel has been invented.  Bad guys put their enemies in time capsules and they're sent back to 2044, where "loopers" kill them and collect a reward that's strapped to their backs.  Some of the bad guys from 2074 have returned to 2044 and formed a syndicate behind a strip club. They enforce various rules, one of them being that if a looper's older self is sent back, the younger self must kill the older self.  We can't let our older selves hang around. I suppose that's because they might expose the whole operation, interfere with the syndicate, etc. It's not a question of preventing metaphysical mayhem!

So anyway, the movie starts in 2044. Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)  is a successful looper who does a lot of shooting out in a corn field, where the syndicate's enemies sail in from the future. Then one day Young Joe's older self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), sails in.  Young Joe shoots Old Joe, as required. A bunch of other stuff happens, but never mind.

Young Joe then gets older, year by year. He lives a dissolute life, eventually becomes Old Joe, and  falls in love. At that point the syndicate is in operation and it's using its time travel methods. The Rainmaker bursts into Old Joe's home and his beloved wife is shot.  They put Old Joe in the time capsule, sending him back to be shot by Young Joe.

But Old Joe was once Young Joe, so remembers being the shooter, and knows what to do to avoid being shot. He gets the bag off his head so Young Joe will see his face.  Young Joe doesn't shoot him, so now Old Joe is free to try to prevent the later killing of his wife.  He hunts for the Rainmaker's child self, etc.

Before I go on, a comment.  Old Joe remembers being Young Joe and successfully shooting himself (Old Joe) in the cornfield.  That's why he knows how to subvert the shooting--by taking the bag off his head. But that means there's no single fixed past. When he travels back again to 2044, it's as if he's traveling on a spiral path, not a loop.  He goes back in time, but not to exactly the same "place".   Hmm!

OK, so Old Joe tries to find the Rainmaker's child self. The idea is that if he had been killed as a child, then he wouldn't have been able to kill Old Joe's wife.  This is the point when I started to find the movie both emotionally and intellectually riveting.  The whole premise of the child-hunt is actually a false counterfactual: that if the little Rainmaker had been killed, everything else would have gone in about the same way--Old Joe would have wound up in about the same place, with the same woman, and she simply wouldn't have been killed. But no, it's perfectly possible that if he'd been killed, lots and lots of stuff would have gone differently. He might never have met that woman, etc.

But no matter.  The false counterfactual allows the movie to explore a very intriguing question.  May we kill the child selves of bad guys, to prevent their later crimes, or are they entitled to the special protection we normally extend to innocent (for the time being) children? If we lived in a different sort of world, we might have to think about that question very carefully. It might even have a well-known name, like "The Baby Hitler Problem"!

Old Joe goes in for killing children in a big way, because there are three different children who might be the child self of the Rainmaker.  He kills two of them before it becomes clear the right child is the one Young Joe is protecting out in the country. At this point love conquers all in an interesting way.  Old Joe's love for his wife tells him to kill, kill, kill (3X).  Young Joe is emotionally (and physically) touched by Sara, the child's loving mother, and so protects the little Rainmaker.

Old Joe pursues Sarah, the child, and Young Joe into a cornfield and in a sudden flash Young Joe realizes there's another way to alter the future.  The little Rainmaker doesn't have to be annihilated, he just has to be improved. We see a preview of the future: what will make him go so bad is being abandoned after Old Joe shoots his mother.  Old Joe needs to be stopped.  Most efficient method: Young Joe shoots himself, immediately zapping Old Joe out of existence. Thus, Sara is not shot, and the little Rainmaker grows up with a mother's love.   Old Joe gets more than he bargained for.  Yes, his beloved is never shot, but he doesn't live long enough to ever meet her. He dies in 2044, when he's Young Joe.

Time travel sure seems contradictory.   Young Joe subverts a certain future by shooting himself.  That future's gone. But that future also must be real. Otherwise there's no way for Old Joe to enter the picture and chase everyone into the cornfield. If Old Joe wasn't chasing them, what were they doing there?  It seems we are really left with a contradiction. Old Joe came from the future and chased them. He didn't come from the future and chase them.  The future is fixed--in 2044 we can say Old Joe will see his wife killed in 2074, and thus will come back to kill the child. But in 2044, the future is open. Old Joe could be part of it, or not a part of it. As it turns out, he's not a part of it. Or is he? He is, he isn't ... Hmm.

The philosopher David Lewis wrote a famous paper about time travel--"The Parodoxes of Time Travel." It starts, "Time Travel, I maintain, is possible. The paradoxes of time travel are oddities, not impossibilities. They prove only this much, which few would have doubted: that a possible world where time travel took place would be a most strange world, different in fundamental ways from the world we think is ours.  Odd, but not contradictory.  Now I shall read the rest of the article, plus others in the anthology Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence (ed. Susan Schneider).  Fun topic, super-fun movie.


Elsewhere in science-fiction-and-philosophy-land:  I rewatched Moon last night. I can think of no better movie for framing a discussion of the famous idea, due to Derek Parfit, that identity is not what matters." Wonderful movie, must work it into some class one day!


Rhys said...

Was Young Joe mistaken in shooting himself? His assumption is that Old Joe killing Rainmaker's mom is what makes Rainmaker go bad in the future. However, we know that the Rainmaker has gone bad without Old Joe having shot Rainmaker's mom, because the first time around Young Joe shoots Old Joe. Then he grows up into a future where Rainmaker is bad, even though Old Joe never did anything to Rainmaker's mom. Right before he kills himself, he sees that Old Joe killing Rainmaker's mom would anger young Rainmaker and turn him into an evil loner. But something else must have done that the firs time around, and without having more information, Young Joe has no way of knowing that this wouldn't happen this time around, without Old Joe in the picture.

Another thing Young Joe could have kept in mind: he didn't need to kill himself at the moment he did. Since it's his older self who kills Rainmaker's mom, all he would need to do is kill himself right before he goes back in time in 30 years. That would be enough to change the past retroactively.

Wayne said...

The movie was really clever in turning what is he norm in time travel movies, that the future is not set, to the past is not set. The entire movie is premised on a quasi reverse causation.

When old and young joe are chatting at the diner, they establish that old joes memories are all foggy, that he doesn't remember what happened in the past until it actually happens to young joe. He has vague memories of all the possible worlds, but none are real, until young joe does it. Assumedly this is the effect of traveling back through time and that his memory is fine before he travels through time.

But we also see another looper become disfigured as his past self gets dismembered. So these people once they travel into the past are walking talking possible but not actual futures! So perhaps to explain how old joe was able to affect the past is that it was a possible joe, but not an actual joe, just like how I might project into the future look at my possible futures and alter my decisions.... But in this case a walkin talking possible future came to help make things the way he saw fit.

The more I think about the movie, the more I find enjoying it... When I walked out I was kind of annoyed at the time travel paradoxes, but like you said, perhaps it's odd but not impossible.

Jean Kazez said...

Rhys, Great point! That's a plot problem I hadn't noticed--or maybe not so much a plot problem, but a problem with the whole idea of redoing the past via time travel.

I don't see what you mean about Young Joe not having to kill himself when he did. Doesn't he have to kill himself to quickly zap Old Joe out of existence, so he won't shoot Sara? I thought the idea was just that he it was easier to aim at himself than directly at Old Joe.

Wayne, Yeah, I kind of left that stuff out of my summary and quite possibly its supposed to help us understand how time travel works in the movie. I like the business (in your explanation) about future events going from actual to possible... That sort of helps...a bit.

Just saw The Master...not nearly as fun as Looper!

Jean Kazez said...

Rhys- -I take back what I said about "not a plot problem"--maybe it really is an inconsistency. Must think about it more!

Wayne said...

I think what Rhys was suggesting was that once young joe figured out what causes the rainmaker to become who he becomes, his loop, that he could just not kill anyone at that point, live out his life, and when he gets kidnapped to be sent back in time again, he could commit suicide then, which will stop the next time loop. This way young joe gets to live out more of his life.

Rhys said...

Wayne is right about my second point. It's confusing because of the oddities that time travel would create, and perhaps because the film doesn't fully grasp all the oddities.

One way to think about it is to consider all the people Old Joe killed toward the end of the movie on his way to the field. Once Young Joe kills himself, thus preventing Old Joe from coming back in time and going on a killing rampage, shouldn't they all come back to life? Shouldn't everything go back to the way it would have been if Young Joe had never grown up and come back in time and gone on a rampage? How can they be dead if Young Kill killed himself and made it so that Old Joe never came back to kill them? (This is like your how are they still in the field question, and could be a flaw with the movie.) So even though Old Joe already killed all those people, it's never too late to bring them back, so long as Young Joe kills himself at some point before becoming Old Joe and going back in time and killing them.

In the same way, Young Joe can allow Old Joe to kill Rainmaker's mom, but since witnessing all this has given him a change of heart and a determination not to let it happen, he should still be able to reverse all that damage later just by killing himself at some point before he goes back in time to kill Rainmaker's mom. He could even let evil Rainmaker come to power. If his old self going back in time and killing Rainmaker's mom is what makes Rainmaker go evil (as Young Joe assumes, but is up for debate since Rainmaker originally went evil without that happening), all Joe needs to do is end his life any time before he as Old Joe goes back in time and kills all those people. Doing this should retroactively change the past to reflect how the world would have been if Old Joe never went back in time and went on a killing rampage.

Jean Kazez said...

I get that point now, but I'm having second thoughts about your first point. You said--"we know that the Rainmaker has gone bad without Old Joe having shot Rainmaker's mom, because the first time around Young Joe shoots Old Joe. Then he grows up into a future where Rainmaker is bad, even though Old Joe never did anything to Rainmaker's mom."

Your time-line is premised on the idea that there's a linear history here. 1) Young Joe shoots Old Joe. 2) And then Young Joe grows up as Rainmaker simultaneously becomes evil. 3) And then rainmaker (or his goon) shoots Old Joe's wife. 4) And then Old Joe goes back, doesn't get shot by Young Joe, and tries to shoot Sara.

But 4) takes us back in time, replacing the events in 1) (I guess). So it is not clear that once Rainmaker grew up and became evil, even without Old Joe shooting Sara.

It's also not clear that Rainmaker once grew up and became evil because Old Joe shot Sara (Young Joe's vision before he shoots himself).

I think if we diagrammed all this stuff we'd realize it was like an Escher drawing--one thing becomes another and there's no consistent way of describing what happened.

Wayne said...

So I was thinking about Rhys' problem of time line prime. The time line that we see in a flash, with Old Joe being killed with a bag over his head. In that time line, if the loop didn't happen, Rhys says that we wouldn't have a rainmaker, since it was Old Joe that caused the rainmaker in the first place. But I think we can have a plausible explanation of Rainmaker without Old Joe surviving.

Rainmaker is created from growing up with out his mom. This is caused by old joe killing Sarah. But Without the loop, Sarah lives.... Or does she? Remember that without old Joe, Young joe wouldn't be at her farm. Sarah encounters a vagarant beggar, tries to scare him off, and Young Joe intervenes, and then we see beggar with a sign saying he's a mute looking for food. We have no idea if beggar is an innocent man or not. Without Young Joe's intervention, we could imagine that Beggar realizes Sarah is bluffing, and can't protect herself, and kills her. But with Young joe around, the Beggar doesn't kill Sarah, because he's outnumbered. He just wanders away, since the opportunity to murder her and take her stuff is gone... The risks are too high. This would cause rainmaker to grow up without Sarah. But now that the loop is in place, the loop replaces the cause of death of Sarah.

As for all the things being undone... That is where you need to start talking about the walking talking possible futures that I was suggesting. Because we really shouldn't see a guy becoming slowly dismembered as it happens to him in the present, he should have always been an amputee. When thought of that way, we have a potentially consistent way of understanding what happened in the movie.

Wayne said...

Oh and Rainmaker had to be exist in all the timelines beyond the end of the movie. Young Joe talks about him at the beginning of the movie before he meets old joe. I'm not sure when we find out that he's responsible for closing all the loops in the future... That might be after Old Joe comes, which is consistent with the theory I'm spinning to explain the movie. If we know that before old joe, then that would be inconsistent. But I think we learn about the rainmaker closing the loops in the Diner scene.

Jaret said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rhys said...

I really like the idea of the beggar being the alternate way Rainmaker goes bad, which Old Joe then replaces. However, we do learn about the Rainmaker before Old Joe shows up. Paul Dano hears about the Rainmaker from his older self when he lets his loop run.

Wayne said...

Hmm... Well, the movie is a little vague about what timeline we're seeing initially... After all we first see Old Joe with no bag, then we see Old joe in the future, and in his flash forward, we see the flashback of him showing up the first time through with a bag over his head. But I suspect we might have to suspend our disbelief at some point to make the story work. :)

Faust said...

I have a number of things to say about this movie but that will require more time than I have today, so I will enter just this one point for now.

I think it is a mistake for most of these movies, which I think of as "puzzle" movies, to analyze them at the literal level (there are exceptions, such as Primer, which does want you to take the actual time travel seriously, though even in that case the time travel machine itself is left "blank").

One ought not take time travel completely seriously in Looper, any more than one ought to take seriously the fact that the machines base their power systems off human BTUs in The Matrix, or that a machine as simple as some drugs in a suitcase are sufficient to connect people in elaborate dreams in Inception.

These films are usually not about the sum of their "literal" components, but rather the structure of their central metaphors. The key to unlocking what is best, or most meaningful about them is not to identify their various failings at the literal level, but to try and understand the interconnection between the structural features of their central conceits and the structural features of the ideas they are examining.

This does not mean that all the "literal" elements can be ignored, but they must be contextualized relative to the primary metaphors of the film.

In the case of Looper, the primary metaphor is "closing loops" where "loop" is a metaphor for "lack of freedom," which stands in tension against the possibility of escaping the loop, and obtaining at least a measure of freedom.

More later.

Jean Kazez said...

Interesting point. I'll wait for you to say more before responding.

Wayne said...

Faust- I agree with you. Never let metaphysics and actually possibly things get in the way of good storytelling. But that said, there is something beneficial in trying to think through the time travel elements too. It helps us become more clear about our concepts of time, or a theory of possible worlds in my case.

Jean Kazez said...

I think this is a "puzzle movie" (like Inception). You are meant to sit there and try to figure out how time travel is working, what happened at different points, etc. etc. That's the pleasure of the movie--the cognitive "buzz" it gives you. Now, if you work too hard on that and get too serious about it, that will stop you from experiencing any of the other pleasures of the movie, or appreciating other themes. So--think, think, think, but not endlessly!