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!
at 12:25 PM