First off, I want to say, I really enjoyed Looper, it posed some great moral questions, had some excellent action scenes and could be both funny and poignant. Although the acting was good all around, hands down Pierce Gagnon, the young actor who portrayed Cid, stole any scene he was in. In an instant he could go from sinister and scary to vulnerable and timid. On the one hand you wanted to stay very far away and on the other, you wanted to give him a hug and tell him everything is going to be all right.
In the end it is a great film that anyone, even those not a huge fan of sci-fi, will enjoy. The film does not expect it’s viewers to understand how the time travel works and does not go into the science behind it. To many this is perfect and makes a time travel film more accessible to a larger audience.
This all being said I did want to discuss the science, or lack thereof, behind the time travel.
Time travel, at least to the past, in pop culture generally comes in two different varieties. Type A is what we’ll call the Back to the Future approach. In this type of time travel the traveler is affected in ‘real time’ by events that happen to his younger self or his direct ancestors. Type B is usually a bit more complicated and we’ll call it the 12 Monkeys approach. This type relies on the idea that everything that the time traveler does has already happened, because he is in the past and any event he may attempt to alter will actually result in him fulfilling the event in question. This approach is not only complicated to write or explain, it also has a tendency of leaving an audience scratching their heads.
Needless to say movie studios, when dealing with time travel, usually go with something similar to Type A in films directed at wide audiences. The problem with using the Back to the Future approach is that it requires a suspension of logic and causality. For instance, in Looper, Paul Dano’s character Seth fails to “close his loop” and his older self runs off into the streets of the present. The bad guys catch young Seth and begin to torture him, cutting off body parts and scaring his body. The results of which are shown quite dramatically as the old Seth suddenly has scars, no fingers and eventually no legs.
They perform all this torture on young Seth, but don’t kill him with the idea that he can now live the next 30 years of his life as a multiple amputee. Thus by not killing him in the past they do not cause him to not exist in the future. Which is all well and good, but it begs the question, if future Seth is now wheelchair bound then how did he run away from young Seth in the first place? This contradiction of cause and effect is called a paradox and is a staple of time travel conundrums.
Although you might say it’s a movie for entertainment purposes not physics class so what does it matter? Which, in general, I would usually agree with and then move on. However, my issue with Looper specifically is that not only do they rely on Type A, but they also rely on Type B. Usually the two type of time travel would by their very nature cancel each other out. One depends on events in the past to be fluid and malleable and the other depends on events that happened in the past are forever stuck that way. However, in Looper, the two types seem to co-exist.
The 12 Monkeys approach is used in the idea that it is the older version of Joe, Bruce Willis, who killed Cid’s mother in front of him setting the young boy down the path of hate that would ultimately result in Joe’s wife’s death. In this case the time traveler is not changing a past event, but is actually essential in causing it to happen in the original way. The difference is the event can only occur if the time traveler affects it. If the time travel never occurred then the events, both past and future, never would have happened.
Although one could argue that by young Joe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, killing himself he voided Cid’s inevitable future and then we are back into Type A. In any case the film is littered with paradoxes, but ironically these do not seem to take away any enjoyment from watching.