The Last Jedi is going to make Rian Johnson a star. Since Summer 2014, the film world has waited in heady anticipation for not only the true follow-up to legendary sequel Empire Strikes Back, but also this collaboration between a talented auteur and the Disney juggernaut. Fans have grimaced as director after director has been quashed down or fired entirely from the iconic franchise, and waited with bated breath for the next casualty of creativity versus commercial viability. Everything changed last month, when we learned that Johnson was being given a Star Wars trilogy of his very own to play with – a sure sign that Episode VIII was going to be a hit, and Johnson along with it.
This new trilogy will bring a host of new fans to his door – but for many of us, Rian Johnson was already a hero. TV connoisseurs knew him for his role in masterminding some of Breaking Bad’s finest episodes, and film fans – we’d seen Looper. Johnson had already shown his flair for gumshoes and grit in his directorial debut, Brick. In Looper, he took the toys he was playing around with – hardboiled heroes, non-linear storytelling, star on the rise Joseph Gordon-Levitt – and went all in, creating a neo-noir masterpiece that is mesmerising, thought-provoking, and very entertaining.
Like with any good science fiction, Looper trades in social commentary (more on this later), but first and foremost it’s an engaging thriller, and Johnson throws in some classic horror tropes and black comedy for good measure. A perfect cast are all at the top of their game and well-versed in pivoting pivot between wry humour, action jackson excitement and nuanced character work. They say the perfect wedding speech makes you laugh, cry and think, and after seeing Looper, family friends of Johnson should be eying him up to write their nuptials.
Across the board, Looper is artistically spectacular. Johnson and his frequent collaborators – cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Editor Bob Ducsay and composer/cousin Nathan Johnson, not to mention Joseph Gordon-Levitt – contribute solid material that flows in harmony, tied together by Johnson’s broader vision and style. This all sounds a little grandiose, but the bottom line is that no aspect of Looper’s production stands out as its starring element. The easiest description would be ‘the world building is great’ or ‘the cinematography is jaw-dropping’, but to deconstruct any of these pieces does a disservice to the symphony.
Okay, that’s quite enough grandstanding, Looper is solid on a technical level but describing it like the Sistine Chapel is probably a bit much. Nor does it really require much defending, as it’s hardly an underrated or underappreciated movie. Solid critical acclaim and $175 million at the box office is the kind of haul genre thrillers can usually only dream of, and it certainly propelled Rian Johnson to where he is now, spearheading the future of sci-fi’s most influential series. Ironically, if there was one issue fans took umbrage with, it was Looper’s interpretation of its most sci-fi element: time travel.
Looper’s critics claimed the film’s time travel machinations were nonsensical and supposedly unrealistic, with even fans left divided on how Johnson chose to eschew in-film explanation and sweep the entire idea under the rug, with one gruff “I don’t wanna talk about time travel!” from Bruce Willis. For some, this was enough. Others defended the interpretation as ‘a narrative device’, while some were content to draw their own conclusions, inevitably grabbing whiteboards and copies of Primer to muddle their way through mumbo jumbo.
For me? I moved through the stages, eventually landed at my central, and hopefully most salient point – Rian Johnson’s use of time travel is perfect just the way it is. In Looper, neither of the Joes can explain time travel because they don’t understand it – and why would they? They aren’t building or working the mysterious macguffins that transport criminals across 30 years, and their attempts to reshape reality through time are blind and fumbling, in many cases with horrific consequences. Old Joe doesn’t want to explain time travel because it doesn’t matter to him – it’s just another way for the powerful to trap those below them into the same cycles of deprivation and poverty that they have profited from for generations. The film’s loops take these vicious circles and manifest them temporally, as the future’s criminals literally take away the futures of poor, working class young men and use them to further their own interests.
In the film’s opening narration, Joe describes the Loopers as ‘assassins’, but they’re barely even hitmen. The Loopers are simple executioners, disposing of the messes of the future in exchange for some silver and a vague sense of importance. Jeff Daniel’s Abe – who deserves a Scene Stealers article of his own right – proudly waxes lyrical about how he ‘saved’ Joe; he picked him up and gave him something that was his. This sense of ownership traps and dooms the characters of the film: young Joe and his future, old Joe and his wife, the Loopers and the Gat Men and their lavish small-town lifestyles, even Cid and his mysterious power. The inhabitants of this bleak future are desperate to keep hold of what is theirs, and in taking others down to keep it, they inevitably set themselves up to lose everything.
The answer? To see the bigger picture, and look beyond yourself. Selflessness and sacrifice are the only way to break free – as young Joe points out, his older self could save his wife immediately with one selfless act, but old habits die hard, and old Joe is desperate to keep what is his. This is where Emily Blunt’s Sara comes in (another fantastic performance) who breaks free of her own cycles of partying and self-destruction to look after her son, a choice that young Joe understands by the film’s emotional final act, when he makes his own sacrifice.
Looper’s obvious parallel cinematically would appear to be Twelve Monkeys, but on closer inspection there is more kinship with Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, which similarly uses sci-fi to explore the interplay between criminal tyranny, poverty and selflessness. These ideas also play into the Star Wars series, and as The Last Jedi brings together this legendary franchise with Rian Johnson AND Attack the Block star John Boyega, expect another sci-fi film that isn’t afraid to abandon the nitty gritty of its tropes and look at the big picture.