Looper Analysis: Deconstructing Its Time Travel

The time travel in Looper isn€™t perfect: like nearly all movies of its genre, Looper has its share of paradoxes. Looper tries very hard to stay within the boundaries of it€™s own logic, but there are a few inconsistencies that break the rules for the narrative€™s sake. Creating a flawless depiction of time travel isn€™t the point of the film, and the script cleverly diverts attention away from its issues by refusing to explain how all that €œtime travel shit€ works. That€™s fine, now we get to do the fun part and €œfry our brains€ figuring it out. Now for the straw diagrams. There are many different theories about how the mechanics of time travel work, and each time travel movie picks whichever system fits its story best. The most common version of time travel is that used in Back to the Future, in which changes in the past create alternate, diverging timelines: if you go to the past and mess around, your actions will create a new timeline and a different future. You€™ll still remember your original timeline, but you won€™t be able to get back to it unless you prevent the changes you caused in the past. Then there€™s the system which I like to call the €œfate€ style of time travel. This is used in films like Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes) or 12 Monkeys, in which going back in time doesn€™t actually cause anything to change because the events that transpire always end up happening that way no matter what: no butterfly effect. This version is a little more confusing and this time travel theory implies a lack of any real control over destiny. Finally we come to the Looper system of time travel, which I believe is the first film to utilize this particular method. In Looper, changes in the past have an effect on the future, similar to the Back to the Future style. However, the historical changes also have a simultaneous effect on time travelers from the future who have been transported into the present. If their past self is injured, their future self will also acquire the scars of that injury. Not only that, but the future version€™s memories are also altered to incorporate the past changes: they will remember receiving that injury, and living with the scars. This implies, instead of the existence of multiple alternate timelines as in the Back to the Future or Terminator movies, that there exists just one timeline in which reality is constantly in flux. When something happens in the past, its effects are immediately and seamlessly applied to the future; existence continues as if the altered past events had always happened that way. This is both where Looper demonstrates its stellar creativity, as well as where the film strays from its own logic. Johnson tries to use these time travel mechanisms to vault over some narrative hurdles, but winds up messing with the consistency of the film. In one of the film€™s more exciting yet terrifying sequences, the future (old) version of Seth (Frank Brennan), who was sent back in time to be killed by his younger self (Paul Dano) but escaped, notices that a scar has appeared on his arm. This is because the markings were carved on the arm of the present (young) version of Seth. As the sequence progresses more and more of Old Seth€™s body parts start disappearing as Young Seth is further mutilated. Old Seth is horrified as he watches his fingers and limbs vanish, up until he is finally shot and killed. This is an electrifying and intense sequence to watch, but upon further inspection it completely fails to adhere to the film€™s time travel laws. First of all, because Old Seth undergoes the physical changes that are happening to Young Seth, Old Seth is also gaining the memories of that happening to him; and all of his memories are adjusted to incorporate this altered past. We also know that the changes happen practically immediately because of how the climax plays out (seriously, if you haven€™t seen the movie stop reading, this is a MAJOR SPOILER): when present (young) Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kills himself, future (old) Joe (Bruce Willis) disappears from existence almost immediately. This means that Old Seth would not be shocked or horrified by the fact that his fingers or nose had disappeared because he would have lost them 30 years prior, as Young Seth, and would have been living without them ever since. Now we€™ve arrived at Looper€™s biggest divergence from its own rules, as the narrative creates a logical conundrum within the reality of the film. Remember, Young Seth failed to kill Old Seth, allowing him to escape, and this is the reason Young Seth is dismembered. Now back to Old Seth€™s disappearing body parts: during this scene parts of Old Seth€™s legs disappear, meaning they were hacked off Young Seth and he grew old without them. At this point, according to the logic we€™ve established for the film, Old Seth should have just vanished, because there€™s no way he could have gotten to that point without feet. But let€™s say Young Seth manages to survive the next 30 years as a quadruple amputee and becomes Old Seth. Once legless Old Seth is sent back in time, he would not have had the ability to run away and Young Seth would have shot and killed his crippled future self; meaning that Young Seth wouldn€™t have had to lose his legs, which in turn means that when he is eventually sent back in time to be killed he would have been able to run away, in which case Young Seth€™s legs would have been cut off for failing to kill his future self, again making it impossible for Old Seth to have run away. This pattern would repeat forever in a paradoxical loop; does that make sense? Now don€™t assume that because I€™m pointing out these issues it means I didn€™t like Looper; I loved it. But like everyone else, I was discussing the complexities of the film with my friends even before we had left the theatre, and before too long we mapped out these logical inconsistencies. However, after seeing the film a second time, fully aware of its logical lapses, I found that they didn€™t really affect the viewing experience: the dynamic story and characters make the film so engaging that I had no problem overlooking its issues. I€™m just happy that there are filmmakers that manage to get movies like this made. The overall quality of Looper is astounding; It€™s easily my favorite movie of the year so far, and I cannot wait to see what else Johnson has in store for us in the future.


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