Saturday, October 06, 2012

a loopy time travel story

If someone went back in time and cut your finger off when you were younger, would suddenly look at your hand and see the finger missing? Well, that wouldn't make sense, would it? If the person actually went back in time and cut your finger off, then your finger would have been cut off back then and you wouldn't have it now. You would remember missing a finger for much of your life. Nothing would change.

The idea that something would change comes from a sort of hidden model where there are two time streams, the main time stream and the time stream of the guy who goes back in time. So when the time traveler cuts your finger off in the past, you lose your finger, not in the main time stream, but in the time stream of the time traveler. But this concept is incoherent if you follow it to it's logical conclusion. It's like telling a story about a square circle. You can talk about rolling it (because it's round) and then setting something on it securely (because it's square). As long as you don't try to think about the roundness and the squareness together, you can make your story as long and detailed as you like, but it still isn't coherent. The trick of a time travel story is to just avoid the incoherence.

Looper is a movie about time travel that doesn't manage the trick. The premise of Looper is that in the future, you can't hide a body (because of chemical tracing and other technologies) so they send people back in time to be killed and buried. If you are already thinking, "Wait ... that doesn't make sense," then you are starting to get a feel for the movie.

I hate to pan a movie with such a tremendous cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels. In fact the acting was tremendous, but the plot was just too ridiculous for words. And I'm not just talking about the ridiculous theory of time travel; I'm talking about character motivations and character arcs as well. The whole thing just didn't hold together. It was one long stream of confusion inducement.

Some movies, like Jumper and Inception take an idea about human powers or technology and craft a story around the idea and its logical implications in a way that is entertaining and thought provoking. What would you do if you suddenly had the power of teleportation? If you could use technology to make dreams completely realistic, how would you ever know if you got out of the dream or not?

Other movies, like Loopers, take an idea about human powers or technology and throw together a bunch of random dramatic moments in a way that makes you go, "huh?" I'll give writer/director Rian Johnson this: he has a good sense for drama, he imagines interesting characters and dialog, and he is a good director. But he doesn't seem to care about logic or consistency even in the plot and characters. I'm not just complaining about the nerdy science here; the plot has serious holes and the climactic moment of the film was just completely unmotivated and out of character.

So, yes, patient readers. This is going to be another movie review that mainly complains about all of the bad logic in the movie. Sorry, but the logic of this movie was just awful. Far worse than Battleship. So bad that I'm going to pick it apart with spoilers --something I don't usually do.


Bad Economics of Time Travel
Assuming you do want the bodies to disappear,  why not send back dead bodies and just have them buried? Why pay hired killers in the past when it would be so much cheaper to hire mere grave diggers in the past?

The amount of silver and gold they deal with is way too much. They need that much metal for one cool scene where Old Joe survives assassination by turning around, but it's just not believable. These loopers would all be near billionaires.

The mob can send silver and gold back in time to pay loopers and it seems to cause no problems, so why are they wasting time travel on just sending victims back? Why not send agents back with silver and gold to invest for them knowing exactly how the stock market is going to go? They could take over the world semi-honestly and not have to kill people.

Bad Management of Time Assassination
The premise is sending people back in time to be killed so that their bodies are not found. I can see a purpose for this occasionally, but they make an entire industry of it. Are there really that many situations where it's better for someone to disappear than to have an accident? Why?

Loopers are required one day to "close the loop" by killing their own future self. Why? This is obviously going to cause exactly the problems they show in the movie. There are many loopers in the movie so why not have looper A kill the future looper B instead? It would greatly reduce the problem of loopers letting their future selves go and would mean that you don't have to retire a looper, giving him a lot of money and losing his services.

Bad Plotting and Characterization
Old Joe has been rehabilitated by the love of a good woman but is still so evil that he kills children, yet Young Joe, a professional killer who sold out his best friend to be tortured and murdered is so selfless that he kills himself to save a child's life (or to save the future, the motivation is a bit murky).

The movie tries to build up tension by showing that if Cid, a young child with telekinetic abilities, grows up then he will end up being a great evil influence. But the evidence for this is that in the future, the Cid takes over all of the big criminal gangs and starts killing all of the loopers --the mob's hired killers. In other words, he is shutting down the mob's assassination factory. That's evil? How do we know he isn't out to destroy the mob from the inside?

As an aside, how does being a strong telekinetic let you take over the five biggest criminal mobs? As powers go, it seems like a pretty poor one for a crime boss since it doesn't really let you do anything you couldn't do with a bunch of goons and automatic weapons.

Young Joe kills himself to save Cid, and the bitter-sweet ending is that now we know that Cid will be raised by his mother who loves him and he has a chance to grow up to be good instead of evil. But presumably he grew up with his mother in the time stream where none of these events happened, and in that time stream he was evil. Nothing big has changed in Cid's life except that he killed a man who was threatening him and another man tried to kill him. If he grew up evil in the other time line, why isn't he going to grow up evil in this time line?

Bad Logic of Time Travel
Finally, there is the silliness of this plot device: you go back in time so now both Old Joe and Young Joe are there at the same time. You cut off Young Joe's finger and suddenly Old Joe is missing a finger. He looks at his hand in surprise: "Hey, my finger just disappeared!" But that makes no sense. Why would it happen at the same time, given that the effect has to go through time travel? Why didn't Old Joe arrive with a missing finger?

How does the causality work? If you cut off Joe's trigger finger, he can't be a successful hit man any more so his career path was completely different and he never went through the history that ended up with him traveling back in time. So he shouldn't just lose his finger, he should disappear and return to the future. Or say he got sent to the past anyway because that's when the mob decided to kill him, regardless of his career. Still, he would have made different choices and done different things after being sent back if he were that different person who lived 20 years without a trigger finger, so at the very least, he should disappear from where he currently is and reappear where he would have been if he had acted as that different person.

And his memories should be completely changed too. How can bodies change but memories stay the same? He should remember that he came back missing a finger and not be surprised that it is missing now.

Finally, when Old Joe gets into a time capsule a few minutes later than he was scheduled to he arrives back in the past a few minutes late. Why would that be? Why not go back to the exact same time regardless of when he leaves? If the time capsule always goes back a set amount of time, then why doesn't he wait as long as possible before going back in order to avoid having a Young Joe waiting there to shoot him?

OK. Those are the big complaints. I've seen several good movies this year (Total Recall, for example) but I guess enjoying a movie just isn't a big enough motivation to write about it --not like being annoyed by a movie. I'll try to get motivated to write a review of Dredd and/or Paranorman while they are still in theaters. Those were both good.

UPDATE: Donald Crankshaw says that Cid was killing all of the loopers as revenge for Old Joe's actions in another timeline. I didn't get that from the movie, but I might have missed it, dismissing it so quickly that I didn't remember it later, thinking it was so illogical that I must have misunderstood.

The reason it was so illogical is because, as Donald points out, there was no timeline in which it could have happened that way. There was one timeline where Joe's loop gets closed as per normal so Cid is never endangered, and one timeline where Young Joe saves Cid's life from Old Joe. There is no timeline where Old Joe kills Cid, and so no timeline where Cid has an incentive for revenge. Unless Cid is looking for revenge because Old Joe tried to kill him, ignoring that young Joe saved his life. In which case, the self-sacrifice of Young Joe would, er, wipe out that timeline. Meaning that Cid was never threatened by Old Joe, meaning that Cid had no incentive for revenge against loopers. Meaning that the whole story goes away. If that was the movie's intention, it's even worse than I thought.

And BTW, I didn't mean to leave the impression that I didn't enjoy the movie; I did. I just found parts of it irritating.

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