And then I ruined Looper too

OK, so now that I’ve ruined Back to the Future for you, I’m going to do the same thing for Looper. (Spoilers ahead, in case that wasn’t clear enough.)

In the future, time travel has been invented but it’s illegal. The only people who use it are wealthy crime bosses, and apparently the only thing they use it for is assassination. In the future, you see, it’s really hard to dispose of dead bodies. But there’s a solution for those with the means: rather than simply killing your victim, you send him thirty years into the past, where he is immediately shot by an assassin called a “looper.” The looper disposes of the body, and since no one is looking for him in the past, it’s pretty close to the perfect crime. Eventually the looper’s contract will be terminated, at which point he will be required to kill the older version of himself. Once he does this, he then has thirty years of freedom to enjoy before the younger version of himself kills him. This is called “closing the loop.”

This whole idea is rather silly for a lot of reasons, but I’m not going to dwell on that. Nor am I going to dwell on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ridiculously good Bruce Willis impersonation, which makes this movie worth watching. What I’m going to focus on is the sheer impossibility of the plot, which involves Old Joe (Bruce Willis) evading assassination at the hands of his younger self, Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Looper differs from a move like Back to the Future in that rather than there being two distinct timelines, there are a potentially infinite number of timelines, with a different one being created each time someone makes a decision. This is presumably true of everyone, although we generally aren’t aware of it because we can only see the actual timeline. But since Old Joe exists as the sum total of decisions made by Young Joe, and the two now coexist in the same timeline, we can see Young Joe’s decisions affecting Old Joe in real time. For example, when Young Joe wants Old Joe to meet him at a café, he carves the waitress’s name into his arm with a knife, causing Old Joe to see a scar appear on his arm. Old Joe says his memory is “fuzzy,” telling Young Joe that “I remember what you do a second after you do it.” This is a convenient way of getting around Old Joe being able to anticipate everything that Young Joe does, as well as preserving Young Joe’s perception of free will.

I say this device is “convenient,” but it’s also logically consistent. I don’t have a problem with the timespace continuum preserving its integrity by making Old Joe’s memory a little fuzzy. In fact, it makes a sort of intuitive sense, being reminiscent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. Young Joe’s near future (and Old Joe’s distant past) exist only as potentialities, collapsing into an actual reality only after Young Joe makes a decision.

So here’s the problem: Young Joe kills Old Joe and then lives for another thirty years, gradually turning into Old Joe. Then Old Joe is sent back in time to be killed by Young Joe. But somehow this time around, he manages to escape being killed by Young Joe. Old Joe then goes on a killing rampage, which causes Young Joe to take a different course of action than he did in the original timeline. This course of action results in Old Joe never having existed. But if Old Joe never existed, then Young Joe would never be faced with the opportunity of killing him, in which case most of the movie never actually took place.

The movie tries to get around this problem with what I call a “realtime updating” mechanism, in which the actions of the younger version of a character instantly affect the older version of the character when the two coexist in the same timeline. If you think too hard about this mechanism, though, it devolves into nonsense. Take, for example, the plight of Seth, another looper who is assigned to kill his older self. Young Seth fails to kill Old Seth, which makes Young Seth’s boss very angry. To prevent Old Seth from escaping, his boss has Young Seth kidnapped. Old Seth, who is on the run, sees a message carved into his arm telling him to be at a certain location at a certain time. Old Seth begins to lose fingers, then a hand, then an arm, etc. In an effort to prevent his younger self from being further mutilated, he tries desperately to get to the address carved on his arm, but by the time he gets there, he’s lost all of his limbs. He bangs a stump on the door and the door opens, revealing Young Seth on a bed, having had his limbs amputated. In addition to this being pretty gross, it’s also logically impossible: how did a man with no arms and legs get to the target location?

The obvious answer is that we saw how he got there: he climbed a fence, drove a car, and then crawled to the door. His gradually losing limbs along the way obviously didn’t prevent him from getting there. The problem is that the loss of his limbs wasn’t gradual: it appears gradual because of the way the film portrays it, but following the movie’s own rules we have to assume that the Old Seth that makes it to Young Seth’s bedside has a complete set of memories of having all of his limbs removed. And that means that the Old Seth who made it to the door has been missing his limbs for thirty years. And that entails that Old Seth could never have climbed a fence or driven a car. Old Seth couldn’t possibly be where he is. In fact, it appears that Young Seth dies at the end of this morbid operation, which means that there never would have been an Old Seth at all. And that, of course, implies that Young Seth could not have been assigned to kill Old Seth, which implies that he never failed to kill him, which implies that none of what we just saw actually happened.

At the climax of the movie (SPOILER!), Young Joe realizes that he must sacrifice himself to prevent Old Joe from killing an innocent boy. He shoots himself in the chest, killing himself and causing Old Joe to suddenly vanish. Makes sense, right? If Young Joe dies, then Old Joe disappears because he can’t exist. But again, this is an overly simplistic rendition of cause and effect. What the death of Young Joe actually implies is that Old Joe never existed. And if he never existed, he didn’t come back in time to either be killed or not killed by Young Joe. And that means that basically nothing in the movie ever happened.

On a certain level, this seems to be what Looper is getting at: Young Joe redeems himself by erasing himself from existence, making the world a better place by preventing the existence of Old Joe. Unlike Back to the Future, Looper doesn’t rely on heroic intervention in the past; its view of time travel is essentially nihilistic: the ultimate solution is for Joe to take himself out of the equation altogether. The problem is that we clearly witness the aftermath of Young Joe’s death and Old Joe’s disappearance. The world we are left with is not a world in which Old Joe never existed, but rather one in which Old Joe suddenly, inexplicably, stopped existing. Presumably the other kids that Old Joe killed are still dead in this world, despite the fact that Old Joe couldn’t have killed them because he didn’t exist. Maybe we’re not supposed to care about those kids.

I suppose we can allow the filmmakers some poetic license in the final scene (in which Sara is reunited with her son, Cid). The plot of the movie up to this point basically cancels itself out, so that this scene is technically impossible. But we can imagine that this scene is meant to represent how, in the absence of both Young Joe and Old Joe, Cid and Sarah live happily ever, however they may have gotten to that point.

Still, it’s troubling that the movie is so maddeningly incoherent up to that point. On a romantic (that is, non-rational), I’m OK with Joe’s actions canceling each other out so that the good guy and bad guy annihilate each other, leaving the rest of us to live happily ever after. What bugs me is the little things, like Old Seth losing first one finger, and then another. There was never any way that Young Seth was going to get out of that room without losing all of his fingers, so there couldn’t possibly be an Old Seth who is missing exactly one finger.

The only possible way to explain Seth’s gradual loss of digits is to claim that cause and effect don’t work the way we think they do; that there can actually be two realities co-existing: one in which Old Seth has always had no fingers, and one in which Old Seth first loses one finger and then another while on his way to Young Seth’s bedside. Let’s imagine that’s the case for a moment, and that we manage to interview Old Seth at the door to the room in which Young Seth is being held, moments before Old Seth expires.

Interviewer: How did you get here?

Old Seth: I climbed a fence, then drove a car, and finally crawled here.

Interviewer: How did you climb a fence with no fingers?

Old Seth: I had fingers when I climbed the fence.

Interviewer: Do you remember losing your fingers?

Old Seth: Yes.

Interviewer: How did it happen?

Old Seth: They were cut off 30 years ago.

Interviewer: When did you climb the fence to get here?

Old Seth: About ten minutes ago.

Interviewer: So you had your fingers ten minutes ago, but not 29 years ago?

Old Seth: Uh…

Maybe such a dual reality is possible, but if so, it essentially makes the plot incomprehensible. If a man without fingers can magically sprout fingers in order to climb a fence, then you might as well just wrap up the whole show with AND THEN A MIRACLE HAPPENED. THE END.

As with Back to the Future, the plot of Looper seems to make sense, but if you rigorously apply its own logic, the whole thing devolves to nonsense.

And before you jump all over me for over-analyzing these things, keep in mind that I’m not saying Looper is a bad movie. I actually rather enjoyed it. I’m just saying that if you look at it too hard, it doesn’t make much sense. If that doesn’t bother you, then that’s perfectly fine with me. Movies don’t necessarily have to make sense; I’m just pointing out that this one doesn’t.