There’s a problem inherent in all time travel stories, and it’s quite simple to state: They’re impossible. You may have heard of the grandfather paradox, which is that you invent a time machine, go back in time, kill your grandfather or do something that causes him to die, in which case you were never born, never built the time machine, never killed your grandfather. Everything’s okay again. But when you look at it you realize that nothing happened. Nothing! There is no way to bring back that reality, it took care of itself and, if that reality exists somewhere, it is in a closed loop of space-time.
Larry Niven took that out to its logical conclusion with one of his laws, which goes something like this: In any universe in which time travel is possible, no time machine will ever be built. Think about it. If a time machine is built and people start visiting the past, changing the present, then over the millions and billions of years of the existence of the universe, someone, somewhere, will go back in time and alter conditions such that the person or persons who invented the time machine never did. Ergo, there was never time travel in the first place.
Of course, that didn’t prevent Larry from writing some excellent time travel stories. I wrote one, too, aware that every aspect of it is paradoxical. So the fun of a time travel story is trying to make complications, and somehow finessing your way around the inevitable fact that it’s horseshit. You have to fudge it. You have to distract the reader, or viewer, from the paradox that, if you look for it, can be winkled out of all time travel stories. Very much including this one.
This movie does well at that, I think. If you’re pulling a fast one, it helps if you have interesting characters that one can feel sympathy for, and this one has them. The premise, silly as all time travel stories, is nevertheless interesting. Time travel has been discovered at some point, and outlawed. So … if guns are outlawed, only who will have guns? Same with time travel. The Mob in 2070 needs a way to dispose of the bodies of the folks they want to rub out, but for some reason that’s hard in 2070. (Never mind, just go with it.) So they send them back to 2040, and recruit killers, known as loopers. These guys agree to show up at a time and a place where a bound and blindfolded person will appear, and to instantly blow him away. The corpse is 30 years from the mobsters, and thus it’s impossible to convict them of anything. Neat.
The catch is that eventually you will find yourself blowing away an older version of yourself. This is understood in the original contract. You kill yourself (the person is hooded, so you don’t know it’s you), and then you’re no longer a looper. You have 30 years to enjoy the fruits of your labors, and then some bad guys will come for you, tie you up, put a hood over your head, and send you back to be killed by your younger self.
Would anyone agree to that? I might. The year 2040 is a shithole, with huge numbers of homeless and hopeless. (This is a future where Mitt Romney won in 2012 and 2016, then Ryan in 2020 and 2024, obviously.) Thirty years of affluence and ease might look pretty good if life expectancy was around, say, 40 or less. And you would know your end would be quick, because you already saw it. Did it, in fact.
The possibilities for fuckups and paradoxes in this situation are endless, of course, just as in all time travel stories. Bruce Willis, an elder version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, young looper, comes back and manages to escape execution and then sets out to change the future, which also sucks but where he has fallen in love with a woman who he saw killed. And we’re off to the races, with Bruce determined to kill all of the three people who could grow up to be the mysterious Rainmaker, who is wiping out all the loopers.
I won’t reveal the ending, which is unsatisfying because they don’t manage to conceal the paradox very well. Our hero performs a selfless act, and I don’t see how it changes anything other than to offer more infinite possibilities. But the bulk of the movie is well done. It tends to drag a little bit here and there, but before it gets too static they throw in more action that does not always seem gratuitous. And I guess I shouldn’t expect to have it both ways. Too slow, and then too violent? I’m not being fair. I had a good time, and recommend it as a better-than-average SF film.