For a while I have been finding Time Travel narratives a little unsatisfying. There are a couple of problems with the genre as a whole, with the concept as a whole, that fall out of their structure. The most fundamental problem that I have is that there is a kind of fundamental loss of human agency inherent in the premise unless you allow paradoxes. This isn’t quite a matter of taste, because that negative response derives from the most naturalistic interaction with drama generally as a fundamentally human thing. We can go all the way back to Aristotle’s objection to Euripides’ use of deus ex machina for criticism which wishes to have humans rather than impersonal fate as the agent for drama.
Time travel narratives must always come to a conclusion about the maleability of events and the possibility of paradox, but the problem with most narratives is that they regard this as an end rather than a means for telling human stories. Just as the main “problem” (now with quotation marks) with detective narratives is that they regard the mystery as an end, rather than a means. I must put a caveat into this that many “time travel” narratives dodge this question by traveling outside of the lifespan of their traveller, by which I mean, beyond the times when changes to the time-stream will have cut-and-dried effects on their lives. To that extent, Marty McFly’s life begins, not at conception, but at first-kiss. The Time Machine may be the original Time Travel story, but by traveling beyond the lifetime of the traveler’s whole civilization, species even, he evades any question of paradox and might as well be a space rather than time traveler.
For me, the least satisfying films are often the ones which are the most tightly sewn up. Timecrimes  is perhaps the most tightly plotted time travel film I can think of, and it is deeply unsatisfying because there is no sense at all of human agency. The time traveler becomes a human Rube-Goldberg machine, acting in ways which quite defy explanation because they are demanded by the narrative. Time Travel narratives can therefore come to represent a closed system of possibilities, where all of the various flitting through time does nothing more than reinforce the status quo, at least in dramatic terms. The best examples are films like 12 Monkeys which manage to genuinely make the inevitable feel like it was the result of human choices… an accident, if you will, rather than a design.
There are several ways out of this system of closed possibilities, but all inherently create logical problems for a single loop through time. De Ja Vu evades this by showing that the time machine can iterate through different versions of reality in order to find a solution. Source Code and Minority Report, while not strictly time-travel narratives, basically introduce the idea of the possibility of a non-causal universe – the universe will unfold inevitably until the machine is invented. The machine breaks the universe, in that sense.
The narratives which aren’t tightly controlled inevitably shed problems, which they hope you don’t notice. Back to the Future is riddled with them, but the biggest one nobody notices is: what happens to the second Marty McFly – the one who sees Doc Brown’s second shooting, who hasn’t travelled through time? Later time travel narratives close these problems off by showing one or more iterations of the repeated journey, some more successfully than others. I think Primer wants to do this, but can’t quite line it all up. Timescape acknowledges the problem, but has future time engineers sort it out without detailed explanation. Really only De Ja Vu manages to successfully combine determinism with free will, by showing the iterations through the time loop that are needed for the desired resolution. De Ja Vu deserves its own post, it’s own study really, for hiding its SF in plain sight amongst a terrorism thriller, while being terrifically intelligent.
Nevermind – we are here to talk about Looper. It will not be very easy to talk about Looper without offering what are technically spoilers; however, the great thing about formula fiction is that really, you already know what happens, at least within a handful of strong constraints. We have two versions of the basic formula on which the content will hang: free will? determinism?
Looper‘s time travel conception is in the same school as Back to the Future or Hot Tub Time Machine, which is to say, it’s in the hand-waving paradox-allowing school. Changes in the present “catch up” with future travellers. There is one particularly memorable scene early on where someone is disfigured to send a warning sign to their future self in the present. This has obvious logical problems if you treat it strictly, but those logical problems are adequately replaced by reference to the time travel formulae discussed above: the story logic trumps actual logic, as it does in so many genre fictions. The story logic is soft determinism, where we can expect details to alter, but for the basic events chasis to remain intact. You could summarize this as the “key event” version of determinism. Time travel is allowed, and changes are allowed, as long as they don’t disrupt key events.
The real problem comes in the climax, where this hand-waving catch-up style story is subsumed into a hard determinist narrative. We have the narrative trying to both allow free will to end the “cycle” and a hard determinist underpinning that requires the free will to be exercised in a certain way to allow the story logic to function. In order to prevent the disaster of the future, there must be a change in the present. Unfortunately, this clash of fictional models doesn’t quite work: by putting the “free will” option on the table at the 11th hour, it completely destroys both the time travel logic and the fictional logic for the final tragic act of the film.
The ending was therefore very jarring to me, and instead of feeling the cathartic release of a tragedy, as I did after Timecrimes or La Jetee, or the relief of tragedy averted as after Back to the Future or De Ja Vu, I felt irritation at the obvious late ploy for tragedy.
Which leads me to talk about the skin of the drama. The time travel narrative is a formula, and so, like other formula fiction, predictable on the level of story structure. Therefore, what generates and sustains engagement with the narrative is not that question of “what next” as it is for non-formula fiction, but the content of that representation. That is to say, we prefer Marty McFly in Back to the Future to Adam in Hot Tub Time Machine because he is more charismatic, less whiny, and the story has far more impetus and humour. They are functionally the same. (This case is even more strongly made for the prime formula fiction of the Detective.)
Do we like Looper‘s world? Do we like its characters? Are we engaged by their representations?
The answer for me was basically yes. The characters and their situations have a decent helping of charm, and the dialogue is fairly crisp and fairly economical. All the surface stuff is quite well done.
Which leads me, finally, to my go-to final concept for thinking about a film: what do I have to change in order to like this movie? For once, I think that this movie needed to be more romantic. The drama unfolds based on trying to recover a lost love who gets a single line of dialogue inside a montage and a death scene. It just isn’t compelling, and that would be fine if the film were prepared to follow through on that lack of compulsion. So, the minimum change I would propose, to fix everything, is for Joe to fall in love with Sara – once he commits to that change of love-focus from the woman in Future Joe’s life, the change should, in the logic of the film itself, flow through and save the day. The audience is already invested in the new relationship, the flow of causality is already established… it works structurally, and speaks to the main dramatic theme of love’s central importance.
As is, the ending just doesn’t work for me, and given the circular nature of the Time Travel narrative, that means the film doesn’t work for me.