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 What 'Looper' tells us about the American future

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt, foreground, and Paul Dano in a scene from the action thriller "Looper" (AP/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Which science-fiction scenario better describes the future: “Star Trek” or “Blade Runner”?  That is, can we look forward to the utopian vista of “Star Trek,” in which we humans have solved the problems of earth, leaving the rest of the universe for us to explore?  Or must we dread the smoggy dystopia of “Blade Runner,” in which a brutal world is divided starkly between the huddled poor and the rich luxuriating in their guarded enclaves?  

These questions are brought to mind by the new movie “Looper”--starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt--which is definitely in the “Blade Runner” tradition.   That is, America in the mid-21st century is mostly desolation, populated by marauding criminals and their beaten-down victims; meanwhile, tantalizing emerald cities of arrogant luxury sparkle in the unattainable distance.   

Time travel drives the film’s plot: In the year 2072, gangsters find it convenient to send intended victims back in time to 2042, where they can be shot and killed by hit men, called “loopers,” leaving no trace in 2072.  We are told that it is simply too hard to hide a body in 2072, and so it’s better to snuff out the victims 30 years before.   It’s a murderous loop indeed, but then looper Gordon-Levitt, in 2042, is confronted by Willis, playing the same character--the same looper-- only he’s 30 years older.  So what should Gordon-Levitt do?  Kill himself?   That is, kill his older self?     

Let’s give “Looper” credit for great imagination, if not great logic. After all, if you can’t hide or eliminate a dead body in 2072, how can you hide a time machine?  And if you have something as powerful as a time machine, why not transport the victim three billion years into the past, before oxygen became abundant on earth, or three billion years into the future, when the earth will likely have been swallowed by the sun?  Better yet, why not think of a better and more fruitful use for a time machine, beyond body-disposal?

To be sure, time travel is a tempting but tricky subject matter.   Back in 1952, the late, great Ray Bradbury published “The Sound of Thunder,” establishing the idea that if one traveled back in time, the present day would inevitably be altered.  That is, time travel would disrupt the stream of history in some profound, even catastrophic, manner.  As Bradbury argued, even stepping on a single butterfly in dinosaur days would reshape all subsequent history.    

So every time-travel story must do its best to avoid getting lost in “time paradoxes.” Even 1985’s fun and fleet-footed “Back to the Future” needed a chalkboard to explain what was going on.   

For the most part, “Looper” tells its audience just to deal with the story as it rolls along.   As one character says,  “This time travel crap, it just fries your brain like an egg.”  That’s a brilliant way of letting the audience off the hook--enjoy the film now, sort out the FAQs later.   

And in fact, the film is enjoyable. Admittedly, it helps if one is a fan of intense action movies; “Looper” owes a debt not only to sci-fi movies such as “Terminator,” but also to gangster and cowboy films.   And there’s even the human super-power of telekinesis--remember Stephen King’s book/movie “Carrie”?  

Yet at the same time, there’s a story, with actual characters.  Gordon-Levitt secured his stardom in “The Dark Knight Rises” this summer, and he is effective here, too, as a killer afflicted with a conscience.  In other words, he faces the existential dilemma of many a film-noir hoodlum, reaching back to the hard-boiled classics of seventy or eighty years ago.

As for Willis, he is, well, Willis.  As an actor, he is well advised to stay within his dramatic range, but the young hero of the “Die Hard” movies has now aged into a thoroughly credible elder-statesman tough-guy-ness.   And the British-born Emily Blunt, having outshone Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada” six years ago, now takes on a Southern-accented, vein-bulging feistiness as she defends her homestead and kin against invaders, even as she guards a disturbing secret in her own family.  

Okay, so the film is fine--for those who like a mix of violent genres, moved along by a clever plot and good writing, capped by a surprising and redeeming twist.

But there’s still that “Star Trek” vs. “Blade Runner” business.  If it’s true what they say--that sci-fi is as much a meditation on the present as  a projection into the future--can we then deduce anything about our society from this particular film?  

One thing we know for sure: The national mood has changed from a half-century ago.  When TV producer Gene Roddenberry launched “Star Trek” in 1966, he was consciously channeling the optimistic spirit not only of John F. Kennedy and the space program, but also of the pro-science ethos that defined the US for most of the 20th century.  That is, from nuclear power to the polio vaccine to the interstate highways, Americans eagerly harnessed science and technology to change America for the better.   

And three centuries in the future, Roddenberry hoped, the world would be safe and prosperous; this world, and others, were indeed joined together in a United Federation of Planets.   That might sound a little bit too United Nations-ish for some, but in Roddenberry’s vision, it was all part of a better future order; people were rational, secular, and willing to be subordinated into a prosperous post-capitalist technocracy.  

Yet even in 1966, it was readily apparent that Americans, and humanity as a whole, were not so willing to give up old beliefs and grievances in order to become galactic voyagers.  As we know, plenty of wars were to be be fought over the last 50 years, and many more revolutions--both military and cultural--were to be unleashed.   And oh yes, neither the economy nor technology fully cooperated in the unfolding of Roddenberry’s hoped-for vision.   So in 2001, we didn’t get the Pan Am Moon Shuttle imagined in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” although we did get personal digital technology that exceeded what most imagined just a few decades before.  And, of course, in 2001, we were struck by terrorism, reminding us that earth was not ready to unite behind a Captain Kirk seeking to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In other words, the big collective vision of Roddenberry seems, now, to be as far away as Alpha Centauri.    

Meanwhile, in 1968, just two years after the premier of “Star Trek,” the sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick put forth a much different vision in his novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”  If Roddenberry stood for optimism, Dick stood for pessimism.   To Roddenberry, the future was gleaming and beckoning; to Dick, the future was all going to be just a huge misunderstanding, if not an outright evil conspiracy.   The protagonists in Dick’s stories may go to space, but if they come back at all, they come back haunted, unsure of such a basic question as their own identity.

Dick was relatively obscure until 1982, when director Ridley Scott turned “Androids” into the movie “Blade Runner,” a film which surely stands as the most influential cinematic imagining of the future in the second half of the 20th century.  (The “Star Wars” movies, it must be remembered, were set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” )  

“Blade Runner” is set in the Los Angeles of 2019, a place where pollution means that it’s dark and rainy all the time.  Most people are poor, relentlessly encouraged by the government--more precisely, a fusion of bureaucrats and corporate tycoons living atop pharaonic skyscrapers--to emigrate from the earth.  Airborne loudspeakers blare out to the masses, “A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies!  A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!”  Yet no human heeds the cheery come-on; the film suggests that miserable as they might be on earth, they are wise not to trust the off-world pitch.  

Thirty years later, “Blade Runner” still dominates the way Hollywood sees the future.  In addition to “Looper,” other recent sci-fi films--including recent releases such as “Hunger Games,” “Total Recall” and “Dredd”--portray the road ahead in a similarly bleak light.    

So who’s right: the optimists or the pessimists?    That’s a question we all have to answer, although the answer from “Looper” is clear enough--and bleak enough.   Indeed, for now, at least, it might seems as if the “Blade Runner” scenario is more likely to come and crush our future.   

Still, the enduring popularity of “Star Trek”--the original TV series is endlessly re-run, and the myriad follow-on TV series, books, and movies are always in circulation--suggests that the enduring hope for a brighter future still animates people.    

And yet at a time when politics seems like a downer and the popular culture seems even more down-bound, it will take more than hope to change the future to a better course for America and for humanity.  Each and every optimist will have to stand up and do something positive and constructive toward that better course.   To borrow a phrase from “Star Trek: The Next Generation," we will all have to do our part to “make it so.” 

Otherwise, the Blade Runners and Loopers will win.  

James P. Pinkerton is a Fox News contributor. He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He is also the editor of CureStrategy.org.