Robert A. Heinlein

Looper – A Review

Looper [2012]

Most of the time, when reviewing films, I end up either sadly disappointed or incandescently angry. Truth be told, there are an awful lot of bad films around, and it’s hard to argue with Theodore Sturgeon’s “Sturgeon’s Law”in that:

Ninety percent of everything is crap.

It is, therefore, a doubly intense pleasure when a film like Looper comes along which is not only intelligent and complex, but actually genuinely good. And, after a year which gave us the resounding disappointment that was Prometheus, science-fiction cinema was in sore need of such a success.

Set in 2044 — and a little bit in 2074 — Looper follows Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a looper. This means he kills people who future gangsters send back in time, and disposes of the bodies, in exchange for lots of money. Except, when he’s confronted with his future self (Bruce Willis) he hesitates just long enough to be overcome and let him escape. Cue a mad chase across Kansas (yes, Kansas), with young Joe trying to kill old Joe and complete the job, whilst his future self tries to find and kill a child (an excellent performance by unknown child actor Pierce Gagnon) who will become a ruthless mob boss in his time.

As you’d expect from a film centred around time-travel, it’s very complicated and it doesn’t take any prisoners. If you are not paying attention the whole way through, you will miss important details.

I’ll say this straight off too: the causality is not perfect. There are holes in it as a bigger picture, which do become apparent  But what they don’t do is spoil the story. And that’s the important thing, that the science (ish) and the story work together, rather than feeling like they are competing forces pulling on the audience’s sense of believability.

It’s a fantastic piece of acting from Gordon-Levitt. He’s clearly studied Bruce Willis’ habits and mannerisms closely, as well as wearing make up (which does actually look a bit daft) and possibly a bit of digital manipulation. It’s an odd experience, but I found him as a younger version of Willis believable, when it could so easily have been the deal-breaker.

If there was a problem with it, then it was definitely the portrayal of women. Or, really, the lack of them. Grace Fletcher-Hackwood summed it up rather neatly over at LabourList, so I’m simply going to quote what she said:

There were only three in the whole film, and they existed for the following purposes: one was a mother, another a prostitute and the third a wife/ministering angel.

Which, frankly, is a problem. Admittedly the film focuses on two characters principally — who really are one character, when you think about it — but it feels like a very male film. To the point that I noticed it as fairly unrealistic whilst I was watching it.

But I have to take the film as it is, and aside from that hiccough I liked it a lot. The focus was on the characters and the effects of time travel, rather than how time travel is possible (it isn’t, so putting the actual time travel thirty years in the future was a neat idea), and the twists and sub-plots — including all of the red herrings scattered around for those of us trying to guess the conclusion midway through — were very impressive.

I’m trying to think of another time-travel film which handled it as well. Primer would be one, but that revelled too much in its own complexity to appeal beyond a hardcore fan base. This was different; it managed to play twin roles of heir to Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies” at the same time as the more commercial blockbuster in the style of Inception.

More like this please, Hollywood.

In Defence of Genre

I promised myself that I wouldn’t do this, but I’m somewhat annoyed at the moment, so I don’t care.

Genre fiction is, amongst writing and reading communities, generally considered to be of a lower quality than so-called “literary” fiction. By genre here I mean crime, romance, fantasy, science-fiction and horror,  but I’m going to confine my belligerent ranting to science-fiction since that’s where more of my personal experience is to be found. Now, I can understand, to a degree, why someone who hadn’t read much might think that, but should someone who hasn’t much knowledge of it be making sweeping (and rather insulting) generalisations?

Now, this isn’t to knock personal opinions. Everyone is at liberty to like and dislike whatever they want. But that doesn’t mean that because you don’t like something, it is of less value from an objective standpoint. I like to state that I don’t generally like literary fiction. I find it boring, introspective, and pretentious. But I accept that there are a lot of works of literary fiction that are nothing short of brilliant, even if I don’t like the genre, or even that specific piece.

The perception that science-fiction (and the same applies to horror, believe me) is for less intelligent people than literary fiction, is absolute rubbish, but a widely held belief. And not just on the internet, but in the real world too. China Miéville spoke about this (far more eloquently and effectively than I am) in his acceptance speech for the Arthur C. Clarke award just months ago:

He has a point. Science-fiction is incredibly relevant to modern life, and has a lot more to it than just spaceships, lightsabers, and bloody Vulcans. Good sci-fi (and there is a lot of bad, which is possibly why the misconception exists) works by analogy. It looks forward, in order to examine the world now. Look at the recent film District 9 for example. In my opinion it was one of the best films of last year, and it did exactly what science-fiction should do. It created an analogy, between the treatment of the Prawns, South Africa’s apartheid history, and the inherent xenophobia in humanity. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a hell of a lot better than the weepy, whiny pontificating that literary fiction is so proud of.

But I think the problem that most literary fiction buffs have with genre fiction, is what I count as the inherent difference between the two. Genre is fun. It doesn’t sacrifice entertainment for the sake of making a point. It recognises that as much as people read to be challenged, to learn, to see things a different way, they read to be entertained. Yes, genre fiction isn’t exempt from the curse of boring twaddle, but it strives a lot harder to keep the reader entertained, that the introspective moping of some of the literary novels that are being churned out at present.

And I know this is going to piss people off, but I chalk that down to being because the truth hurts. Science-fiction entertains, and science-fiction has a point to make. That’s not always the case, but the great works do, the good works do, and if you’re only reading the shit at the bottom, then you’re doing it wrong. Novels such as 1984 (George Orwell), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Phillip K. Dick), Children of Men (P.D. James), and a thousand others, are prime examples of this. And I know people are going to turn around to be and say that 1984 and Children of Men aren’t science-fiction, but they are. If you’re going to argue that science-fiction isn’t worth a damn, after excluding the best works as not conforming to your definition of science-fiction, then I’m not interested in what you have to say.

So to finish this ranty little interlude, genre fiction is every bit as relevant and of high general quality as literary fiction. I’m tempted to say that it’s more relevant and of higher quality, but in deference to my own personal bias, I’m going to stick with equality here. My own opinion is that genre fiction does for the everyman, what literary fiction does for the pretentious git. It opens up new windows on the world, suggests new ideas, takes the reader to places they never imagined could exist before.

And it does it without boring the pants off them