Is 'Looper' Great Art or Great Entertainment?

Is 'Looper' Great Art or Great Entertainment?

Oct 11, 2012

Welcome to The Last Sci-fi Blog, a column dedicated to science fiction on film.

Looper, Prometheus and Art vs. Entertainment

When Looper opened two weeks ago, the praise was practically universal. Look at that 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Look at the countless cries of "Instant classic!" Look at the numerous message board threads discussing and decoding the film, searching for whatever secrets lurk underneath the surface. In a year filled with mostly disappointing mainstream releases, Looper came along and shook things up, filling the "Great Modern Science-Fiction Movie" slot that everyone thought Prometheus was going to fill.

I'm not going to say that Looper is bad movie, mainly because it isn't (it's actually rather tremendous), but I will admit to being completely shocked by it being as widely accepted and beloved as it is.

Let's bring Prometheus back into the equation. On paper, Prometheus is a critical darling. A "visionary" director known for tackling big science-fiction ideas making a sci-fi epic that deals with the creation of mankind and his place in the universe. That's not small potatoes -- those are Kubrickian potatoes. I think most people will agree that, as a whole, Prometheus doesn't work, but at least it's reaching for the sky as it stumbles. It's ambitious in a 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of way, and it's the kind of movie no one makes these days.

And then there's Looper, which, on paper, looks like a really cool science-fiction action movie that uses time travel as a backdrop. And what gets delivered in the final product? A really cool science-fiction action movie that uses time travel as a backdrop. Looper is exactly what it sets out to be. The subtext is limited and most of the "fan theories" about the film are shallow, redundant or people imagining cool Easter eggs because that's what science-fiction fans with no girlfriends and a WiFi connection do.

Prometheus is art (albeit art with mainstream appeal), but it's art that falls flat on its face. Looper is entertainment, but boy what tremendous, exhilarating and invigorating entertainment it is! 

Although it makes a big deal about how messy and confusing time travel can be, Looper is actually an incredibly clean, clear and well-told story. Is there a grand meaning or a great deal of subtext? Nah, at least nothing particularly exciting or original. The ultimate conclusions the film reaches and the choices the characters make aren't anything we haven't seen a thousand times before. What separates Looper from its peers is writer-director Rian Johnson's storytelling, who seems to be building a career out of movies so effortlessly entertaining and fun that he makes themes as old as Sophocles feel fresh and revelatory. 

When Avatar hit theaters in 2009, many of its fans defended it against its detractors by comparing it to sci-fi "pulp novels." That didn't apply as a proper or accurate defense in that case, but it does apply as a compliment in the case of Looper. This is the kind of tough and smart sci-fi world that feels like it was born from the paperback book rack in the '70s. Great pulp was never big and dumb, great pulp was always about riveting, odd stories. So, yeah: I'm still surprised about Looper's unanimous praise. It's not often that a brilliant film gets props for being an almost unfair amount of fun. Johnson has yet to make art, but who cares. He belongs next to the cinematic campfire, the best spot for spinning great yarns.

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