Review: Looper, AKA ‘It would have been so easy not to be sexist: WHY?!’

Poster: Looper

It’s NOT my future, it’s a future where all women are mothers or whores.

Title: Looper
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, and Pierce Gagnon
Written by: Rian Johnson
Directed by: Rian Johnson

So. This was the film that everybody loved. I have literally not heard a single person say a single bad thing about this. One doesn’t like to get swept up in hype, but my chief concern was that it would be another faux-philosophical concept film, like Inception, that would annoy me by being less well thought through than The Matrix (I got no problem with The Matrix, as a philosopher – it’s a handy brain-in-a-vat hypothesis; alas, Inception is not the Dreaming argument, it just thinks it is). Actually? The concept is interesting and fairly well realised in a way that I was not able to predict from start to finish. Moreover, the acting was excellent, the script was well-structured and the dialog believable. The CGI was very impressive and there were extensive geek references (chiefly to the Terminator films, but also Blade Runner and the 2009 Star Trek).

I really want to like this movie. But I can’t. Before I give way to the ranting, let me do my best at a non-spoilery plot summary.


In the future-future they invent time travel. But it’s so dangerous it’s pretty much instantly outlawed. So only the outlaws use it. And what they use it for is to dispose of bodies. They dispose of them by employing ‘Loopers’ – people 30 years in the past (but still in our future) who wait around at spots where future-future people are scheduled to be sent back in time, then shoot those people with a specialised short range shotgun. They are paid handsomely from this. The catch is that their wealth is bought at the expense of their future. Loopers literally tidy themselves away. At some point, the person sent back to be killed will be yourself. And you don’t want to know what will happen to you if you don’t kill yourself. Why they don’t send future Loopers back to someone else to be killed? REASONS.

It’s a nice set up until a suspiciously high number of loopers start ‘closing their loop’ in quick succession (i.e. killing themselves). Then, the mate-of-Joseph-Gordon-Levitt (aka Seth) fails to kill himself, and his old self tells him that in the future a new gang boss, the ‘Rainmaker’ is closing all the loops. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is next. But, as it happens, Joe is a match for himself, and gets away: on a mission to kill the Rainmaker whilst he’s still a child.

Oh, also? There’s telekinesis in this future. It’s usually shit. It’s totally not Chekov’s telekinesis.

Why So Serious, Womble?

K. It’s a nice idea. Ultimately, because of [spoiler], the time travel is not metaphysically sound. But I don’t care about that. The time travel isn’t metaphysically sound in the Terminator movies, either.

It’s visually very pretty. In particular, it references Star Trek (2009) in the long-view vistas of the city, and it references Blade Runner in the close-up street scenes – but updated to look even cooler and more realistic. The helicopters also distinctly recall the shape and movements of the aerial Hunter-Killers from the Terminator films.

There are also countless Terminator references that felt like they were getting at something more than just ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome to have Robert Patrick Garret Dillahunt* play a killer in a time travel movie?’ or ‘Hey, let’s have a fierce momma-bear type called “Sarah” in a time travel movie!’ or ‘Hey, let’s have the hero in a time travel movie be called “Joe”, which sounds a little like “John” – we’re so rad!’.


But this world is mysteriously populated by, like, nine times the number of men to the number of women.

But the only black woman (and I think the only black speaking role?) is a waitress, who honours the hero with flirtation, but is never a real love interest the way the other women are.

But the only non-white woman who gets to be a love interest never speaks at all – and yet it is True Love!

But all the love interests are either whores or mothers. Or both. The only other woman is the black woman I mentioned earlier who gets to serve the white male lead, but never develop a real character or relationship with him.

But it is pretty much said at several points that if the mean, heartless, male killers in the film had only been loved by their mothers enough, they would never have turned out that way. That’s right: men kill because women don’t love them enough. Even though loving men is all women do in this film.

But (as though it needs to be said at this point) it does not even remotely pass the Bechdel test.

But the fierce mother called Sarah who protects a son that might be important one day isn’t actually as tough as her namesake; she needs a man around to protect her and her son from anyone who is more dangerous than a vagrant.

But her small child has more agency than she does.

And here’s the thing: it would have been so easy to make this film not sexist (or at least, less sexist than the common fair). Have some of the Loopers be women. Why not? If you genuinely think that women aren’t good fighters because they’re physically weaker than men, consider: all you have to do is shoot a handcuffed man with a bag over his head at point blank range with a shotgun who is delivered right into your waiting hands. No really, we can do that. In fact, we can do more than that. Women are police officers and soldiers and martial arts champions and sharp-shooters. They’re not rare, butch oddities, they’re relatively common these days. My sister is in the military – she knows how to shoot, disassemble and reassemble a gun**, just like a man – and she’s more femme than I will ever be.

This has come up a lot lately, and I’m discovering I feel strongly about it: women are increasingly shown as not being serious threats in popular culture. Dredd is a notable exception, and that’s part of why it so excited me. The trouble with this is that it gets defended as women being shown as ‘good’ in a way men are not. Because violence is bad.

Well. First up, let’s deal with the fucked up idea that men should be angry about: men are not born violent, uncontrollable fuckwits. Plenty of men are pacifists. Plenty of men are kind and gentle and caring. Plenty of men don’t think war is the answer. And, although you’d never know it from Looper, there are just as many fathers as there are mothers. Even if you want to blame bad men as coming from bad parents, why pick on the mothers? Why not ask: where the fuck are the fathers? But it’s so indoctrinated to think of child rearing as a female preserve that the question doesn’t even seem to occur to the writer of this film. The only father figures are the older loopers, who are complicit in the continuation of violence.

Second of all, I may not believe that violence is the answer, but being perceived as ‘good girls’ doesn’t keep women safe. And no, I am not, and would never, advocate violence against men, but the fact that violence is routinely expected (or at least conceivable) from men, and routinely dismissed as a likely response from women, means that women’s freedoms are curtailed in a way men’s aren’t, and that women are more likely to back down than men. That man cat-calling me is a twat, but who knows what he’ll do if I respond? Keep your head down, keep moving, try not to be noticed, run away. And why does he do that? Because it costs him nothing. It’s not simply that he’s been raised in a culture where he’s somehow got the idea that women might respond positively to such treatment: it’s that he doesn’t fear any kind of reprisal from women. He has nothing to lose. And this is at it’s tamest end. It’s realised in terrifying tales like this, which has been doing the rounds on tumblr, and which details everyday harassment and is still not the worst, because in the end it only involved the threat of violence. It is best summed up in the words of Margaret Atwood (as quoted by Mary Dickson in ‘A Woman’s Worst Nightmare‘):

A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed”.

As long as women are perceived as only having the weapon of their laughter, and as long as all men are presented as potential killers if women fail to offer them the expected love, this sort of inequality will be endlessly perpetuated. Ironic, really, when the message of Looper seems to be that if women love men enough they may turn out OK. It’s this sort of shit that means that Chris Brown thinks it’s funny to have a tattoo of what looks an awful lot like the bruised and broken face of his ex-girlfriend, who he was actually convicted of beating to a bloody pulp. Because why not? The worst she could do was get him sentenced to community service. And he did that, so now he can do whatever he likes. Including laugh in her face about it when she’s not even there.

So, that’s why I’m mad. Especially because this is nothing more than what is standard. Because I’m presumably supposed to be grateful there was a woman at least making a show of being tough until a man came along to do it properly for her. And more so because it made a show of using the tropes of the iconic depiction of strength that is Sarah Connor. All those geek references? They were just for geek-kudos. It spits on the memory of Sarah Connor to name a woman who cowers behind men (and her own child) after the woman who took down the terminators. It’s a bitter joke for the woman who took on the T-1000the terminators to be referenced, twenty years later, in a scene where the actor who played the T-1000 a terminator is threatening her namesake and she needs to be saved by a tiny boy.

So, yes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great. And so is Bruce Willis, and Jeff Daniels, to boot. Not to mention that Pierce Gagnon is astonishing as the little boy. I could have written this review about the impressive CGI that made JGL look like Bruce Willis. I could have written an interesting commentary of the shelf-life of an action hero, and just where JGL seems to be going right now.

But I haven’t. And it’s not because I’m a crazy feminist obsessing about something minor. It’s because it’s crazy that this kind of thing is regarded as minor – as acceptable, as par for the course. Instead of being what it was close to being – a part of a resurgence of real sci-fi, like that seen in Dredd – I am forced to talk about its negatives, because they need talking about. Because I’m shocked I haven’t seen anyone else talking about that. And because, in thinking about these things, I realised that, even minus the sexism, this was not as bright and innovative a film as I thought is was. It references classics, but it is not a classic itself. It doesn’t know what to do with its intertextuality. The CGI is pretty, but it is not the beautiful work of art we see combined when a master like James Cameron is at the helm to fine tune every lighting state and camera angle. The looper idea is neat, but it’s not as original as the terminator concept, and it’s not as fully realised.

All in all: a big disappointment instead of what could have been a fairly interesting film.

*[Edited:] @outofmyplanet has pointed out that it was not, in fact, Robert Patrick, the T-1000, but actually Garret Dillahunt, both a terminator and terminator prototype ‘John Henry’, in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I think says more about the impressive casting in TSCC than anything else. In the cinema, I leant over to my geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, and asked ‘Is that the T-1000?’ as soon as he entered. And Lee nodded. But then, he probably expected me to know what I was talking about. Seeing as I talk about Terminator 2 a lot. I think the same point goes through. Time travelling killer/opponent of Sarah Connor.

**And more, but being a pacifist myself and not being in the military, I really don’t have a clue.