Looper, And Why Characters Need to Make Dumb Mistakes

Looper is a movie about time-travel.  In some ways, it's a master-class on science fiction storytelling, and I have some thoughts, both about the movie, and about the deeper implications Looper might have for aspiring writers and the characters they create.

Spoilers below.  Ye be warned.  But first, here's the trailer:

So, the central premise of Looper is that it's the near future, and while time travel hasn't been invented yet, it will be some time in the next thirty years.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, the "Looper" of the movie's title.

What's a looper?

A looper is an assassin.  Basically, criminals from the future send their targets back to the past to be killed.  The "loop" in looper refers to the fact that, at a certain point, to protect the criminal organization, they're going to send your future self back in time for you to kill, thus "closing the loop".  Once your loop is closed, you've got about thirty years to live it up before time catches up to you.

Which is a cool premise for a movie, but really, when you think about it, kind of dumb from a planning standpoint.

Now, the real story of Looper is not that Joe's future self, "Old Joe" is sent back in time, overpowers Joe, and then fights for his life.  That's what the trailer wants you to think.

The real story is that, when the bad guys come to collect Old Joe and send him back in time to be killed, one of them shoots Old Joe's wife.  Old Joe then kills all the criminals and sends himself back in time.  Why?  Because he's got a clue to the true identity -- in the past -- of the Rainmaker, sort of the kingpin of crime in the future, and the guy responsible for all this.  Old Joe figures if he can kill the Rainmaker, he can rewrite time and save his wife.

So, right there: not a great plan.  Great movie, lousy plan.

Old Joe figures the Rainmaker is one of three kids, born on the same day at the same hospital.  So he goes about Sarah Conoring them one by one.  His younger self hooks up with Sara and Cid, one of the three future Rainmakers.  Hilarity ensues, Joe ends up killing himself to save Sara and Cid from Old Joe.

As I wrote above, there are some problems with this.  But the interesting thing is this: the problems are not with the movie, but with the decisions the characters make.  To wit: within the internal logic of the movie, all this makes sense, but the actual use of time travel to kill people -- allegedly the future tech is so good it's impossible to hide bodies -- which is what precipitates the entire story, well, that's really dumb.

Let's see:

  1. If you're the Rainmaker and you've gone to great pains to preserve the truth of your identity and origins, why send people back in time to when you were a vulnerable child?  Why not send them back to, say, the Cretaceous to be squashed by something massive and reptilian?
  2. Or, forget all that.  People always forget that a time machine is also a teleportation device.  Because the planet is constantly spinning and moving through space.  If you traveled a day into the past without moving in space, you'd come out in the cold vacuum of space.
  3. Doesn't that seem like a safer way to kill people?  No middle-men to deal with, none of that.  Just send someone a week or a month or a hundred years into the past.  Easy peasy.
  4. Or, teleport them into the sun.  No body disposal there.

Now, if we're talking story here, of course my points are crap.  Maybe the Rainmaker knows a looper was responsible for making him the man he became, but not which looper, so he set up this whole, intricate system in order to (hopefully) bring about his own creation.  Or something.

But the point -- and the reason I felt compelled to write about this -- is that ultimately it doesn't matter.  The point is that this is how the Rainmaker and his goons have chosen to use time travel to dispose of their enemies.  The point is that, while you or I, sitting in our cushy chair watching the fireworks, might realize, "Hey, there's a better, cleaner, safer way to do this," these are the dumb decisions the characters have chosen to make.

Which can be rough for a writer.

Which is terribly important for a writer.

As a storyteller, I have a roadmap for how the story is supposed to go.  A rough roadmap.  When I'm writing, a lot of that is seeing how my characters react to certain situations.  And while I might know the "best" way out of a particular mess, that doesn't mean that they know that solution, or even that they'd use it.

Sometimes this is for better storytelling.  Much more often, however, it's because doing things this way as opposed to that way, letting my characters tell me how they'd approach a problem, gives a truer resolution than trying to shoehorn things into a neat, tidy, little box.

Characters want.  And their desires will often override common sense.  Or, they'll have a certain way they do things.  Even if that way is dumb, even if they're strolling right past the optimal choice in favor of the dumb, counterproductive choice, if that choice is true, that's the right way to do things.

Makes the story more interesting, too.