As Rian Johnson prepares to premiere Glass Onion, his highly anticipated follow-up to 2019’s surprise hit Knives Out, his first major success, Looper, turns 10. In a career full of critical and commercial hits, Johnson has made a name for himself as an innovative and clever writer and a stylish and deft filmmaker. The result is a storyteller unlike any other in Hollywood, a man who effortlessly blends genres, styles, and themes without compromising his vision.
His place in the industry as a twisty but reliable auteur is thanks to Looper. The science fiction film starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt turned him into an overnight sensation, the rare Hollywood talent who could deliver a commercially viable spectacle that both mainstream audiences and thinking-person cinema aficionados could love. And as Looper reaches the decade milestone, it’s time to look back at what made it such an unexpected success.
The risk that paid off
Looper follows a suitably dwindling plot that bravely ventures into heady sci-fi territory. The plot centers on Joe, who’s part of the “looper” organization, hitmen who kill victims sent from the future to the past. When his older self returns to try and change his life’s course, Joe must ally with a tough widow and her mysterious son to stop him. As with other films in the sci-fi genre, Looper requires a considerable degree of attention to understand. Its world-building relies on the necessary exposition to develop the premise, but it’s basic enough to be palatable, yet refreshing enough to be enticing.
Still, at least plotwise, Looper isn’t a daunting, mind-bending sci-fi film à la Arrival or Donnie Darko. Indeed, Looper has just the right amount of intelligence to awaken and keep the audience’s interest without making them feel stupid. However, Looper was still a gamble in the modern, franchise-dominated commercial landscape. It was an original idea from a director whose first film, 2005’s Brick, had been a decent performer. but whose second, 2008’s The Brother Bloom, was critically divisive and commercially unsuccessful. Looking back on Johnson’s track record up to that point, it’s genuinely surprising that Tri-Star and four other production companies agreed to Looper‘s $30 million budget.
Even more puzzling was Johnson’s choice for a leading man. In 2012, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was at the peak of his career. Following a considerable boost from the sleeper 2009 hit (500) Days of Summer, Gordon-Levitt was on the cusp of becoming Hollywood’s next leading man, but he wasn’t quite there yet. Supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi masterpiece Inception and 2012’s divisive The Dark Knight Rises made him a familiar face for audiences, but it’s not like he was anybody’s first choice when thinking about an “action man.”
In fact, he was a curious case, a different kind of actor who could play dorky hotness like no other. Now different is nice, but it sure isn’t pretty — and pretty is what it’s about. And while Gordon-Levitt wasn’t hot enough to pull off the smoldering bad boy look as well as Ryan Gosling, he was sufficiently cool to overcome his quirky beginnings and try his luck in the action genre.
Then there was Bruce Willis, the ultimate action man of the ’90s who practically created the exceptional-everyday-man-against-the-world genre. At one point, Willis was the greatest action star in the world, bigger than Cruise and Schwarzenegger and predating Dwayne Johnson and Statham. However, by the 2010s, Bruce’s career was slowing down, following a string of noughties hits, including Sin City and another Die Hard movie.
Emily Blunt rounded the film’s main cast. Following her breakthrough in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt became one of Hollywood’s most promising rising stars. Shunning big-budget films and franchises, Blunt made several inspired choices in the following years — Sunshine Cleaning, The Adjustment Bureau, Your Sister’s Sister. Looper was another entry into a career quickly becoming among the most interesting out of Hollywood’s batch of 2000s’ breakouts, cementing her as one of the most versatile actresses in the business.
With such an intriguing ensemble in front of and behind the camera, Looper was a film many had their eyes on, but from which few knew what to expect. The film earned $176 million worldwide, making it a box office hit. Reviews raved about Johnson’s direction and script and praised the performances of its central trio, although Blunt’s supporting turn received considerably more attention.
In the end, Looper favored Blunt and Johnson, but had a weird effect on Willis and Gordon-Levitt. Johnson became Hollywood’s next big thing, and Looper‘s success directly led to Lucasfilm trusting him with The Last Jedi. For her part, Blunt received attention from many critics’ organizations, including the Chicago Film Critics Association; for a hot minute, she even received Oscar buzz, although it never materialized.
Things weren’t so good for the film’s leading men, though. In many ways, Looper was Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s last hurrah. Willis followed it with a string of increasingly uninspired films, culminating in his recent retirement after his aphasia diagnosis. Similarly, Gordon-Levitt spent his post-Looper cache on his directorial debut, Don Jon, before his rising career got derailed somewhere around the middle of the decade.
It’s fascinating to analyze the film’s effects on its four main players. Gordon-Levitt makes for a convincing Bruce Willis stand-in, but the film always treats him as such. Looper juggles many things at once, always keeping its eye on the balls; however, it ultimately drops one when it comes to Gordon-Levitt, who never comes across as the action star of tomorrow.
Ironically, while Looper was supposed to be his graduation into leading man status, it ended up being his swan song of sorts. As for Willis, Johnson certainly revered him, but the script asks nothing from him other than to be Bruce Willis. Whereas Emily Blunt holds the film’s beating heart in her shaky but capable hands, Willis and Gordon-Levitt play two halves of the same character, to their ultimate detriment.
Johnson, the commercial auteur
For all of Blunt’s acclaim and Gordon-Levitt’s brief moment under the sun, Johnson was the one who made the most out of Looper‘s success. Sure, he got the chance to helm a big-budget space movie that launched a thousand think and hate pieces, each more cynical than the one before. However, Looper‘s true gift to Johnson was prestige and respect, two things Hollywood doesn’t just hand out. Thanks to his ambitious sci-fi fil,m, Johnson became the ever-elusive and mystifying commercial auteur.
The film business rewards results, not ambition or grand promises. Even the best intentions can result in commercial flops, explaining why the business’s most respected auteurs have such a hard time securing funding for their projects. Few directors can blend spectacle with above-average storytelling, and fewer still are the ones allowed to do it. And with every studio looking to find their Christopher Nolan after Warner Bros. got a hold of him, Johnson became an overnight sensation, a commodity Hollywood desperately needed.
Looper displayed Johnson’s strengths as a storyteller. The plot is fast-paced and exhilarating, blending action sequences with exposition that never overwhelms despite featuring an abundance of words. The action set pieces were fresh and striking, making the best out of their $30 million budget without looking cheap, and Johnson’s love for the craft comes across in every frame. Looper is basically a love letter to noir smeared with sci-fi elements to create a brilliant chimera of styles and ideas.
Above all, Looper showed Johnson’s love for layered plots. The director crafts puzzles and invites the audience to solve them with him, offering a setup too enticing to ignore. Nowhere is this approach clearer than in his colorful whodunit, Knives Out, a film that pulls off some of the most pleasantly surprising twists in modern mystery. By all accounts, he succeeds again in this year’s Glass Onion, delivering a collision of facts, characters, and mindsets that is wild but never messy.
Perhaps that is Johnson’s ultimate gift. He presents an elaborately dressed table before pulling the table cloth from beneath it without spilling a single drop of wine. His films invite chaos, but he’s always in control, which is easier said than done. More importantly, he never loses the showmanship that made him a star. Johnson is the ring leader in a circus of images, subjects, emotions, and motifs, and he loves the spotlight. He might not be on camera, but his shadow looms large in every scene.
Looper and the modern sci-fi
Despite its brilliance — yes, Johnson should have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; no, I won’t take any questions on the matter — Looper‘s legacy might amount to nothing more than “the film that made Rian Johnson an in-demand director.” And while it’s a perfectly respectable reputation, Looper deserves much more love.
Sci-fi is tricky. As a genre, it’s cold and calculating, toying with men’s nature and sense of purpose. Unlike the dazzling escapism of fantasy, sci-fi is more unforgiving and, arguably, less rewarding. Rare is the sci-fi movie that makes you feel something, but those that do — Blade Runner, Alien, Arrival, AI: Artificial Intelligence — stay with you for good. Looper lies somewhere in between this valley of possibility. It’s not quite as affecting as Arrival, but it’s far more weighty than the average Star Trek/Star Wars offer. It tries to entice but never goes so far as to insist. It cares too much about its broad appeal to be more daring with its themes, making it a less demanding sci-fi. but a more satisfying movie.
And that was Johnson’s purpose. With Looper, Johnson set out to create a noir thriller that piqued audiences’ interest just enough to keep them engrossed without bombarding them with self-aggrandizing ideas. Like a puzzle that keeps your attention for an hour and leaves you with a clear sense of satisfaction, Looper asks questions, but makes sure to answer them promptly. Some might say Johnson even spells them out for his viewers — indeed, he has a rather in-your-face approach to his lingering themes.
Looper wants to entertain, not beat you over the head with preachy social commentary — a compromise his future films don’t necessarily share. Still, Johnson is a born entertainer who understands the value of a happy audience; he pushes the right buttons to awaken frustration, rewards you with a mystery that’s easy enough to understand, and pats you on the back on your way out of the theater.
Looper will never be one of the all-time great sci-fi films, but maybe it should be. It’s more conservative and less dazzling than other entries into the venerable genre, but it makes up for it with purpose, a surprising amount of heart, and just the right amount of theatrics and artistry. And isn’t that the reason we go to the movies?
Looper is currently streaming on Hulu.