Abe: “You should go to China.”
Joe: “I’m going to France.”
Abe: “I’m from the future. You should go to China.”
In Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), the city of Shanghai reaches back across 30 years to draw people in. Over these decades it feeds itself based on what it is to become: the city of the future. When compared to this, everything else that happens in the movie is mere distraction, but we won’t get there for a while.
Strangely enough, ‘everything else’ was to have been simply everything. Joe was going to Paris, and Shanghai wasn’t even in the picture. That was before Chinese authorities told Johnson that they would cover the cost of the Shanghai shoot, making the film a co-production, with convenient access to the Chinese cinema market. The Old World stood no chance.
For American audiences, Looper played into the trend of opinion, through its contrasting urban visions of a grim, deteriorated, crime-wracked Kansas City and the splendors of a ‘futuristic’ Shanghai. The movie doesn’t answer the question: How did America lose the future? It nevertheless accepts the premise, as something close to a pre-installed fact.
Yet if Looper confirmed the direction of American popular attitudes, it marked a shift on the Chinese side. Only a few years before, Western media reported with amusement that the Chinese broadcast authorities had banned time-travel fictions from the nation’s airwaves, apparently concerned that the country’s citizens were defecting into a pre-republican past, under the influence of narratives that “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.” Now a time-travel story was being actively recruited to close an urban promotion loop, linking Shanghai’s international image to a portrayal of retro-chronic anomaly. The Shanghai time-travel industry had arrived.
Before proceeding to a multi-installment investigation of
Topological Meta-History tangled time-circuitry, which ‘time-travel’ illustrates only as a crude dramatization, it is worth pausing over Looper’s ‘monstrous and weird plot’. Time-travel has a uniquely intimate, and seductively morbid, relationship to both fiction and history, because it scrambles the very principle of narrative order in profundity. If Western media authorities assumed the same role of cultural custodianship that has been traditional among their Chinese peers, they too might have been compelled to denounce a genre that flagrantly subverted the foundational principle of Aristotelian poetics: that any story worthy of veneration should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If time-travel can occur, it seems (at least initially) that order is an illusion, so that fiction and reality switch places.
From a conservative perspective, therefore, comfort is to be found in the blatant absurdity of time-travel stories (insofar as this can be confined to a reductio ad absurdam of the time-loop structure itself, rather than spreading outwards as the index of primordial cosmic disorder). In this respect, Looper is a model of tranquillization.
The Looper time-travel procedure is monopolized by a criminal syndicate, which utilizes it exclusively for one purpose: the disposal of awkward individuals, who are returned 30 years in time to be murdered, execution-style, by professional killers (yes: “This sounds pretty stupid”). The exorbitant absurdity of this scenario might exempt it from further critical attention, were it not the symptom of more interesting things, and the doorway onto others.
The symptom first: Non-linear time-structures are shaken to pieces almost immediately, once they allow for the transportation of stuff backwards in time. Looper economics exposes this with particular clarity. The killers of 2044 are paid in bars of silver for ‘ordinary’ hits, and in gold for ‘closing loops’ or executing their retro-deposited older selves. The bars are sent back from 2074, and circulated through an internal exchange operation, which swaps bullion for (Chinese) paper currency. Whilst this crude time-circuit is presented as a payments system, the process described actually functions as an under-performing money-making machine. By using it, one realizes the ultimate Austrian economic nightmare by printing precious metals, because an ingot sent backwards in time is doubled, or added to its ‘previous’ instance (which already exists in the past). Mechanical re-iteration of the process would guarantee exponential growth for free. We’re not told what the 2074 criminal organization sees as its core business, but it must be seriously lucrative — exciting enough, in any case, to distract them from the fact that their murder-fodder machine is really a bullion fast-breeder. They could have shoveled it full of diamonds, doubling their fortune each ‘time’, but they decided instead to duplicate human nuisances in 2044. The movie asks us quietly to suspend our impertinent disbelief, and trust that they know what they’re doing.
Mike Dickison’s excellent Looper commentary succinctly describes this implicit procedure for unlimited wealth, among other incredibly missed opportunities. It surely has to count as a criticism of the movie that its rickety framework of plot coherence is dependent upon the imbecility of its significant agents, who stumble blindly past the prospect of total power in their ruthless pursuit of a miserable racket. This absurdity, as already noted, serves a conservative purpose: The potential of the loop has to be suppressed to sustain narrative drama and intelligibility. The basic flaw of the movie is that far too much was given, before most of it was clumsily taken away.
In the absence of controlling censors, Johnson’s story represses itself, messily, comically, and unconvincingly. “This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg,” the elder Joe (Bruce Willis) confesses on Johnson’s behalf. Unleashed time-travel is an anti-plot, inconsistent with dramatic presentation. (If you’re not willing to take Aristotle’s word for that, watching Primer a few dozen times should sort you out.) Narrative wreckage is what time-travel does.
Time-travel absurdity is a choice. It is a decision taken, at least semi-deliberately, for conservative or protective reasons, because the alternative would be ruin. Even the representation of (radically nonlinear) time anomaly by ‘time-travel’ is indicative of this, since it is programmed by the preservation of a narrative function (the ‘time-traveler’), regardless of conceptual expense. Far rather the incoherent jumble of matter duplication, time-line proliferation, immunized strands of personal memory, and the arbitrary inhibition of potentialities, than utter narrative disorder, fate loops, the annihilation of agency, and the emergence of an alien consistency, subverting all historical meaning.
If the mask of time-travel has slipped enough to expose some hint of the intolerable tangle beneath, we’re ready to take the next step …
(This will help.)