Quantum Droid – Looper (2012) vs Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Originally, this review was going to be about ‘Looper’. Then I saw a small indie film that was on my radar since the Sundance film festival earlier in the year called ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’. Both films revolve around the subject of time travel, but their respective approaches are completely different. A comparison might make interesting reading. We’ll see.
Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a hitman in the year 2044. His job is simple, quick, clean. In an empty field he lays down some tarp, he walks back 10 feet, checks his pocket watch for the time, lifts his blunderbuss, a hooded man appears out of thin air and he shoots. He collects his fee (strapped to the victim) and disposes of the body. It’s the same process, every time. The victims are from the future, where the mob have taken control of the city and possess the illegal technology allowing for time travel. In the crumbling society of 2044, being a hit man provides Joe with a steady stream of income. There’s only one catch. When you sign up to become a hitman (known as a Looper), you make an agreement. Your last hit will be yourself. Your future self is sent through, hooded, with a golden handshake strapped to his back. This is called closing the loop. Your life expectancy is now 30 years. But you’re free, and rich. In a world of no law and order, this is a better outcome than most can expect.
Joe (Bruce Willis) is an ex-hitman in the year 2074. A former drug addict and criminal, his life has been turned around by the love of a good woman (Xu Qing). But it’s been 30 years since he closed the loop, and the inevitable must occur. A mysterious figure known as The Rainmaker is taking control of the city, single-handedly out-muscling the established mob. He’s ordering loops to be closed all over the city. When tragedy occurs during Joe’s capture, he vows to go back in time to murder The Rainmaker as a child.
Joe is given a contract. He drives out to the field, lays down the tarp, walks back 10 feet, checks his watch, raises his blunderbuss and… nothing. He waits. He checks his watch. A man appears out of thin air. He has no hood. Joe looks into the mans eyes and sees himself, 30 years older. He hesitates. Joe rushes Joe, knocks him down and escapes.
To save himself Joe must kill The Rainmaker.
To save himself Joe must kill himself.
Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.
Joined by fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), they travel to the beach community of Ocean View and locate the person responsible. This person is Kenneth (Mark Duplass). He’s a grocery store clerk who lives alone in his (deceased) parents isolated house. He’s a loner, paranoid, and just a wee bit odd. He’s also utterly convinced that he’s invented a time machine. Jeff applies for the job, but is clearly not a believer, and quickly alienates Kenneth. After Jeff’s failed approach, Darius applies for the job. She’s confronting and straightforward, and gets the job. Kenneth tells Darius that he’s being followed, that his invention has brought him unwanted attention from the government, and that they must be very careful. As his ad states, this is not a joke. He believes that he’s invented a machine that will allow him to travel back in time. For personal reasons, he wants to travel back to 2001. Darius has reasons to travel back to 2001 as well. As they prepare for the trip, becoming close, these reasons become clear. For different reasons, neither have moved on from 2001. The time machine brings them into the present.
Obviously there are fundamental differences between these two films in terms of story and intent. Their approach to time travel is completely different. Looper uses time travel to build a meticulously complicated (but far from watertight) plot that requires the audiences full attention. The film aims to thrill and entertain, but it also aims to bask in the glow of appreciative nods and smiles. It thinks it’s clever, and on many occasions it is, but it fails in the same way that Rian Johnsons previous films fail. Johnson is like the worlds best art forger. He can meticulously craft a film that looks exactly like the real thing, but at the back of your mind you feel something isn’t quite right. That it’s not the real thing. I believe it’s because he can’t write characters, and provides dialogue that simulates depth and individuality. It’s like someone lying to you, telling you all the right things, everything you want to hear. You want to believe it, but you don’t. You can’t. Because you don’t feel it’s true. It’s hard to put your finger on.
Safety Not Guaranteeds use of time travel is really rather simple. It doesn’t actually have any. Not in the conventional sense anyway. Instead, it takes the subject of time travel, and builds the foundation of a story about actual characters who develop relationships, experience, learn and grow. The result of this provides the climax of the film a genuine sense of wonder, one that is far more thrilling than the action, shootouts, chases and last minute twists of Looper. But the film isn’t about time travel, in the sense that the characters physically time travel. They may, or they may not. I’ll let you decide that one. Instead, the film is about the effect of the past on the present. It’s metaphysical time travel. The characters in SNG are stuck in time. One has regrets, wants to go back to right a wrong, and change the future. For others, it’s that they’re unhappy with the present, and obsessed with a time in the past when they were happy.
A good (spoiler-free) example is Jeff, who has an ulterior motive for taking on the story. He’s come to Ocean View to track down a high school girlfriend. He’s in his thirty’s, jaded, cynical and unhappy. He’s using his high school girlfriend as a time machine, taking him back to his glory days, and hoping she will provide him with youth, hope, optimism and happiness. It’s this depth of character and meaning that drives SNG, and the film is understated in the way it develops these themes.
Looper, however, relies heavily on plot driven cause and effect shenanigans. The paradoxes of times travel, and the implications of changing the past and its effect on the future. The ending provides a rather clunky, flashforward explanation followed by a conclusion that is satisfying intellectually, but not emotionally. It makes sense, but because we haven’t come to know, and like, any of the characters, it doesn’t engage. The film gets the appreciative nods it seeks, but not the smiles.
There’s a sequence early on in Looper featuring Seth (Paul Dano), where he fails to close the loop, and we see the gradual repercussions of the mobs process in rectifying the situation. At face value it’s a very good sequence, but around half way through the sequence I came to realise that I wasn’t watching meaningful events occur on screen. What I was watching was a common screenwriting technique, and the director was educating me on the rules of the world he’s created, and clearly foreshadowing to events later in the film. The sequence was put together well, it was interesting and quite horrifying, but it was perfunctory. It doesn’t mean anything to the story. It’s here that Johnson’s flaws are most evident. Instead of making a genre film, it’s like he does a genre. His writing is too precise, with an almost obsessive dedication and adherence to established structure. As such it lacks those imperfections that allow a film to be perfect. It’s fails to be original, despite many original elements. This is further illustrated by the best sequence in the film, where Johnson breaks from convention to tumble through the years, showing Joe’s progression from hitman, to party guy, to criminal and drug addict until he meets the woman that changes his life. The film jarringly smash cuts to this sequence without warning and it’s invigorating, albeit fleeting.
Another spoiler free example that illustrates my point is the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been made up to look like a young Bruce Willis. Not content with merely establishing general similarities such as eye colour, JGL is made up with a prosthetic nose and plucked eyebrows so that they resemble Willis’ features. Not only is this entirely unnecessary, it’s a substantial distraction throughout the film. It’s a participating factor in keeping the audience at arms length. Not to mention that even with the makeup, JGL still looks nothing like Willis. It’s a case of being too clever by half (an apt description for Johnson). Why not trust the audience to accept that JGL is a young version of Willis? No one questions that River Phoenix was a young Indiana Jones, or Will Wheaton was a young Richard Dreyfuss did they? It’s a mistake that dramatically detracts from the effectiveness of the film.
Safety Not Guaranteed is not without its problems, although its biggest problem is far less damaging to the overall film. There’s a scene late in the film when Darius visits the girl whom Kenneth is obsessing over. There’s nothing wrong with the scene itself. It’s well handled and acted. But the dream girl is Kristen Bell. All you can think of during the scene is “That’s Kristen Bell.” It’s the only scene she’s in, and her appearance temporarily takes you out of the film. In a cast of unfamiliar faces, she stands out like a sore thumb. I can understand why she might be in the film. She’s fairly well known, and may help attract people to the film by her mere presence. It must have seemed like a harmless choice to cast her. But I didn’t believe it, because of what I brought to the film. I know who she is, and instead of seeing Belinda, I saw Kristen. It just felt out of place. The film needed to cast an attractive, but unfamiliar face. If they wanted Kristen Bell in the film, she could have easily played the role of the magazine editor (played in the film by Mary Lynn Rajskub). It’s a small role, and her scenes are largely unimportant.
Both films leave you with questions. The difference between the two is that Safety Not Guaranteed leaves you with open ended possibilities, while Looper “closes the loop” so to speak, but a number of plot points and general queries remain. I won’t go in to it in detail, as they are potential spoilers. One I will ask is why it is necessary for Abe, the mob boss who runs the Loopers, to be from the future? As played by Jeff Daniels, he’s an uncompromising and vicious but rather shabby and weary looking man. Inevitably he and Joe become enemies (that’s what happens when someone tries to kill you). If he’s from the future, where is his younger self? Wouldn’t the fact that a mob boss with a younger version of himself wandering around somewhere make him incredibly vulnerable? Would Joe not think to take out the younger version of the man instead? Instead of simply having a guy run the loopers, Johnson has again over-egged the pudding, resulting in unnecessary questions for absolutely no reason. It doesn’t benefit the film that Abe is from the future. There’s no pay off to this detail. It’s simply included for the sake of it. An attempt to make an underwritten role more interesting.
Looper is a film that is well cast with recognisable actors that bring an inherent familiarity. In lieu of characters, the film is dependent on our good will towards Joseph Gordon Levitt, Emily Blunt, Bruce Willis and Jeff Daniels. The most interesting character, and the best performance in the film is actually the young boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). He’s a natural and likeable kid, who pulls off a tricky role. Cid has great warmth, an easygoing nature, but there are hints of a darkness lying just under the surface. He’s a troubled kid, and Gagnon does an excellent job.
Safety Not Guaranteed is primarily cast with relative unknowns. Aubrey Plaza plays a similar character on TV’s Parks and Recreation. Despite Darius’ somewhat confrontational and cynical personality, she’s never mean spirited and we can see she’s a good person. Mark Duplass is now quite prolific as a writer, director, and actor in many films. This is the first I’ve seen, and at first glance, with Kenneth’s mullet hairstyle, faded denim, and odd personality, I feared that the character would simply be a figure of fun. But Duplass brings an earnest openness to the character, and we see that Kenneth’s inherent oddness has defined his life. He’s always been an outsider, because of his personality and minor physical deformity. He’s that kinda weird guy who people would placate with niceties to his face, but talk about and ridicule behind his back. It’s a surprisingly effective performance, and one that you warm to as the film goes along. Jake Johnson is also good as Jeff, who is miserable with his life, and angry that he’s no longer youthful. Instead of accepting that he’s no longer a young man, he looks for quick fixes.
Both of these films are about time travel. One is literal, the other abstract. One develops character, the other develops plot. One is successful, the other isn’t. Both are worth watching.
Safety Not Guaranteed