Quantum Droid – Looper (2012) vs Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Quantum-DroidOriginally, 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.

It’s complicated.

safety-not-guaranteed-headerDarius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a Seattle magazine. She volunteers to be an assistant for Jeff (Jake Johnson), who is writing a piece on the writer of a newspaper classified ad.

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.

Looper-03Obviously 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.

safety-not-guaranteed-01A 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.

Looper-01There’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-02Safety 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.

Looper-04Both 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-03Safety 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


Droid Sig

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About Judge Droid

In between refining my procrastination skills I talk a lot of shit about movies and such.

33 responses to “Quantum Droid – Looper (2012) vs Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)”

  1. Droid says :

    In case you were wondering, I’ve kept it spoiler free.

  2. Continentalop says :

    Damn good review Droid. I have no interest in LOOPER, but SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED sounds damn interesting.

    (and I’m not ashamed to admit Kristen Bell is one of the reasons I’ll seek it out).

  3. Hawaiian Organ Donor says :

    I haven’t seen Looper but I hated Safety Not Guaranteed. As you pointed out, the scene with Kirsten Bell completely took me out of the movie and it’s at that point that the entire movie unraveled. The government agents following Kenneth are so blundering I thought I was watching The Dark Knight. I’m getting really sick and tired of movies using keystone cops to unwittingly assist the protagonist/antagonist. These guys have been staking out Kenneth for a while but they fail to actually do anything. His house is full of blueprints and schematics. Right up until the end the components from his time machine are in a shed behind the house. These guys never bothered to check there? And if so, all this stolen equipment wasn’t enough for them to arrest him? The movie could have functioned just as well without the presence of government goons and instead of wasting precious screen time with them, we could have learned instead a little bit more about Kenneth’s past and what enabled him to be this genius who is able to build a time machine when the brightest minds on the planet have failed.

    And quite frankly, that ending didn’t come as a surprise to me and didn’t have any real sense of wonder. And nothing like those two incompetent government agents just standing on the shore not doing anything when they’ve discovered their man and all the equipment he’s stolen. Total dreck. I don’t understand the critical and film festival love at all.

    • Droid says :

      Oh no. Sorry to hear you didn’t like it HOD.

      I’ll stick a SPOILER WARNING on here, just to make sure no one reads something they don’t want to. It seemed to me that the Feds recognised Kenneth wasn’t a threat. They were pretty blase about the whole thing. They were checking him out because he had contacted some scientists, and I didn’t think they were convinced that anything dangerous was going to happen. But I can understand how you might feel that they’re an unnecessary addition to the film. It didn’t bother me at all, and they served a purpose. The film intends for you to think that Kenneth is a bit nuts at the beginning, and over the course of the movie as we get to know him it’s intended for us to begin to doubt our first impression. We’ve made up our mind about him, just like everyone else. So when he claims that he’s being followed early on, we don’t believe him. The reason the feds are in the film is to push along that change in our opinion. If he’s not making it up about the feds, then maybe he’s not making it up about the time machine.

      As for the ending, they’ve run down to the shore and see that he’s fired up the machine. It’s totally understandable that they’re keeping their distance. I’m not saying it’s perfect. Just that I didn’t have any problem with it.

  4. Xiphos0311 says :

    Mark Duplas from the funniest show on TV, The League made a movie? Good for him tht show rocks hard I wonder if his MILFY Fire Crotch wife showed up?

  5. Jarv says :

    Never heard of safety. No interest in Looper.

    Work is fucking destroying me at the moment. Spent all yesterday at a stupid marketing conference. Had to talk about the future of the internet for TWO FUCKING HOURS.

    Got home at 11pm.

    Man, I can’t wait for this suckage to end.

  6. Jarv says :

    I am totally going to write a dystopian film with holowhores in it.

    It’ll be mint.

  7. MORBIUS says :

    Well written article Droid, interesting read.
    Rather liked the fact that they gave JGL Willis’ hooked beak.
    The observation about Daniels younger self was quite good.
    Also, very surprised that the chick from Covert Affairs Piper,
    showed her little Peraboobs!

  8. Bartleby says :

    Good reviews Droid. Y’know, I liked Looper but I don’t necessarily disagree that it’s a plot-driven movie, or that the screenwriting elements are very obvious. It’s like they want you to look and say ‘now that’s clever’. Ultimately I think the film is better directed than it’s written and the JGL as young Bruce never bothered me much. I enjoyed it more than I expected and I did like the fact that it was as easily telegraphed as I was expecting.

    Safety Not Guranteed is indeed the better of the two movies, and one of my favorite movies of the year thus far.I think it works better because it’s character driven. Little plot points tend to bother me less when something gives me characters I care about.

    Have you Sound of My Voice yet?

    • Droid says :

      Thanks, Jonah. I’m not sure it came across, as I was probably too focused on what didn’t work, but I didn’t hate Looper. I was a bit disappointed by it because there is the frame of a good movie there, and good actors. Just too many things didn’t quite work for me.

      I agree about the little plot points not bothering me when I have characters to care about. It’s why SNG works so well for me.

      Haven’t seen Sound of My Voice. I think I acquired it, so I’ve not got an excuse really.

    • Droid says :

      Also, how have you been? Hardly seen you around lately. Everythings good I trust. I see you’ve got the ads up on your site. I expect you’ll have the funds for AvWOTM in 6-8 weeks.

  9. Bartleby says :

    I’ve been very good Droid, but busy on every front–family, work, website, etc. Foolishly attempting a podcast. It’s going to be a fiasco, I think.

    Have you seen Argo yet? I reviewed it over at PCN. Honestly, this fall is shaping up to be quite good, better than expected. Argo was fantastic, Seven Psychopaths was pretty good, Frankenweenie was a nice return to pre-sell-out Burton, Killing Them Softly was sort of weak, unfortunately, but Arbitrage was a nice little thriller, and I liked Looper well enough. Dredd was fun. I see Cloud Atlas, Lincoln and Wreck It Ralph next week. Has the potential to be a great week of movies or a disappointing one.

    I wouldnt expect the ads to bankroll AVWOTM anytime soon, but it would be a worthy cause.

    Did you ever see Snowtown. I see someone on PCN just did a fairly accurate review of it. The Aussies are starting to rock the thriller and horror genres again. I’m liking it. See Crawl?

    • Droid says :

      Haven’t seen Argo yet. Not out here unfortunately. Looking forward to it and Seven Psychopaths. No interest at all in Frankenweenie. Very disappointed in Killing Them Softly. Mendelsohn was superb, but the film was rubbish when Pitt entered the picture. Static scenes of not very interesting dialogue punctuated by violence. The Gandolfini scenes were painful to watch. Yes, very disappointed by it. Particularly because it started quite well.

      Looking forward to Could Atlas (Feb here FFS!), interested in Lincoln, looking forward to Bond, no interest in Tron Pilgrim.

      Haven’t seen Snowtown yet. Got it, but haven’t taken the plunge. I’ve also got a movie with Edgerton in it called Wish You Were Here that I need to watch. Aussies have been making some good movies for a while now. Once we got passed the Abba phase in the 90’s (although they weren’t all bad).

    • Droid says :

      Did you see Taken 2?

    • Droid says :

      Also, I saw Arbitrage and liked it.

  10. redfishybluefishy says :

    Loved Safety Not Guaranteed for so many reasons. It’s a charmer. With so many forgettable movies these days, I was completely taken by surprise. I expected fun, but I did not expect something so thoughtful and endearing. Looper i haven’t seen, but will. I do like the time travel.

    Cloud Atlas is an interesting book that I enjoyed (i thought the format was a bit convoluted, but the concept was interesting), but would have thought would be difficult to adapt to film. It actually looks like they may have pulled off something very unexpected for the movie… it actually looks good. *fingers crossed*

  11. ThereWolf says :

    Good article, R2.

    I’ll be watching both of these at some point, never heard of ‘Safety’ but it sounds decent-ish.

    • Droid says :

      Cheers. I’m probably leaning towards you liking Looper more than SNG. Not sure why, but I think Looper might be right up your alley. No rationale for that, just guessing.

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