"Every second that passes is bad."
Let's talk about Looper.
It's rare that I've seen a time travel movie which is so serious about its subject matter and serious in its subject matter while simultaneously being so unclear in its mechanics. At one end of that spectrum is Primer, which has hardcore (albeit fictitious) scientific principles behind it and which builds its story almost entirely on the logical consequences of those principles. At the other end we have Doctor Who in which time obeys whatever wibbly wobbly rules it needs to obey "today" in order to make today's stories work, but which gets away with that, because its stories and premise are as essentially "light" in tone as the "science". In Primer, you have to think very hard about how time travel works just to decode what you're seeing, let alone to grasp the emotional story. In Doctor Who, the harder you think about it, the more you're going to suffer and the less fun you're going to have.
Looper, in the middle, is unusual. But the most interesting thing about the movie, the line which leapt out at me when it happened, is when Old Joe (Bruce Willis) says, halfway through (not) explaining time travel to Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), "This is a precise description of a fuzzy reality."
Every time travel story uses a model of time travel which best fits the story that needs to be told. Many stories use their model of time travel and the logical ramifications of that model to actually drive the story. Time travel is hard to understand for most people, which often necessitates didactic scenes in which the rules, whatever they happen to be, are explained clearly so that we understand them. Another common way to handle this is to have a quick once-around-the-block, where time travel is demonstrated on a small, controlled scale and the viewer can get it straight in his or her head, so that he or she can understand the story that's going to be built around these concepts. Looper is no exception, with initial guiding concepts being laid down brutally clearly in the very first scene.
But what Looper does, which I haven't seen before, is explicitly lay down fuzziness as one of its rules, and then go on to use that fuzziness to drive its story.
Before I go any further into the mechanics of the movie's model of time travel, there's a question about exactly how far one should go at all. I have a personal rule never to think about a work of fiction more carefully than its creator(s) did, but interviews with writer/director Rian Johnson suggest that he thought about it all extremely carefully, so I'm not worried about going too far in that direction. I'm also prepared to accept his explanations of his own work as gospel. It's not like the director and his movie are at odds here; the events appearing on the screen are what he wanted to put there.
An orthogonal and much more important question is whether there is, indeed, a magical totally internally consistent explanation for how time travel works in the Looper universe, with or without the built-in fuzziness. I am prepared to accept that the answer to this question is, deliberately, "No". Looper tells us everything that we need to know to understand the story. It doesn't necessarily tell us everything we need to know to understand the science. There appears to be a lot of factual information omitted for the sake of tightening focus on the story, and this is perfectly cool. That said, there's a lot of data on the screen, and at any given moment it seems like at least most of it is consistent, so we'll see.
A final question is whether Looper's time travel is intended to be analysed in the way I intend to analyse it. In the same scene mentioned above, Old Joe tells Young Joe not to think about it. Some people interpret this as an instruction meant for the audience. This interpretation doesn't work for me. Firstly, that would be ludicrous. Time travel is central to the story and the way in which time travel works is critically important in the way that it shapes that story. Secondly, even if he's really speaking to the audience, Old Joe still needs to have an in-story reason for saying "Don't think about it" to Young Joe. When we delve into Old Joe's motivations, we discover that there are actually extremely good reasons for him to say this. "Don't think about it" isn't a warning about the story. It's part of the story.
Fuzziness: Old Seth's grisly past/future vivisection/extremity-loss scene. It's impossible to watch this without thinking of Marty McFly's hand fading out of existence in Back To The Future. It's difficult to imagine that scene not being the inspiration for it. And it's easy to imagine that quite a lot of Looper's time travel mechanics fall out of a desire to make this scene possible. In fact, most of the evidence supports Looper's model of time travel being very similar to Back To The Future's. Including the fuzz.
Young Seth is having bits of himself removed in real time. Each one puts future history onto a different path, which has effects on Old Seth, who returned from the future. What seems to happen, though, is that this is a universe which is lazy and which resolves inconsistencies in the lowest-effort way possible. Just because Young Seth has lost a finger or a foot in the last ten seconds doesn't change Old Seth's location in the world, or how he got there. Old Seth's immediate past, in which he ran away from Young Seth and made it halfway up a fence, still happened to him, and never stops having happened. What happens is that the two histories - one in which poor Young Seth lives out a sad life with no fingers, and the other in which he grows up intact to become Old Seth, is looped and then successfully flees for his life - blend together in the worst possible way. The physical reality is a suddenly-absent finger. Or two. Or four.
More interestingly for story purposes, Old Seth's memories must undergo the same hideous discontinuity. We don't get a good read on what he's thinking, but he clearly realises that he is losing extremities in real time and that ten seconds ago he still had his nose. As Old Joe explains fairly clearly in the diner, Old Seth's regular short-term memory is probably alternating with memories of being mutilated as a young man and living out increasingly unpleasant lives afterwards.
In truth, Young Seth doesn't have to lose a digit for this fuzzing of reality to occur. For the entire time that any character is in the past, the effects that they're directly and indirectly having on the past cause fuzzing in their own heads.
More fuzziness: Old Joe states that he has no children with his wife. He travels back in time and kills an innocent child whom he believes could grow up to become the Rainmaker. As a result the future changes shape and Old Joe feels it in his head: Young Joe grows up and meets the same woman, but this time they have a child. His wife is still murdered but now, inescapably, their child must die too in the same assault. And so Old Joe immediately suffers for his crime. An eye for an eye.
When Young Joe meets Sarah, new futures open up. Old Joe's memories of his wife start blurring, replaced with memories of a life with Sarah instead. It looks like it might even be a good life. But it's not the life Old Joe came back in time to fight for, so Old Joe fights it. He has a pocketwatch with a picture of his wife: he closes the pocketwatch and never looks at it again, nor do we ever get to see inside it for the rest of the movie. Old Joe tries to hang on to the future he wants, and hides from the futures he doesn't want. He succeeds. (Otherwise, why does he even keep moving?)
These are great scenes, and they are scenes which other models of time travel do not make possible.
But that brings us back to the diner scene and a big question: Why does Old Joe keep moving? What is he trying to accomplish?
Old Joe remembers Rainmaker's rise to power, his wife's murder and his own return to 2044. That's now one possible history. In another possibility, presumably, is a scenario where the Rainmaker is killed, by Old Joe, as a child, and so Old Joe lives happily ever after in the future, with his wife, and never has any reason to return to the past.
But there are some pretty serious problems with this. Just to start with, we never get a hint that this second possibility actually exists anywhere in Old Joe's head, other than as wishful thinking. We can't tell that any of his actions in 2044 are pushing him closer to that eventuality. In fact, the two points of fuzziness described above suggest that he's actually getting mired further and further from it. Worse, no matter what Old Joe does to 2044, no matter how "good" he makes 2074, he'll never get that good ending. He might wind up remembering some of it, but the experiences - if they're had at all - will be had by a different Joe. Old Joe will remain stuck in the past, and he'll always remember a decent percentage of how and why he got there: because his wife was murdered by mobsters in a future now averted.
In his heart of hearts, Old Joe knows all of this. Young Joe knows some of the mechanics (he uses the carving-directions-on-your-own-forearm trick), and Old Joe has now experienced time travel first-hand. So when Old Joe tells Young Joe not to think about it, it's because he wants Young Joe to fall in on his side and help him carry out a plan which, in fact, withstands no scrutiny. Old Joe's plan is horrific, and it's not even revenge, it's catharsis.
The climax makes sense.
It looks like a causal loop. Old Joe comes back in time to kill the Rainmaker as a child. He inadvertently creates the Rainmaker who inadvertently causes Old Joe to come back in time. But now that we've been educated about fuzziness, we can see that there are other possibilities intersecting here. The Rainmaker doesn't have to exist for Old Joe to want to come back in time. Rainmaker didn't directly murder Old Joe's wife, and the mob of the future were going to come and loop Old Joe regardless of who was in charge. The botched loop would be enough to motivate Old Joe to go back and try to change history for the better. Old Joe doesn't have to shoot Cid (the grazed jaw, which becomes infected) for him to become the Rainmaker, because there are conflicting stories about him, and not all of them feature the prosthetic jaw. Old Joe also doesn't have to shoot Sarah for Cid to become the Rainmaker. There's a good chance Cid would accidentally kill Sarah himself before getting his TK under control. Equally, stories about Rainmaker's mother's death could easily refer to his biological aunt, who raised him, whom he definitely did kill and whom he believed was his real mother. There are bunch of ways to lock all of this down, but the truth of the matter is that the fuzziness is the answer.
It looks like a causal loop, and the resolution looks like a universe-destroying paradox. But this just isn't that kind of universe. Old Joe disappears, and Cid's future is better for it. That's all.
My reading of Looper is this: it is a movie in which time travel is bad. Time travel is outlawed, so only outlaws have time travel. Almost by definition, time travel can only be used to commit, or in support of the commission of, violent crime. Nobody travels back in time with good intentions. 2044 and probably quite a lot of the future beyond that year are hellhole eras because of this. Looper's universe invariably resolves chronological inconsistencies in the manner most physically and mentally damaging to the person to which they apply. Looper's model of time travel hates you and wants you not to do it.
Young Joe doesn't save the world with time travel. He does it by ending his existence before he ever gets near a time machine.
I've seen this movie once so far. If I've misremembered facts in this essay, I'm going to claim deliberate fuzziness.