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Looper is a time traveling action flick set in the year 2044. Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a paid assassin who makes the startling discovery that his next target is actually himself — an older version of himself from the future.
After that it gets a little timey-wimey — but basically, Bruce Willis plays the older, supposedly wiser assassin — and he's been sent back in time by a criminal syndicate to be erased from history. Director Rian Johnson tells NPR's Rachel Martin that he originally wrote the script as a short film, inspired by the writings of Philip K. Dick. "I was reading all of his books, and I think my head was just kind of in this soup of time travel ideas," he says.
Time travel is a notoriously tricky plot to work with. Johnson says he looked back at classic time travel movies like 12 Monkeys and Back to the Future, and was reassured to find things even there that didn't make sense. "But the magic trick of those movies is, it constructs this story where it really is like a magician with a deck of cards," he says. "It fools you into believing it makes sense for two hours, so that you can go along on this ride."
Anyone who's thought about time travel has probably dreamed of doing something like killing Adolf Hitler — but Johnson says that's not what he's interested in. "It's such a fantasy, kind of false moral conundrum," Johnson says. "It's something that has very little to do with real life, whereas the basic question of, does it work to solve the problem by finding the right person and killing them, or does that just create this self-perpetuating loop, that's unfortunately something that is very applicable to the world around us. That's the more interesting question to me."
Johnson adds that time travel stories are intensely relatable — most people wonder about their past and future selves. "I think the most powerful form of time travel is memory," he says. "Every day ... we'll kind of go off in our heads and revisit moments in our lives, and wish that we had done them differently." And time travel stories can also be a warning, "the same way that Frankenstein stories are kind of a cautionary tale, sort of a 'yes, you think you want that, but it actually wouldn't help, it would actually make things worse' ... you think you want to revisit the past, but in reality you should just be living in the present."
For Looper, though, Johnson had to live not in the present, but the future — a place he imagines as looking relatively like the world we know now. "It's not a big, shiny sci-fi world, it's something that is ... everything is just broken down, so it's kind of a dystopian future," he says. There's no middle class, just rich society types and poor street people — though Johnson describes himself as an optimist, and says Looper's grim future was driven by character decisions.
"Our main character, Joe, much like a movie I looked to for inspiration was Casablanca, much like Rick in Casablanca, he's beginning the movie in a very kind of isolated, self-serving place," he says. "And it made sense, much like in Casablanca, to build a world around him where you saw that that kind of selfishness didn't come from him being a bad person, but was because he has to exist in this world."
Johnson adds that, were he to be able to travel in time, he would want to see the future — though maybe a little further out than the future depicted in Looper. "I'd say a hundred years is a good round number," he says. "That's far enough ahead to where it would make the journey worth it, to see what they've got, but not so far that you're going to show up and be just like on a charred piece of earth, floating through the cosmos."