1. Looper is essentially two different movies spliced together at the midway point, but that's OK, because: a) the movies are thematically connected, with the second building off the windup of the first; and b) they're both excellent. The first half is a dark, thrilling time-travel mind-twister that leads into the slower, more personal, moving second half. The final product is basically the sci-fi actioner you're wanting and the satisfying story about sacrifice, family and regret you're wanting. It doesn't hit every button exactly right the entire ride, but a movie this narratively ambitious doesn't need to be perfect to be fun. Looper tries a little bit of everything. Director Rian Johnson, most famous for Brick and two particularly gripping episodes of Breaking Bad ("Fly" and "Fifty-One"), bites off more here than anyone could be reasonably expected to chew. That he comes so close to pulling it off makes me think he is one of the more exciting filmmakers working right now. This movie's got a ton going on.
2. The movie's first half sets up the concept of loopers, who are present-day hitmen hired to execute people for a future mob syndicate; they ship 'em back 30 years, loopers shoot 'em, and everyone's happy. Until, anyway, the syndicate starts sending back the older versions of the loopers to be shot. That's called "closing the loop." (The syndicate is represented by a giddily hammy Jeff Daniels.) Inevitably, hero looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, made up to look like a young Bruce Willis) is confronted by Future Joe (Bruce Willis, made up to look like Bruce Willis), who escapes his execution and begins wreaking havoc to save the life of his future wife and, oh by the way, save the future from an evil murderous telepathist—"The Rainmaker"—by killing him when he's 10 years old. Told you there was a lot of plot. And we're only halfway through! The second half of the film slows everything down, for reasons I won't reveal, to tell the story of a wayward mother named Sara (Emily Blunt), her troubled, brilliant son, and how their lives will determine the past and the future for both Joes, young and old.
3. My biggest initial fear about Looper was that it was going to be overly wonky and cerebral, a visual feast aimed at sci-fi fanboys and time-travel theorists rather than, you know, normal people. (This wouldn't have been the worst crime; you might have ended up with a new Primer, the absorbing 2004 indie from Shane Carruth, who reportedly assisted Johnson with some of Looper's time-travel elements.) But Johnson aims higher than that: He takes the time-travel conceit seriously but understands that you need an emotional investment in the characters and the story for it to rise above dorm-room fiction. In many ways, Looper is an existential thriller; there's a scene in which our two Joes meet in a diner, and each Joe considers the other Joe an asshole and spends the rest of the movie trying to change that. A man sees what he's going to become and decides to try to become someone different; his journey in the film is about the inspiration for that change shifting from self-absorbed to noble. The movie has more than its fair share of fanboy pleasures—including a hilarious meta-moment in which Willis basically tells the audience that it's OK not to obsess about time travel's inherent paradoxes—but the viewer is emotionally invested: It matters to us what happens to Joe, even if it doesn't always matter that much to him.
4. Johnson doesn't forget this is supposed to be fun, either; it's frankly a relief for someone to make a movie in which the world of our future, in fact, contains a little bit of sunshine. (Most movie futures feel like replicants of Blade Runner, that's all.) Gordon-Levitt is a large reason for this; he's one of those actors who is inherently likable and relatable yet nothing resembling a pushover or a sap. He's a young, sinewy, more dangerous Tom Hanks. You cheer for him even when maybe you shouldn't. This is Willis' best role in decades, which isn't saying much, but still: You can tell Willis has been waiting a long time for another movie this juicy, and he doesn't hold anything back. (Even if a Willis scene late in the film is a little too Expendables-y for my blood.) The movie also looks fantastic: Johnson showed off an inventive—perhaps too inventive at times—eye in Brick and The Brothers Bloom, but this movie is even more lush and off-kilter; he's constantly shooting things in a way we haven't seen before. I'm particularly fond of a scene in Sara's farmhouse in which the world seems to implode and explode, simultaneously.
5. There are times when Looper moves faster than it should and risks spinning off in too many directions at once. But Johnson keeps coming up with surprises; the movie never quite goes where you expect it to, and he takes considerable pleasure in swerving wildly right when you expect him to go left. (It's a definitive breath-stuck-in-the-top-of-your-throat movie; half the fun is Johnson's audacity in painting himself into corners and then finding nifty ways out.) All the sci-fi, time-travel whiz-bangs, that's just the surface. The real reason Looper is terrific is because when everything quiets down, when no one's from the future, when we've moved on from the space-time continuum ... it's grounded in something real and human and universal: Can we change? Not the past, not what we've done, but who we are, and who we're going to become. Time travel is a conceit in this film, but ultimately a red herring; Looper is ultimately more concerned with human nature, and the human heart. This is a wildly entertaining film that isn't content with science and cinematic tricks. It desires, and achieves, much more.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.