Watching Looper made me feel strange, as if I was watching two films at the same time. The first film is an interesting and slightly unusual sci-fi tale about time travel and telekinesis. The other is a fatuous ego trip for Bruce Willis. On the whole, the first film wins out, and Willis doesn’t quite drag the rest of Looper down with him, but at times it felt touch and go.

Looper is set in a near future where humanity is on the cusp of discovering time travel. The main benefit of time travel seems to be for the Mob, who now dispose of people by sending them back in time to get whacked. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of many executioners, called Loopers, who specialize in killing people sent back from the future. The film’s first section does a fairly effective job of setting the scene, but suffers from corny and unnecessary narration by Gordon-Levitt. A film should be able to communicate its setting and characters without having someone literally spelling it all out for you. I can’t think of a film where narration really helped; I know that narration was one of the main reasons Blade Runner flopped on its initial release, and removing the narration was one of the secrets to its subsequent success. I don’t understand how the producers thought it would be a good idea here, and it must make Gordon-Levitt cringe to hear it.

Inevitably, Joe is faced with the task of killing himself (Willis) when he comes back from 30 years in the future. One of the movie’s good points is the way it depicts the relationship between the future and the past as a sort of dialectical relationship: the past determines the future, but then what happens in the future has the potential to change the past which in turn can change the future. The film doesn’t get bogged down in the details and instead takes a practical approach which works well. One of the film’s most harrowing sequences involves a man who ‘Let His Loop Run’ instead of killing him when he came back from the future. His present-day version gets captured by his pissed-off employers; in order to force his future self to turn himself in, they start chopping parts off his past self. Grim. Although really, couldn’t they have just killed him instead?

The darkest part of the film involves Joe’s purpose in returning to the past to stop certain events taking place in the future. This part of the plot is almost literally the same as the plot of The Terminator, and it’s badly done. Old Joe is ultimately an evil and selfish man and it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for him at all. Young Joe suggests to Old Joe a simple course of action to prevent future catastrophe which wouldn’t harm anyone, but Old Joe stubbornly refuses and instead embarks on a series of actions that are really beyond the moral event horizon and quite rare in a film of this nature. It’s all the more jarring because of Willis’s self-righteous and sanctimonious demeanour. At one point he lays into Young Joe for things he hasn’t done yet, but which Old Joe literally did himself. Hypocrite doesn’t begin to cover it.

Willis is the worst thing about the film, even worse than the lame narration. He gives an absurdly smug and self-regarding performance, in sharp contrast to Gordon-Levitt’s largely understated, efficient killer. Willis is full of self-satisfied, unearned bravado and one action scene in particular felt like something out of Last Action Hero. An earlier scene, which shows the passage of time and one actor seguing into the other, also came across as a kind of sub-Matrix parody. Poor Gordon-Levitt does an earnest job of trying to believably look and act like a younger version of Willis and it’s sad to see his efforts go to waste in such a way.

The film also features Emily Blunt, and her interactions with Gordon-Levitt in the second half of the film are probably its best parts. There’s also a memorable and menacing cameo from the excellent Garret Dillahunt. They should have just sent him to makeup, added a few years and got him to play Old Joe instead of the flatulent Willis. As it is, Willis doesn’t quite ruin the film, but it looks like he had fun trying.