Interpreting Time Travel in Looper

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


October 9, 2013

Interpreting Time Travel in Looper

Looper is a time-travel sci-fi film set in the year 2044, but in this film we mostly follow the story of those for whom time travel hasn’t been invented yet, and are visited by people from the future. Joe, the main protagonist, is a looper, a hired gun who executes people sent back from the year 2074 by a criminal organization.

In the future, it is impossible to hide murders, so they are sent to loopers like Joe who kill and dispose of them in the past. A looper’s final kill is his future self. In order to tie up loose ends, the criminals of the future send back the old Joe of 2074 (Bruce Willis) to be killed by the young Joe of 2044 (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—this is called closing the loop. Afterwards, he is expected to retire with his hoard of money and live out his days until his future execution by his own hand.

Young Joe initially follows this path as expected. He kills his future self, moves to China, but wastes his retirement money on drugs and partying, forcing his return to his former life as a gangster. After a long career, he is finally saved from a life of crime and drug addiction by a beautiful Chinese woman who he marries, but his bliss is cut short by thugs who accidentally shoot and kill his wife when they arrive to collect him on the day of his execution.

Old Joe blames the Rainmaker, the new criminal boss who has taken over the syndicates and unleashed a reign of terror. Determined to prevent the Rainmaker’s rise and his wife’s death, Old Joe decides he won’t go quietly. He learns the day and location of the Rainmaker’s birth and sends himself back in time where he avoids Young Joe’s gunshot, knocks him unconscious and sets out to murder the Rainmaker, now a young but angry boy who is developing extraordinary telekenetic powers. A chaotic three-way chase ensues: The young Rainmaker, Cid, and his mother pursued by Old Joe; Old Joe pursued by Young Joe, who wants to close his loop; and the criminal gang who want to kill both Joes.

The final scene reveals the twist ending. The mother standing between her son and Old Joe with his gun drawn. Young Joe has an epiphany, realizing that Old Joe will kill the mother and the boy will escape. Now alone in a hostile, decaying world, he will choose the path of a criminal mastermind and become the Rainmaker, eventually causing the death of Old Joe’s wife. Surveying the scene from a distance, Old Joe is out of range of his shotgun, but Young Joe realizes he can cut the cycle short by turning it on himself. Young Joe commits suicide, causing Old Joe to vanish and saving the mother’s life and by implication, also the boy from his dark future.

Looking quickly over commentary on the film that has been published so far, I found the sci-fi blog io9 chose to focus on the intracacies of time travel, providing an infographic to help us understand the plot and claiming that “the key question Looper presents is: Can modifying the past significantly affect the future, or are some outcomes inevitable?” Clearly a pressing issue for all of us to consider!

More interesting is Soojin Chang’s observation that Looper is an Oedipal drama about killing your father. Although technically the two Joes are the same person, the idea of becoming your father (with all the antagonisms that implies) supports this reading. Old Joe acts like a father to his younger self, at one point shouting at him “Shut your fucking child mouth. You’re so self absorbed and stupid, and she [Joe’s future wife] is gonna clean you up.”

For his part, Young Joe is unmoved by Older Joe’s quest to avenge/prevent her death. His attitude is “You’ve lived your life—just die so that I can live mine.” They are rivals from the moment they meet, pursuing opposing agendas as if they are different people, but what’s novel is that their antagonism is resolved when Joe murders his “father” by killing himself, an act that is made possible by his transformation from a drug addict and killer. While he waits on their farm, he develops love for Cid and his mother, who helps him through drug withdrawal symptoms, just as Old Joe’s future wife does.

Looper is an oedipal drama in another way. To escape the prophecy that he will kill his father, Oedipus ran away from his adopted father’s home, only to get into an alteraction with his birth father and kill him. In the same way, Old Joe causes the death of his wife by going back in time to try to prevent it. It can also be argued that a similar fate befalls Cid: he becomes the Rainmaker out of anger that his mother was killed, but his reign of terror contributes to the death of Joe’s wife. Joe reacts by going back in time to kill Cid, inadvertently killing his mother.

Viewing time travel as a futuristic variation on the theme of prophecy and fate demonstrates the profound silliness of debating the paradoxes and logical inconsistencies. As Old Joe says in the film, “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”

More significantly, the very impossibility of retroactive causation (causing the death of your wife or mother by doing something afterwards) which at first seems to be just a weird but ultimately meaningless mindbender actually has a precise function. From psychoanalysis, we’ve learned that the analysand often comes with certain symptoms, believing that things keep happening to them that are out of their control. No matter what they try to do, they find themselves in the same situations with the same types of people treating them in some way. The analysand gradually comes to realize that it is their repressed, unconscious desire which is causing these things to happen, and they learn to take ethical responsibility for it.

This implies a certain notion of causation: other people are doing things to me, I am merely reacting. Or the classic complaint: “But they started it.” Since our unconscious desire is systematically denied, to suggest that we are somehow contributing to these things is absurd and nonsensical. The difficulty of understanding the paradoxes of time travel is an excellent illustration of the leap that is required to take responsibility for our unconscious.

Joe is finally free when he takes reponsibility for his unconscious desire, when he realizes that he himself, as Old Joe, is causing what he is trying to prevent. This is what in psychoanalysis is called an act, and marks the ending of analysis. Lacan maintains that “suicide is the only completely successful act,” which may sound like an insane idea that the job of the analyst is to get analysands to kill themselves, but probably means that what lies at the heart of desire is the death drive, which is equally represented in the idea of immortality as it is in suicide. An act involves striking at yourself, at what is most precious to you, severing a crucial attachment that prevents you from being free. But it involves profound pain, loss and a death of part of yourself.

Therein lies the moral condescension of the many upright commentators of films featuring characters that approach the death drive, characters like Joe in Looper and perhaps Walter White of Breaking Bad. Their stories aren’t afterschool specials that seek to educate us about the importance of doing the right thing and just saying no when we are faced with similar situations. This is an utterly absurd reading, and yet remarkably common among apparently educated people writing on the internet, who claim that the dilemmas of time-traveling gangsters and drug kingpins have important application in their own lives and the lives of their readers.

A huge gulf separates the average person from the lives of these fictional characters, but where we can relate is at the level of libidinal economy. The lives of fictional characters are resonant as a psychic reality, as a kind of dream representation of our conflicts and struggles in waking life. On that level, there is no separation—we are all exactly like them. These films about heroes of the death drive don’t provide moral instruction, they orient us to a difficult truth, that to escape the repetition of the symptom involves facing death. Are we ready to do that? Of course not. And yet somehow it must be done.

The ease with which people pass judgment on these characters demonstrates that they know nothing of the twisted interior of the human psyche. Their moral clarity only betrays their ignorance of the great pain and sacrifice that it takes to confront one’s inner demons, but having never been tortured by trauma themselves, nor deigning to descend from their place in the sun to comfort those who have been, of course they can’t relate to tortured souls on TV. But without witnessing the true depths of the human experience, they contribute nothing to our understanding of it.