Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Are men born evil, or do they learn it? Do men shape events, or are they shaped by events? Would you go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler as a child and avert the Holocaust? To kill young Osama bin Laden and spare the United States from 9/11 and a decade of war? To stop Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Robespierre, Mao or any of the other monsters throughout history before they could unleash their terror?
This is the line of troubling ethical thought that Rian Johnson's new film, Looper, presents to us.
Set in the year 2044, we learn that time travel has been created and subsequently outlawed 30 years in the future. In this future, tracking technology has made it virtually impossible to dispose of murdered bodies, so the mafia has turned to illegal time travel to take care of their dirty laundry. They send people they want to kill back to 2044, where assassins called "loopers" kill them in exchange for silver strapped to the bodies. When the future criminals want to end a looper's contract, they send that looper's future self back in time to be killed by his younger self, thus "closing the loop." This final body has gold strapped to it to allow the looper to enjoy his remaining years. Failing to live up to the contract is a death sentence.
A stunningly-transformed Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a looper named Jo,e whose older self is played by Bruce Willis. Old Joe is very much in love with his beautiful wife when the henchmen of an ultra-powerful and deadly criminal mastermind named the Rainmaker begin "closing loops" and come to close Joe's, killing his wife in the process. Old Joe gets angry and, in typical Bruce Willis badassery, dispatches the henchmen and goes back in time to find and kill the Rainmaker. Since no one knows exactly who the Rainmaker is, Old Joe only has two pieces of information to work with: the date the Rainmaker was born, and the hospital he was born in. That narrows it down to three children.
Cue gut-wrenching images of Old Joe walking up to an innocent child, shooting him in cold blood, and suppressing tears while going to find his next victim.
Now, young Joe is upset because his bosses blame him for Old Joe's escape and are now trying to kill him in order to erase Old Joe's existence. Joe thinks it's unfair and wants to live out the rest of his life until he reaches Old Joe status, and thus goes on the hunt for his older self. (Confused yet?)
He learns who one of Old Joe's victims is and holds up at a farm with troubled single mother Sara, played by the beautiful Emily Blunt, and the creepily precious Cid, played by Pierce Gagnon.
It should be noted that telekinesis also exists in 2044, a significant percentage of the human race having evolved it. It is not all that cool, culminating in a few people being able to float quarters and cigarette lighters.
Except for Cid, as Joe soon discovers. Cid is a telekinetic powerhouse who specializes in lifting people up off of the ground and blowing them to smithereens when he has a temper tantrum. (He accidentally did this to his aunt and uncle.) Joe starts to get an idea as to which one of Old Joe's victims grows up be the ultra-powerful crime lord. As expected in these things, increasingly-less-self-interested Joe ends up in the same bed as Sara one night and also starts to care for Cid, understanding that despite his murderous future, he's not really a bad kid.
Eventually, Old Joe arrives in a flurry of fighting and bullets (because it's Bruce Willis, and that's how he rolls). He tries to kill Cid, leading to one of those temper tantrums. Everyone — Old Joe, Young Joe, Sara —begins to get lifted off of the ground, Cid set on turning Bruce Willis into a pile or two of goo. Before he can, though, Sara lovingly lets him know she cares about him and calms him down. Cid spares Old Joe's life.
Old Joe doesn't care for mercy, though. He is convinced that the only way to save the future (and his wife) is to kill Cid, so he raises his gun again. This time, Sara literally stands in between them. Since Old Joe has spent his time hunting down innocent, unarmed children to kill, young Joe knows that Sara is in danger.
Then Joe has one of those moments of clarity where he sees everything — past, present, and future. If Sara dies, Cid will not have that loving, caring, moral guide to shape him, and will become the Rainmaker. To save Cid, Joe thinks, he must save Sara. The only way to do that is to stop Old Joe, and the only way to stop Old Joe is to commit suicide. (Time travel: fun, eh?)
Joe turns his gun on himself and pulls the trigger. Stunned Bruce Willis vanishes into thin air, and both Cid and Sara are safe (and probably in desperate need of therapy).
Now the ethical questions: Is Old Joe justified in his actions? He saw tremendous evil done by the Rainmaker, and was desperate to stop it. Does the potential for evil justify killing? Would we be justified to go back in time and kill 5-year-old Adolf Hitler?
Younger Joe thinks not. Our futures are not set in stone; a child does not necessarily have to grow to be a villain.
Evil exists in the world and must be confronted, but evil is a choice that men make. Certain conditions can serve to influence that choice,. Evil men must be held accountable for their actions, but we must try to understand what caused their wickedness — not to excuse them, but to try and stop more of them from rising. Cid was not born wanting to unleash terror on the world as the Rainmaker, and Hitler and Stalin presumably were not born wanting to murder millions of people.
Yet, they did commit those evils, so more practical people might say we should kill these monsters before they become threats.
Does it even matter, though? Would killing Cid have stopped Old Joe's wife from dying, or were conditions so terrible already and beyond Cid's control? Would WWII have happened without Hitler? Would 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror have taken place without Bin Laden? If we eliminated these evil men from the world, would it even matter? Are such things beyond the scope of one man?
In the trailer for Steven Spielberg's new Lincoln, the beloved president asks, "Do we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we're born into?"
It's a good question to ponder, and we are lucky Hollywood is providing us with opportunities to do so. Some would say that, yes, some men are indispensable and shape history. Others think that history shapes us. What do you think?
Go watch the film and ponder these things. While you do, do not fall into thinking that this ethical dilemma posed by Looper — killing people because of their potential for evil —is some impossible, abstract problem posed by science fiction's love of time travel.
Ancient conquerors would often kill all the young boys in conquered tribes in order to prevent them from avenging their fathers. The biblical king Herod had a generation of children massacred over a prophecy that one would threaten his rule. The United States assassinated a 16-year-old teenager from Colorado because his Yemeni-American father was a terrorist mastermind. The U.S. government justifies the deaths of its drone victims by claiming the right to kill any male who is deemed military-age and thus a potential terror threat. This ethical question has real policy consequences, and should be seriously thought about.
Movies that make us think on important and difficult topics while simultaneously entertaining us are good movies. And Looper is just such a movie.