Movies about time travel are rife with potential pitfalls, but writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper

by Mark Burger

Movies about time travel are rife with potential pitfalls, but writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper holds together better than many, displaying an imagination and intelligence refreshing in any genre, much less science-fiction.

The film reunites Johnson with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred in deservedly  acclaimed Johnson’s 2005 debut, a latter-day film noir. The two work well together and, indeed, Looper incorporates elements of film noir (in Gordon-Levitt’s narration) and oldschool Western.

And, if Johnson is to be accused of “borrowing” various elements from previous sci-fi works by such authors and auteurs as HG Wells, Phillip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, Ray Bradbury and James Cameron (to name a few), at the very least he’s cadging from the best.

Set in a future decimated by poverty and despair (yes, even more so than now), society is ruled by corporations that are barelymasked variations on the mafia. Gordon- Levitt’s Joe is a hired gun who does the dirty work — in this case assassinating those sent back from the future via time-travel. Thus, problems are solved before they actually occur. It’s a nasty business and somebody’s got to do it, if not Joe than someone else.

But the one problem Joe didn’t count on was the appearance of his older self (Bruce Willis, playing “Old Joe”), who clearly hasn’t lost his knack for survival by promptly knocking Joe out and proceeding on his own vendetta. What follows is an entertaining game of cat and mouse with a major existential kink: If Old Joe kills his younger self, then he will himself cease to exist.

There are more twists that follow, some better left as surprises. Gordon-Levitt, also an executive producer, again proves himself one of our best young actors with a solid star turn here. Top-billed Willis, forsaking his trademark smart-aleck persona, is impressively vicious as the single-minded, vengeful Old Joe. This is also a far more persuasive time-travel opus than Terry Gilliam’s disappointing Twelve Monkeys (1995), in which Willis played a similar role.

Emily Blunt, Piper Perabo, Paul Dano and youngster Pierce Gagnon (most impressive) make the most of their supporting roles, some of which are merely functionary as opposed to necessary. Jeff Daniels is clearly enjoying himself as a droll, laidback, and unmistakably lethal godfather who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. On the contrary, it’s the fools who suffer.

Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is a curious case, although not an unhappy or disappointing one. A feature-length expansion of the 1984 animated short that served as an early calling card in the filmmaker’s subsequent, and very successful, career.

Opting to utilize stop-motion animation and to shoot in black-and-white — the latter undoubtedly at Burton’s behest (as was his live-action Ed Wood in 1994) — Frankenweenie is a fractured fable that addresses a common theme in his films, in that misfits and oddballs (with whom he clearly identifies) need love, too.

Charlie Tahan voices the film’s young hero, a bright but withdrawn boy named Victor Frankenstein. Upon the death of his beloved dog Sparky, Victor puts his science lessons into practice by reassembling and resurrecting the pooch thanks to a convenient bolt of lightning. He attempts to keep his scientific triumph a secret, but when some of his classmates begin conducting similar experiments on their pets, it’s not long before the entire town of New Holland is aware of Sparky — and crowded with creatures of various shapes and sizes.

It’s only a matter of time before the townspeople take up torches, as befits any classic monster movie, and Burton drops in a delirious selection of references and in-jokes, including a few to his own films (Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands in particular). Many of these nods, however, predate most children and, indeed, likely most adults. There’s a lot of James Whale here, especially Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but how familiar are contemporary audiences with those films?

Burton’s penchant for the morbid and the macabre are in full bloom. It remains to be seen, however, if his name alone can propel the film to blockbuster status. It didn’t happen with his live-action version of Dark Shadows earlier this year (despite Johnny Depp and an all-star cast), and Frankenweenie was beaten to theaters by two animated features with similar interests: ParaNorman, an enjoyable film in its own right but only a moderate box-office success, and Hotel Transylvania, which has been a smash.

Although widely regarded today as a classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which Burton produced and Henry Selick directed, wasn’t a blockbuster hit either, despite repeated reissues over the years (it remains a huge seller on homevideo). The title alone might also dissuade or confuse some viewers. After all, the dog in question is named Sparky, and the name Frankenweenie is never spoken in the film.

A number of Burton veterans lend their vocal talents to the proceedings: Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder and Martin Landau, but it’s Atticus Shaffer as the gaptoothed, hunchbacked Edgar “E” Gore (get it?) who steals the show.

In terms of quality and enjoyability, the film is an uncontested success. Beautifully rendered and scored — it’s yet another first-rate collaboration between Burton and composer Danny Elfman — Frankenweenie is quintessential Tim Burton. There’s no question whose film this is, the personal imprint being so distinctive. In an era when (too) many films bear no directorial imprint and seem as if they could have been directed by anyone (or, more likely, by committee), that individuality counts for something. Quite a lot, actually.

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