How closely should we scrutinize the conceits of speculative fiction? That question may be more loaded than it initially appears. A rather straightforward answer might be, as closely as the given work invites, but that creates its own difficulties. It requires, first of all, that we determine how seriously the work takes itself.
As science fiction conceits go, time-travel is especially treacherous. It often involves the scripting of narrative rules that are easy to inadvertently break. Even when they’re not broken, they frequently lure viewers down a rabbit hole of speculation. “You’re not thinking four-dimensionally,” Doc Brown admonishes Marty in the Back to the Future movies. Most of us share Marty’s difficulty with thinking through those loops. What we generally lack is his ability to put those difficulties out of mind and simply roll with the twists and turns.
For example: there is an exchange in the time-travel movie Looper that serves as a kind of disclaimer. In a road-side diner, Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sits across from an older version of himself (Bruce Willis), trying to sort out the complications of time-travel. The older Joe’s response is that they could get bogged down in the details, drawing out complicated diagrams with drinking straws and napkins, but in the end those details just don’t matter.
It’s tempting to interpret the scene as an aside smuggled in by the film’s writer and director, Rian Johnson, to tell the audience, “Don’t get too bogged down in the time-travel conceit. What really matters are the human experiences that the conceit allows us explore.” While most of us have no practical application for whatever we might learn by trying to sort out the twisty logic of cinematic time-travel, there might be something worth reflecting on in the story of a man confronting his own willingness to commit any enormity to protect what he loves. That, presumably, is why the story is being told, so concentrate on that.
I find myself wanting to grant Rian that much. I like the feature-length movies he has made so far, as well as the panache with which he has told his stories. As a general principle, I like the idea of not sweating the small stuff. The trouble is that, at some point shortly after watching it, I detected a pretty serious kink in the logic of Looper, and I can’t quite bring myself to think of it as small stuff.
The details are little complicated, and impossible to explain without giving away the entire plot. Joe is a looper, one of a fraternity of mob-sponsored killers who handle executions on the near end of a time-travel loop stretching from 2042 to 2072. Their knowledge of the illegal activity makes the loopers themselves liabilities, so at some point they’re also sent back to be disposed of by the same means, usually by their former selves, a process called “closing the loop.”
That raises all sorts of questions, but they’re the sort of questions that can be pasted over by the general premise that you simply have to grant some conceits if you want to get to what really matters in a story. The real narrative trouble begins with the Rainmaker, a mysterious figure said to have single-handedly taken over the crime syndicates in 2072, initiating a general purge of the surviving loopers. Joe is on the hit list, but he manages not only to survive having his loop closed, but also to travel back to 2042 with a set of numbers that will allow him to identify and kill the Rainmaker as a child, thus preventing the hostile takeover and saving Joe’s future wife in the process.
Even here the potential objections are not necessarily fatal. What threatens to derail the entire thing is the causal relationship between old Joe and the Rainmaker. Why does Joe hunt down the child? Because the Rainmaker’s purge caused the death of his wife. Why does the Rainmaker initiate a purge of old loopers? Presumably because he witnessed old Joe kill his mother. Once a time loop like that gets started, it’s pretty clear how it could end up being recursive, but how does it get started in the first place? How, in other words, does the Rainmaker make it into the timeline, if the Rainmaker is motivated by a time-traveler attempting to kill him?
Nick Hurwitch and Phil Hornshaw of The Huffington Post also saw the problem, and ultimately came to the conclusion that the story cannot logically hold on to both the premise that old Joe kickstarts the reign of terror and the notion that young Joe preempts it by killing himself. It’s possible to preserve the temporal logic of the film by supposing that the Rainmaker identity emerged in earlier timelines, without having witnessed Joe gun down Cid’s mother. That’s necessary because, logically speaking, old Joe can’t go on his infanticidal spree without the prior motivation of seeing his wife killed by the Rainmaker’s goons.
But that option may be even worse. It suggests that, even in the timeline that ends with young Joe taking himself out of the loop, Cid will still go on to become the Rainmaker, setting the same series of events back into motion. Interpreted thus, the film’s apparently hopeful conclusion rings a false note. Sociopathy is simply written into the Cid’s biography, and young Joe’s sacrifice has no clear impact on the future.
Which brings us back to the debate in the diner, with old Joe arguing that the conceit is just there to set up the dilemma, and that we should be concentrating on what really matters in the story. Ask a question like, “Why don’t the mobsters kill the loopers before they send them back?” and the best answer is simply, “Because then there’d be no movie.” But the question of where the Rainmaker comes from isn’t like that of why unseen bosses of the future give loopers even a snowball’s chance in hell. In each of his films so far, Johnson has been characteristically deliberate about plot. In similar fashion, Looper is like the performance of a stage trick in the way that it carries the audience by a series of discrete steps from the opening scene to the final realization of its theme. The audience’s willingness to accept Joe’s solution to the malicious loop rests, for example, on a long string of scenes that establish everything from the relative range of their weapons to the quiet way in which damage done to a future self erases looped bodies.
Hurwitch and Hornshaw start their article with a disclaimer of their own: “We are not here to ruin anyone’s movie-going fun.” But there is, it seems to me, more at stake than that. Is Looper a parable about the damage we do when we’re willing to stop at nothing to save the things we hold dear? Or is it a counsel of despair with regards to the ideal of sacrificing one’s self to allow future generations the possibility of wholeness?
Presumably, Johnson did not mean to force Looper‘s viewers onto the prongs of that particular dilemma. Still, if I’m right about the problem underlying the movie’s central dilemma, then the result may be that those of us who discern the issue are forced to make a decision about what we take away from the experience.
We started down this path with the question, “How closely should we scrutinize the conceits of speculative fiction?” Given the narrative risks illustrated by Looper, a better way to formulate that question may be, “How much should the writers of fiction stake on highly speculative conceits?” And another way to put that question might be, “Why should writers serious about exploring a theme risk it by writing science fiction or fantasy?”
The only really viable answer, it seems to me, is that, handled carefully, a speculative conceit can open a story onto thematic possibilities that might have remained closed otherwise. It may be possible, for example, to reconceive the themes of Stanislaw Lem’s strange science fiction novels into more traditional literary tropes, but it’s hardly possible to imagine them being better for it. Likewise, for all of its deliberate shlockiness, the cyborg conceit of RoboCop is effective as a blunt evocation of our fear of what happens when the humane concept of justice is institutionally mechanized.
The lesson, perhaps, is that, as those premises touch more closely at the heart of a work, we do well to stop thinking of them as the sort of conceits that can be distinguished from the significance of a story. They become, in a sense, triggers of meaning, narrative mechanisms that are capable, when deployed, of changing in a story the elements that matter most. Understanding how they operate on the themes, symbols and emotions of a work thus grows ever more crucial. At their best, they elevate the possibilities of story-telling in the speculative genres and make them capable of feats not available to narratives more firmly rooted in the known.