Nine Problems with Looper (that Aren’t Brain-Melting Time Paradoxes)

Director Rian Johnson does his best to head off the complaints of those paying attention. “If we talk about [time travel] we’re gonna be talking about it all day, making diagrams with straws,” protests one of the characters. And yet this is a time travel movie, one in which the plot revolves around people being physically yanked back in time and trying to change the past. If it were just a story about how we wouldn’t take the advice of our older selves if it were on offer, the plot mechanic could have been something nice and low-budget like mysterious emails from the future. Instead we have Bruce Willis with gold strapped to his back and gunplay galore.

If a director claims they’re making a “serious” time travel movie, rather than some Hollywood nonsense starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, we’d expect them to at least acknowledge, if not grapple with, some of the intricacies science fiction novels (and indeed physicists) have been dealing with for decades. On this front Looper isn’t Primer or Donnie Darko, or even the best time travel movie starring Bruce Willis (that would be Twelve Monkeys). It blithely ignores the Grandfather Paradox, or contingent vs quantum-forking models of time travel, or the Hitler’s Murder paradox. The only way to send a message to your future self seems to be to carve it into your skin, rather than get a discreet tattoo, or just memorise it as done in one movie with a more sophisticated theory of time travel, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Nobody in Looper seems to have thought of sending time machines and maintenance manuals back in time, which would create the bootstrap paradox we see in the Terminator movies (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger). Even Jeff Daniels’s ability to affect the future with terse hints (“I’m from the future. Go to China.”) is dealt with better in a time-travel episode of My Little Pony. Seriously, it is.

But OK, Rian Johnson, you don’t want to talk about time travel because it gives you a headache and reminds you of dull afternoons doodling in the margins of your math textbook (did you know Brick was filmed in Johnson’s actual old high school?). We can leave that to others. Here are some plot holes that don’t revolve around mind-bending time paradoxes. No real spoilers here, by the way, but it’ll help if you’ve seen the film.

A central plot conceit is that loopers execute themselves. You’re sent a victim, it turns out to be you 30 years older, but hey, old-you comes with a big pile of gold to help make the next 30 years more bearable. Of course, if you recognised your older self it might be hard to pull the trigger (a hesitation required by the plot) of your really, really inaccurate gun (also required by the plot). Telekinesis, however, is completely superfluous to the plot and just an excuse for some cool CGI.

  1. Why do loopers exist? Because it’s impossible to inconspicuously murder people in the future. Forensic science in 2074 is so amazingly advanced that victims are sent back to 2044 to be shot in broad daylight and stuffed in an incinerator (no chance of future cops noticing that, I’m sure!) Meanwhile, in 2074: “So our nanobots and DNA sniffers have traced the kidnapped man all the way to the door of this illegal time machine, and then he just disappears. Oh well, file this one under Unsolved.”
  2. But OK, let’s accept that premise: time machines are used to dispose of bodies. So why send the victims back alive? Or, if creating a corpse would still be too messy, why not at least render them unconscious? A wee knock on the head, if not a lethal injection, and there’s much less chance something might go terribly wrong in the past.
  3. But for some reason victims must be sent back alive and conscious. Why, though, have loopers murder themselves? Isn’t that just asking for trouble? Instead have them execute a retired looper they’ve never met, from far away, preferably someone who doesn’t even speak their language. Much safer.
  4. You know what? You have a time machine. Can you really not think of a better way of disposing of people without leaving a trace? Go send them to play with dinosaurs or watch Krakatoa erupt.
  5. Hold on—why, exactly, are retired loopers executed? It can’t be to keep them quiet—they’re left peacefully alone for 30 years, and could at any time blab the awful things they know about the impending discovery of time travel and all the people they killed. Why not just send back a pile of gold and a thank-you card and let them have a dignified retirement and die of old age? There’s plenty of gold to spare, as time machines can make piles of it in a few hours. (Wait, what? See below.)
  6. Also, those retired loopers may not be conveniently available for execution. It would be a bit awkward, wouldn’t it, if a looper died of cancer before their 30 year retirement was up. Or commited suicide the day before they were kidnapped, or spent those 30 years finding some foolproof way to hide. Or became President. Or ascended the criminal ranks until they were the one in charge of retired-looper execution. Or sneaked into a time machine after 29 years and got sent back to live their retirement a second time, except older and wiser and knowing when the stock market crashes.
  7. By the way, did everyone notice that Bruce Willis was kidnapped in China, but appeared in a cornfield in Kansas? That means time machines are also teleportation devices that can move something human-sized from one spot on Earth to any other, undetectably. And instantaneously; in fact you can arrive a few minutes before you leave (which I suppose gives you time to make a quick phone call and confirm to yourself that you’ll get there safely). The people who own time machines could easily dispose of bodies by just teleporting them to the bottom of the ocean—no risk of time paradoxes.
  8. In fact, since these outlaws with time machines can, and do, send themselves into the past to live and run criminal gangs, why aren’t they already in charge? Why haven’t they gone back to 2012, or 1812, to mess with history to their own advantage, so that when time travel is invented they’re ruling the world rather than having to hide murders from the authorities? They should be the authorities; after all, they have huge amounts of gold.
  9. That’s because it’s easy to make staggering riches with a time machine; you just need a gold bar and a bank vault. Send the gold to the vault a week into the past. Go to the bank, check the vault—yep, one bar of gold—withdraw it, and repeat the process: send bar back, go to bank, withdraw bar, send bar back—all day if you like. Next, send yourself a note, a few days in the past, with instructions to go to the vault, withdraw the huge pile of gold that’s accumulated there, cash it in, and bank the proceeds, but—very important—leave one bar behind. Finally, check your bank balance: hey, you’re rich. Not bad for a day’s work, and no tedious messing about with ancient savings accounts and compound interest rates.
  10. But what if past-you withdrew, oops, EVERYTHING from the bank vault and didn’t leave any seed money. Does the pile of gold suddenly disappear? Do you create a new parallel universe where past-you rich but a different future-you finds the vault empty? Now we’re dealing with time paradoxes. I’ll stop because we could be here all day. Making diagrams with straws.

14 thoughts on “Nine Problems with Looper (that Aren’t Brain-Melting Time Paradoxes)

  1. Keyser Söze

    HA! Great entry! So fun to read, congrats :) I bet every sci-fi geek came out of the theater commenting the same stuff.

    Now, I think somewhere in the script (if not the movie) they mention that being time travel highly illegal the mob only can have access to that rudimentary machine that, funny enough, can only send people back in time 30 years (no other config possible, at least for that black market model), tightening the plot rules a bit. The thing with time machine being on different places depending on the date is certainly curious; like you said, make it water-proof and you’re good to go.

    I shall here, however, defend that ‘hollywood nonsense’ starring Arnie, Terminator 2 (and terminator) is one of the best action movies with a sci-fi plot, because it stands out as a great movie. Hell maybe is just that I grew up watching those, but in the end after watching Looper one can’t help but feeling like it was a little bit of Back to the Future and Terminator with an order side of Akira.

    Another thing annoying, or just intendenly barroque was making both childhoods similar (getting on a train, full of hatred). Are we suppose to think the child is another younger version? Like this was Heinlein’s —All you zombies— and every character is the same person? It’s obviously not, so that part was just messing around.

    Great movie anyway (Rian Johnson is getting better) but not a big score regarding science fiction, at least for the trained minds. Bootstraps, straws and whatnot.

  2. Tim

    Just FYI… Jeff Bridges isn’t in this movie. It’s Jeff Daniels… The guy who played Harry in Dumb and Dumber.

  3. Adam

    Another one that really bugged me is that this “Rainmaker” dude was apparently killing loopers before their end date. That was the big change that motivated the rest of the movie to take place. Why was it then that we see Bruce Willis live out his live to the full 30 years he’s allowed? Did the Rainmaker just miss him?

    Also, I’m a bit confused by the time machine. Is it only allowed to go back exactly 30 years? That would explain why they don’t just send people back 200 years (which would make way more sense) but it’s never stated outright as far as I can tell.

  4. Mike Post author

    If the time machine can only send things back 30 years, they could simply send a time machine itself back 30 years. Repeat, for as far back as people have electricity.

  5. Rafael

    The one thing that puzzeled me was when they captured joe’s friend who allowed himself from the future escape, and they called “the doctor” to start chopping him off. If they chopped his feet off, how was he able to escape when he was sent back? If they chopped his feet off he couldn’t have escaped so… isn’t that a paradox? and yes, I am makig diagrams with straws! lol

  6. Sapphia

    One thing all time travel movies seem to ignore is that is that the earth, solar system, and even the entire galaxy is moving through space. If you go back in time six months, you also have to travel back to the point in space occupied by the Earth six months ago. Otherwise, you end up floating in space. This would explain why we don’t seem to see too many time travelers. Makes the idea of the TARDIS on Doctor Who much more practical!

  7. Tony

    Clearly the plot is beyond flimsy. Like Mike mentioned, the whole concept doesn’t really hold together unless you let the writers off the hook and ride along (which is the best thing to do, IMO). The biggest flaw I could possibly point out is: How come the wife gets killed if it’s such an issue in the future. They shot the wife but take Willis to have him killed in the past, this made no sense. The whole thing with the rainmaker and the “telekinetic” stuff could have been left out. You already have time traveling going on, why bring ‘Carrie’ into this? The movie is watchable if you don’t get too serious about “Time-travel”. Funny how to this day, Back to the Future is still the most ‘accurate’ film despite being a goofy ’80s blockbuster.

  8. J'onzzz

    Letting the writers off the hook and riding along is actually the whole idea of the movie. The messy time-travel yarn is a framework off which hangs a story that turns action hero tropes (amongst others) on their heads in ways you rarely see in Hollywood movies. It’s not really a time travel action film, that’s the sleight of hand.

  9. Justin

    I know I’m late to the conversation but I just re-watched Looper and -I haven’t seen mention of the movie-breaking paradox.

    [I might spoil something but I’ll try not to] The thing that young Joe does to stop old Joe at the very end (because of the basic premise of the movie that says that what happens in the “present” immediately affects the future – even going so far as to change memories) would mean that nothing in the movie ever actually happened (because he was never able to come back in time in the first place). Which would reset the timeline.

    Technically, young Joe would go back to being his normal self (having already closed his loop) and the whole thing would likely repeat.

    BUT! The reason for the story to have happened (the rainmaker’s motive for killing off loopers) would also have never happened!! Because it requires Old Joe’s escape to have happened) Which means that he would have no reason to kill off loopers early! Which means it could never have happened to begin with – because Old Joe succeeded in closing his loop!!!!!

    Movie-Breaking paradox…

  10. Franco

    The entire movie has paradoxes coming out of its ears and, because time-travel is sci-fi I can forgive the odd minor paradox and inconsistencies (there are some in the Back to the Future, but generally speaking they all tie up quite neatly), but sadly for me ‘Looper’ had far too many glaring paradoxes to be taken seriously. Funny that many critics called it ‘A sci-fi movie with brains’ when even to someone as simple as myself this is clearly not the case.

    By the way, great list. Gave me a good laugh.

  11. Ashok

    If somehow they changed the events from rainman to become the rainman then wouldn’t they be still alive? I mean the looper execution program wouldn’t have happened and Bruce Willis would have never come back to fix the rainman because it’s already fixed

  12. floydbarber

    Your #9 isn’t possible under any conditions except alternate/parallel universes, which also makes your #10 not possible either.

    You have one gold bar in the vault. You send it back in time, future you now has ZERO gold bars.

    How are you duplicating ? You have future Gold bar in the past and no gold bar in the future.

    It’s like saying if you send yourself back in time to meet yourself, then what? The future doesn’t have a “you” anymore, but there are two of you in the past. Sure, there could be 100 of “you” in the past, but ALL of you would have to travel to the past and then back to the future in order to actually visit yourself at multiple times in the past.

    The same applies with Gold – you wouldn’t actually have any gold in the future to send yourself if you removed it from the bank – creating a paradox.

    It’s actually exactly the same if you went back in time and kill your dad before you were born. It’s impossible, because you couldn’t go back in time to kill your dad if you were never born. Paradox.

    The only explanation for any of these things happening (and, IMO, the most likely reason why we haven’t seen time travellers) is alternate/parallel universes.

    If assuming that alternate parallel universes don’t exist, then there will only ever be the one bar.

    If they do exist, you are still actually leaving a lot of “poor you’s” in other parallel universes, which isn’t great either. Because all of the other poor yous, would have to send ONE of you the gold bar. Everytime you sent a gold bar, you’d be creating a universe in which you don’t actually have a gold bar anymore.


  13. Abraham

    I get that you need suspension of disbelief when it comes to movies like this. You also have to accept the movie’s rules; if for some reason the only way to dispose of unwanted people is to send them to the past, then so be it. If the only way they can be killed in the past is by getting shot (instead of, say, make them appear inside a volcano), so be it. They don’t state the whys but this is the reality in which the movie plays out. You got to accept it and from there understand the movie’s plot by its own rules. The big problem comes here: when the movie states its rules and starts to break them or follow them at will, according to convenience. Rules that can be broken are as good as no rules, and so anything and everything could happen, and the whole plot loses the meaning. In time travel stories, you have two options: either there is only one single timeline in which you move back and forth (like in Back to The Future) or you have different timelines for every change in events, creating parallel lines that never cross again. Looper tries to have both and that just doesn’t add up.

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