Written & directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels
Rating:  4 stars (of five)

A science-fiction thriller with more heart and brains than testosterone and special effects, Looper sets up an interesting and unique premise, conjures several characters with competing interests and definite flaws, and hurls them together. The end is not a foregone conclusion, and right up until the last minutes, I wasn’t sure whether we’d get an upbeat or tragic ending, nor which of the main characters might get what he or she wanted–since it was clear that for anyone to “win,” others would lose.  Thus, the film is a pleasant surprise from start to finish.

With its weird combination of elements: time travel + Murder, Inc. + psychic powers, it feels like a lost Philip K. Dick story, only more satisfying.  In fact, though it’s not an adaptation of anything, it feels more like a Philip K. Dick story than any of the actual Dick adaptations, good or bad.

The most interesting thing about this world is that it feels like a world.  We see signs of social injustice and social problems (don’t pack up those tents yet, Occupiers). Characters have pasts that shaped and scarred them, and dreams of the future.  This movie could have been as shallow a vehicle for a sci-fi gimmick as last year’s Source Code or Cowboys & Aliens, but where those films felt like nothing existed beyond the scenes stitched together in the script, this feels like a world that extends beyond camera, with people who have lived beyond the running time.

(While we’re comparing Looper to recent little sci-fi thrillers, it’s akin to, but better than, The Adjustment Bureau, more compelling than Hereafter (okay, not quite sci-fi) and less slick than Limitless. As Inception is to “sprawling, overwrought novel,” Looper is to “tight, emotionally resonant novella.”)

A real prize in a film with “violent thriller” deep in its DNA are the emotional lives of the characters and the way they inform what’s at stake for the characters, who are not by-the-numbers protagonists. Our main character is an assassin, but as the main character, we still expect him to have some kind of honor.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt sells out his only friend for money in the first few minutes of the film, and another key character vying for our sympathies murders a child in cold blood, on a hunch.  That is some daring stuff, story-wise, and it’s also a reminder to say that this film’s violence is pretty violent.  Not gratuitous, not excessive, but if you have a problem with blood and chunky bits of dead bodies, this ain’t your date flick.

Sure, there are nits to pick. No film with a time-travel plot ever makes complete sense, but you have to suspend disbelief.  There’s a fantastic little scene in a diner where Gordon-Levitt tries to reason through the inherent paradoxes until Bruce Willis tells him they don’t matter–what matters is the crisis they’re in.  Perfect character logic, but also a blatant warning to the audience to not overthink it. The film’s concepts are tight enough that we don’t really need to be admonished, but it’s an amusing moment of meta. And the film casually adds to its time travel scenario an unrelated factor: Some people happen to be mildly telekinetic. It does matter to the plot, of course, but the randomness of it these two elements seems a tad capricious.

Nonetheless, Rian Johnson builds a great world, an thrilling premise, and makes you care about how it works out.  Smart science fiction that doesn’t rely on 3D, IMAX, or overblown effects, that surprises you. You could do a lot worse for ten bucks.