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The Greatest Rampage

 

The way we see a film can affect our perception of it. Ideal viewing circumstances can give us a fond memory of a mediocre piece of work. Poor viewing conditions can highlight the strengths of a film if it lets you forget where you are, or highlight the weaknesses if you do not. Such was the case with The Greatest Showman and Rampage, both of which I missed on their theatrical release and caught up with in somewhat unorthodox ways.

For the former, I attended my first Pop-Up Pictures event and saw The Greatest Showman outdoors, sitting on a deck chair with an appreciative but still respectful audience. As the evening wore on it became increasingly cold and I wished I had brought another layer. These far from ideal viewing conditions might have been overcome by a more engaging film, which proved to be the case at a Pop-Up Pictures screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Unfortunately at The Greatest Showman, I found myself getting uncomfortable and not involved in the film. Various dramatic opportunities are missed, such as the significance of fabric and the treatment of those designated as ‘other’, be that due to class, race or physical difference. While the songs have subsequently proved fun to listen to, as part of the film they lack weight, which is a problem with the film overall. A lot of running back and forth fails to convey dramatic importance; tensions between P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) and Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) is sorely lacking; romance between Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) is simplistic; the various other characters seem like sketches. Meanwhile, the set design smacks of artifice, and not in a way that suggests the film is making a point about performance and theatricality. In the end, it feels hollow and fake, as The Greatest Showman proves to be far less than the greatest show.

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RampageI watched on a train on a tablet, and enjoyed it immensely. This is despite the small viewing device, headphones and regular glare on the screen. Whereas The Greatest Showmanhas pretensions of grandeur that it never successfully meets, Rampageis exactly that – a non-stop, rollicking rampage in which giant animals break things. That is what it says on the tin and that is what you get in spades. I laughed, I cheered (quietly), I applauded (inside). The creature design is effective, director Brad Peyton balances action, plot and humour. All the performers play their roles exactly right, from the boo-hiss villains Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacey) to the maverick federal agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Playing the scientist who knows what’s going on, Dr Kate Caldwell, Naomie Harris keeps a commendably straight face throughout. As Davis Okoye, Dwayne Johnson balances his trademark wit, charm and charisma with genuine befuddlement over the increasingly ludicrous scenarios and a touching sense of friendship in his interactions with gorilla George (Jason Liles), that Davis talks to through sign language, and seeks to save even as George becomes larger and more destructive. This is the great strength of Rampagethat is sorely lacking in The Greatest Showman: have all the razzle-dazzle you like, but even CGI extravaganzas need a beating heart.

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Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Three

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In the 1990s, I became a big fan of action cinema in general and Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular. Some derided this because ‘action movies are stupid/boring’ and ‘Arnie can’t act’. These criticisms were important because I did not accept them, liking what I wanted and developing my argumentative skills in explaining why other perspectives and indeed other standards of quality are available. While Kindergarten Cop, Commando and The Running Man prompted such derision, one film that did not is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, because apparently this one is OK to like. T2 was also the beginning of my love affair with James Cameron’s cinema, and while his work is divisive, T2 is seemingly one of the good ones.

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One of the reasons I adore Cameron is his skill at delivering sustained action set pieces, and T2 was my first exposure to this, especially in the film’s final act that begins with our heroes approaching the Cyberdyne building and DOESN’T STOP UNTIL THE END CREDITS! Despite multiple viewings and indeed analyses, like the earlier films mentioned in this list, T2 stands up to repeat viewings, its pioneering CGI as fresh and startling as it was the first time. A 3D re-release in 2017 wasn’t exactly necessary, but it did give me the chance to see this masterpiece on the big screen which was a delight. Terminator 2 remains a blistering action movie and a wonderful investigation into what counts as human and as a person, exploring the fluidity of identity, gender, roles, embodiment, voice and vision, technophobia and technophilia. It’s the finest type of film to me – a blockbuster with brains to match its bombast.

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Terminator Genisys

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Some franchises get better as they continue, and some demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. Terminator Genisys falls firmly into the latter category, as it attempts to rewrite a significant part of the franchise’s history and, in doing so, makes various clunking failures that highlight the film’s own redundancy.

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Genisys repeatedly raids the Terminator production line, using footage from the 1984 original The Terminator, complete with young Arnold Schwarzenegger before his grizzled contemporary turns up. Nostalgia can be an effective dramatic approach, as in the rebooted Star Trek, but here the replaying of familiar material highlights Genisys‘ own lack of ideas. Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script recycles various plot points from the first two films (ignoring continuity from Rise of the Machines and Salvation), and attempts to create new versions of established characters. The results, however, are anaemic and insipid. Schwarzenegger has been parodying himself for years and this is no exception, except that he is old and regularly reminds us of this (yes, Arnold, you’re old, not obsolete, we get it!). Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton’s guerrilla warrior, while Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese lacks the feral desperation of Michael Biehn’s original incarnation (and Courtney’s massively buff physique – clearly there are still gyms post-Judgment Day – undercuts Schwarzenegger’s previously exceptional body). Jason Clarke is a bland John Connor, despite the potential for a great inversion of his character, a plot twist infuriatingly exposed by the film’s trailer.

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All of these faults would be forgiveable if the film managed to engage with some interesting ideas. The best sci-fi is always concerned with ideas (see this year’s Ex Machina for a recent example), and the original Terminators did exactly this, principally the relationship humanity has with technology. The Terminator showed the omnipresence of technology and Terminator 2: Judgment Day blurred the distinction between human and machine. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did the same thing badly but the unfairly maligned Terminator Salvation managed to go in a different direction by reversing the awareness of what is what. Terminator Salvation managed to refresh the franchise, but Genisys simply and blatantly replays what we have seen before: more time travel, more old Arnie, more unstoppable (although not really) terminator upgrades, more delays to Judgment Day, more ways to change the past and fight the future, and all for the purpose of stretching out a franchise that was completed perfectly well in 1991. The concepts that make the Terminator mythos interesting are simply referenced without engagement or due attention, resulting in a lazy and lifeless experience. Furthermore, director Alan Taylor demonstrates the same shortcomings he did with Thor: The Dark World, failing to create action set pieces that draw the viewer in or offer anything beyond stuff blowing up and flying around, with an unnecessarily clanking soundtrack that emphasises time and time again that THESE ARE MACHINES! Thanks, Alan, I might have forgotten otherwise.

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Perhaps the greatest insult to the original films is the abandonment of their interesting gender politics. Far more than being a “strong female character,” Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a woman of vision, voice and agency, who evolved from helpless victim to guerrilla commando, almost to the loss of her humanity. Clarke’s Sarah, however, mostly complains about her lack of choice over her future before accepting the dictates of the father and husband figures around her. Worse still, her voiceover is replaced with that of Kyle, making it his story rather than her’s and sidelining one of the most iconic women of action cinema. Depressing.

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James Cameron gave his blessing to Genisys and described it as the true next installment. Much as I love Cameron, I have to disagree with him here, as Terminator Genisys is a wretched, retrograde regurgitation that fails to even have enough nostalgic value to maintain its running time. At least someone’s smiling.

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eXpanding and Continuing Part Two: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off the remarkable feat of being sequel, prequel and reboot all at once. It continues plotlines of X-Men: First Class, while also referring to the events of X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. But it also performs a remarkable piece of internal resetting, making an alternative title X-Men: Restoration. Whereas other franchises have delivered reboots that simply play out as though earlier incarnations never happened (see Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel), X-Men: DOFP uses its time travel conceit to have its cake and eat it, featuring elements that, in any other narrative, would never work. In doing so, it echoes Star Trek (2009), which also created an alternative timeline to run parallel, rather than separately, from that established in earlier instalments.

Much of the pleasure of X-Men: Days of Future Past comes from its knowing engagement with the franchise’s established history. Most obviously, we see new and old versions of familiar characters, especially Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier as well as Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. The differences between the young and old versions of Xavier are highlighted in a sequence that sees McAvoy and Stewart play against each other, McAvoy a burned-out drug addict who has given up, Stewart a grizzled war veteran who, despite everything he has seen, still has hope and urges his younger self to rediscover his hope. Hope is perhaps the central conceit of all superhero movies, and is especially important given the bleak future that occupies the film’s early scenes (reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgment Day), including a genuinely shocking battle sequence between Sentinels and mutants. In a previous post, I criticised The Wolverine for the low stakes of its drama, and that problem is easily avoided in X-Men: DOFP as Stewart’s ominous voiceover informs us that mutants cannot win this war. On an intimate level, we see familiar characters cut down mercilessly, demonstrating that everyone is at risk in this grim vision of the future.

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At times, the grim seriousness of the future sequences does not gel with the humour of the 1973 portion of the narrative, which leaves the film feeling rather flimsy overall. However, the intertextual/intra-franchise references are a lot of fun and well-judged as the film never tips too far into wink-nudge territory. Furthermore, director Bryan Singer shows the same flair for visualising superpowers on screen that made his earlier X-Men films such a delight. A much celebrated scene features Quicksilver (Evan Peters) literally moving faster than a speeding bullet as he darts around a shootout scene, while Magneto’s manipulation of metal as well as Xavier’s telepathy continue to provide visually arresting scenes, as do the abilities of Blink in the future. Overall, the film is like the X-Men themselves – a motley assemblage of disparate elements that do not always harmonise, but an assemblage that is nonetheless engaging and compelling.

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Top Ten Directors – Part Two

For Part Two of our tour through my favourite filmmakers, I turn to that great divisive figure who attracts adoration and revilement in equal measure; he who has pushed the boundaries of film technology and created some of the most indelible images of recent cinema history; he who has been the target of great scorn and derision for his crass and offensive cinematic crimes against humanity. I refer, of course, to David Cronenberg. Sorry, wait, David Cameron. No, no, that’s wrong – James Cameron. Got there in the end.

james cameron setJames Cameron is probably the director whose work I enjoy most consistently. It is very hard for me to pop in a DVD of any Cameron film just to watch a bit of it, because I end up watching more, and more, and before you know it I’ve watched half the film (more if the scene I particularly wanted to see was early on). I think this is central to why I love his work – the flow of images and continuity is so fluid that I want to be carried along with it. For me, that is one of the chief joys of cinema. Cameron has (not unreasonably) attracted much criticism for his simplistic plots, archetypal characters and (apparently) bad dialogue, suggesting that he is not a sophisticated writer of stories. He is, however, a superbly cinematic storyteller, demonstrated by his constantly roving camera, smooth editing and highly detailed mise-en-scene. As I’ve mentioned before, plot, character and dialogue are not major concerns for me – I am an intensely visual cinematic consumer and if the visual elements work for me, I am a happy viewer. I won’t say that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar is a three-dimensional character, or that Jack Dawson’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) line “you’re the most amazingly, astoundingly, wonderful girl, woman, that I’ve ever known” is the height of romantic poetry (but then again, Jack isn’t exactly a poet, he’s an uneducated street artist, so at least his dialogue is consistent). But these are not problems for me – Cameron makes absolutely gorgeous films that explore themes which interest me, including gender, vision, technophobia/philia and age-old questions of identity and humanity.

Picking my favourite Cameron film would be tricky, and I have posted on both Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) previously (twice in the case of the latter), which I adore and admire in equal measure. Therefore, if I were to introduce a newbie to a Cameron film, where to start? Despite his prominence, Cameron is hardly prolific, having directed only eight films in a career spanning over thirty years. Nor is he happy just directing, as Cameron has written all of his films and produced most of them as well, as well as editing a few. As his career has progressed, the budgets as well as the box office receipts of his films have expanded exponentially, and this has led to sometimes justified descriptions of his films as baggy, bloated and excessive. This started with The Abyss (1989), and continued through Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic and Avatar. While Cameron’s films have steadily progressed in terms of technological innovation and jaw-dropping spectacle, it is easy to be cynical about such grandeur. Therefore, as introduction to Cameron’s oeuvre, I would pick the film he regards as his debut, having disowned Piranhas 2: The Spawning (1979). The introduction Cameron film is, of course, The Terminator (1984).

Terminator-posterShot for a mere $6.5 million, The Terminator is a lean, mean entertainment machine, that delivers blistering action sequences and a stark, tech-noir vision. It is also unremittingly bleak, which also makes it unusual in Cameron’s oeuvre. From The Abyss onwards, hope and optimism is a recurring theme, and even Aliens (1986) is a (just about) successful survival story. But in The Terminator, there is no escape, the trope of relentless pursuit extending beyond the eponymous cyborg. Brad Fiedel’s electronic score continually returns to the ‘Terminator Theme’, its percussive bass line ostinato expressing the relentless advance of omnipresent technology. Most tellingly, the theme returns in the final scene of the film, after the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has itself been terminated. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is really the central character, around whom the entire narrative revolves, pursued across time by both the cybernetic assassin and her saviour/lover Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). But even after their deaths, Sarah left with John Connor growing inside her, the relentless pursuit continues, the Terminator theme playing as Sarah drives towards storm clouds. These represent the coming apocalypse, the war between humans and machines which is still coming, relentless and unstoppable. Subsequent instalments and Cameron’s career may have provided more hopeful futures, but The Terminator remains as pitiless and remorseless as its eponymous character, truly the nightmare that won’t end.

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Action Has Fallen

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Olympus Has Fallen was a better experience than I anticipated. Antoine Fuqua’s film received mediocre reviews so I was not prepared to pay for it; fortunately I got a free ticket and it turned out to be good fun. As is often the case, low expectations led to a pleasant surprise as the film is far from awful. It is no masterpiece and has plenty of problems, but it is an entertaining piece of action cinema.

I would summarise this film as the missing link between Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Air Force One (Wolfgang Peterson, 1996). As in Air Force One, the President of the United States and senior members of his cabinet are taken prisoner by VERY EVIL terrorists. As in Die Hard, only one man stands between the VERY EVIL terrorists and even greater disaster. Air Force One had the conceit of this man being the President himself; in Olympus Has Fallen, the lone hero is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), while President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must the inflictions of Korean supremacist, Kang (Rick Yune). None of this is a spoiler as it’s all in the trailer.

Olympus Has Fallen is very much Die Hard in the White House, due to its confined setting and internal/external conflict. Banning used to be on the President’s security detail, but was removed when he saved President Asher but allowed the First Lady (a momentary Ashley Judd) to die – saving Asher is Banning’s redemption as well as his duty. Further parallels appear as Banning moves through crawlspaces in the walls, has to contend with a helicopter attack mounted by his supposed allies outside, the VERY EVIL (I’ll stop now) terrorists’ heavy artillery, some interchanges with Kang that (poorly) echo Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s banter in Die Hard, and even a moment when he encounters an enemy who pretends to be an ally. If the last two Die Hard films hadn’t been larger scale it would be easy to see John McClane in Banning’s position. This does appear to be the premise in 2013’s other film about the White House going down, entitled, imaginatively enough, White House Down. In Roland Emmerich’s film, Channing Tatum is a Capitol policeman touring the White House when it is taken over by terrorists and only he can save President Jamie Foxx. Perhaps it’s best that Willis never got there, there’d be nothing left for Tatum and Butler.

Not that Banning is simply McClane with a vaguely Scottish accent and a quarter of the wit (like Fuqua’s previous efforts Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen is very serious). Part of Banning’s arsenal is his familiarity with the White House and its security, so the required suspension of disbelief is not as big as it could be. It is still pretty big though, as the terrorists (who know everything) target a secret nuclear strategy to unleash hell on earth; the Pentagon action committee (headed by a rather wasted Morgan Freeman) make every wrong decision except to occasionally trust Banning; a heavily armed plane opens fire on Washington, gunning down the jets sent after it as well as dozens of civilians on the ground.

I enjoy action movies very much, and indeed rate Die Hard as one of my favourite films of all time. There is a thrill in the spectacle of blazing guns that only just miss our hero, and generic conventions give us confidence that he will save the day. Despite this confidence, action cinema only works if there is tension and suspense. We may be confident that the hero will survive, but how? When Banning needs to get Connor Asher (Finley Jacobsen) away from the terrorists, will he wait them out or fight his way through them? How many of the hostages are expendable, and how many are necessary for Banning’s redemption? There are also stylistic considerations. As I argued in relation to Safe House, constant shaky-cam completely undercuts any tension. Fuqua favours steady cinematography; pans, whips, and tracking shots propel the action, while close-ups and fast editing convey the danger. Suspense like this invests the viewer in the action, which is heightened whenever a significant character dies.

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How people die though is interesting. Many of the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are very bloody, as civilians as well as numerous Secret Service agents are gunned down, many of whom we have got to know a little. Indeed, during the assault Banning is left alone as his friends die around him, and close-ups on his face allow us access to his grief. There are scenes of pain and suffering, as we see blood-stained bodies and several victims dying in agony. Kang obtains vital information from his hostages through torture, including a very ugly scene in which he punches and kicks Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), whose injuries and agonised screams of defiance are palpable. The physical emphasis of Olympus Has Fallen begins in the opening scene with Asher and Banning boxing, and many of the interpersonal clashes are brutal, not least the final, largely unarmed, fight between Banning and Kang.

This emphasis on physical action with associated embodied pain and suffering seems less common than it used to be. Historically, when movie characters were shot they coiled into a ball with a pained expression and then collapsed. Under the Hays Code, this was an acceptably sanitised way to present death on screen. With the withdrawal of the code and introduction of the MPAA rating system, New Hollywood saw more explicitly violent movies gain prominence, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and Taxi Driver. These were not action movies per se, more westerns and crime films, but their success demonstrated the audience’s appetite for destruction.

The model for modern action films was fine-tuned during the 1980s, with the high concept approach favoured by producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Directors like Tony Scott and James Cameron as well as actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became household names as a result of various loud, flashy, high concept action movies which could earn revenue through ticket sales, video rentals and, perhaps most importantly, merchandising. Many of the action films from this era were very violent, such as The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Cobra, Nico and Hard To Kill as well as, of course, Die Hard. I knew these were violent because I saw them in video rental shops in the 90s and they all carried 18 certificates. In the US they were R, but the more stringent BBFC would have no thirteen or fourteen year-olds seeing such things (my first 18 certificate at the cinema was Se7en, and I was sixteen at the time).

Many of the prominent action films of the 90s, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Matrix, only warranted a 15 in the UK (although there were exceptions, such as Face/Off). Stronger stuff was needed to qualify for an 18 certificate, which was largely the province of gangster films, such as Casino, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and in the 21st century other titles including The Departed, Training Day and Drive, as well as horror films like Saw and the torture porn cycle. Action films were largely embraced by the 12A category, especially with the growth of the superhero genre. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Dark Knight and Hellboy franchises largely received 12A certificates, as did other blockbusters including Transformers, Inception, Avatar and Oblivion, not to mention contemporary-set action films like the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, and the seemingly unstoppable James Bond.

I was keen to see Olympus Has Fallen because it was awarded a 15 certificate, which seemed unusual for a film like this. Why would it be unusual, I thought? Is this level of violence and profanity that rare? Reflecting on the last decade of Hollywood action cinema, I realised it was, since the introduction of the 12A certificate in the UK. Recently, A Good Day to Die Hard was submitted to the BBFC and awarded a 15 certificate. The studio recut the film and resubmitted it in order to receive a 12A certificate, which increased the size of its audience. The same happened in 2012 with The Hunger Games as well as Taken 2. As a result, in recent years there has been a dearth of a certain kind of macho action film. In order to reach a wider audience, films are distributed with little explicit violence or strong language and minimal sexual content.

What is striking about these films is that, while they feature plenty of action, the emphasis is more often on the spectacle of scale than of death. Characters certainly die, but our attention is quickly drawn to something larger, often a digital creation such as a giant robot or an alien creature. We marvel instead of recoil, the action aesthetic has moved in the direction of “Wow” rather than “Ow”.

This change of direction has marginalised the macho action movie, where MEN are manly in their swearing, shooting and fighting. Nostalgia for 80s-style action has fuelled The Expendables franchise, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s return to Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand. These films emphasise guns and bodies, rather than technological spectacle, and seem quaint and curiously niche.

Olympus Has Fallen emphasises physicality, yet much of the action is digital, especially the aerial assaults both by the terrorists and the Navy SEALs who attempt to retake the White House. This is clearly practical – create a completely digital Washington and you can have as much destruction as you like without having to pay or wait for the disruptions you cause in the city. Yet this sits uneasily with the emphasis on down-and-dirty physicality. In an interview with the BBC, Butler commented that he was left very sore after filming the climactic fight scene, which seems at odds with the CGI sequences.

Olympus Has Fallen falls into a peculiar niche of action films for non-family audiences. Action cinema has moved away from the graphic spectacle of pain, as this restricts audiences. That said, there is clearly still a market for harder action, which need not be serviced by Hollywood – the most intense action film in years was 2012’s The Raid from Indonesia. The Raid is a little different for being a martial arts film, where the emphasis is still very much on physicality and digital sequences are less frequent. For Hollywood action movies like Olympus Has Fallen (and perhaps White House Down), there remains a tension between the grit of physical action and the wonder of digital animation.

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Review of 2012 Part Four – Great Expectations II: Inter-textual Looping

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A late release of 2012, which I expect to be one of my films of the year, arrived with high expectations as to its quality.  Rian Johnson’s Looper is, unusually, not a sequel, nor a prequel, nor a franchise instalment, a reboot, a remake or even an adaptation, but that rarest of films, an original mainstream movie.  I found Looper an excellent sci-fi thriller, which used its time-travel conceit to effectively fuel its gangster setting and explore themes of freedom, destiny and responsibility.  As Old and Young Joe, respectively, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt convey excellent contrast between naïve nihilism and desperate hope, while Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels provide sterling support, and Pierce Gagnon is thoroughly creepy.

Johnson’s style is unusual for an action film, favouring longer takes and a more measured pace than might be expected.  The style is, however, effective, as rather than being caught up in frenetic action sequences, the film lingers on the consequences, both physical and mental, of violent action.  We are used to seeing Bruce Willis wipe out a room’s worth of armed thugs, but at several crucial moments, Looper pauses to allow contemplation of what is about to come, and at one point denies showing us the kill.  Instead, Joe’s face(s) shows the impact of what he has done, experience steadily etched into both, one youthful, the other aged, but both deeply pained.

Consequence is crucial, as the time travel conceit of Looper is deeply concerned with the impact of one’s actions, responsibility for those actions, and consideration of what impact actions have upon the future.  Looper can become confusing if you think about its temporal mechanics too much, as Abe (Jeff Daniels) mentions.  But it also uses these mechanics to motivate the overall plot and individual scenes, including a thoroughly nasty yet remarkably bloodless torture scene, and an emotionally powerful conclusion that emphasises personal responsibility.  Whether the laws of causality would allow such attempts to change the future by altering the past is debatable, but that’s why we call it science fiction.  However, the resonances with other science fiction films is quite striking, as it is easy to relate the film to others that are similar and yet different.

I am not alone in this response, as without pre-existing material to base expectations upon, the buzz surrounding Johnson’s third film seemed desperate to relate the film to other films, particularly in the science fiction genre.  It makes sense to form associations through the time travel trope: Looper explores time travel in a similar way to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Donnie Darko and Twelve Monkeys.  All involve a traveller from the future who attempts to change the future by altering events in the past.  Stylistically, Looper is very much its own entity, not as smooth as Cameron’s cyborg opus nor as trippy as Kelly’s debut or as skewed as Gilliam.  A hard edge runs throughout Looper, perhaps echoing Johnson’s debut, high school noir Brick that also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  The measured pace restricts the visceral thrill of Looper’s action sequences, and the brutality of the film’s gangster setting is maintained, creating a grim and oppressive atmosphere.  This brooding, malevolent oppression is in constant tension with the conceit of being able to change your destiny, through time travel or any other means.  Looper’s grimness distinguishes it from Back to the Future, which is far more light-hearted and, furthermore, that film’s time travel and temporal causality is accidental rather than intentional.  A more recent comparison is Source Code.  Like Looper, Source Code involves an individual trying to change the past within a context that works against him and places him in terrible danger.  Unlike Looper, Source Code is more concerned with alternate time lines than actual time travel, but both play to the conceit that one man can make a difference, face the past and fight the future (hang on, isn’t that Looper’s tagline?).

Other films that have been related to Looper include The Matrix, Children of the Corn, The Adjustment Bureau and Blade Runner, and these seem less obvious.  A dystopian future need not always echo Blade Runner, and Looper’s largely rural setting is very different from Ridley Scott’s noir cityscapes.  Only the final act bears resemblance to Children of the Corn, as Looper brings horror into its already potent genre mix of gangster, chase thriller and sci-fi.  It is testament to Johnson’s skills as a writer-director that these elements integrate rather than clash – much like Argo, Looper performs an impressive balance between potentially disparate elements.

To compare The Matrix with Looper is strange, as the film’s subject matter as well as Johnson’s style is very different to the Wachowskis.  While there is an element of mind-over-matter in Looper through the telekinesis of various characters, in The Matrix that element is part of the artificial reality, which is not a feature of Looper at all.  Looper and The Matrix both involve men with a lot of guns, but that is hardly a distinctive feature.  Similarly, as Looper is an intelligent sci-fi film with some complex ideas, an obvious reference point is Inception.  Indeed, a moment in the trailer in which objects levitate reminded me of the famous upward tilt of a street in Inception, but when I saw Looper itself there was very little that reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s dream heist film.

Why is it so hard to take a film on its own without reference to other films, and why is it so easy to make these inter-textual connections?  Saturation may be partly responsible, especially in an era of cross-media platforms where films, TV series, video games, music videos, webisodes, trailers, advertisements and YouTube videos assail us from every screen.  But such inter-textual references are hardly new, as studies have demonstrated how major texts from Gothic literature such as Frankenstein fed into the work of later writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.  Subsequently, this literature fed into science fiction films from A Trip to the Moon and Metropolis, to The Blob and The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Blade Runner, The Matrix, Inception and Looper.  Science fiction is inherently inter-textual, as any science fiction film seems influenced by others and may well have been, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker.  As sci-fi consumers, we link one text to another as part of our textual understanding.  As another example, when I recently saw the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which was not as bad as I feared it would be), while being very different from the original film, it also looked to have been influenced by Independence Day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial.  Similarly, Looper is perceived and understood as a science fiction film in relation to other science fiction films, so critics and audiences alike forge these links as part of our understanding of the science fiction mega-text.  This works in several ways, as audiences are savvy enough both to see the commonalities between films like Source Code and Looper, and to create their own links between Looper and The Matrix or Inception.

These inter-textual references, not to mention marketing and commentary, created expectations for Looper.  Not being a franchise instalment, marketing was more moderate and I only noticed the trailer and posters.  But reviews had an influence: Total Film, which I tend to agree with, gave Looper a five star review and described it as the best sci-fi film since Moon, while Empire also gave it five stars and compared it favourably to Repo Men, Surrogates and In Time.  The BBC’s Mark Kermode was positive but more reserved.  Overall, critical reaction was very positive, so one could go into Looper expecting something good.

Precisely because of its non-franchise status, I was not sure what to expect of Looper except that it be very good, based on the reviews that I encountered.  Most years deliver a major film which is not based on pre-existing material.  Looper was the original oddity of 2012, much like Super 8 in 2011, Inception in 2010 and Avatar in 2009 (Avatar can be accused of being unoriginal, but it is not an adaptation of any previously published property).  Super 8, Inception and Avatar were all among my favourite films of their respective years, and they are also all sci-fi.  The link I made for Looper therefore was with earlier favourites of mine, and I expected the film to blow me away as those had.  It is perhaps unsurprising that it did not, as Looper is not an emulation of those films and, overall, I do not think it is as accomplished.  Super 8 created a convincing, believable community that was afflicted with something very strange; Inception used its high concept to explore issues of grief and memory while also being meta-cinematic; Avatar re-invigorated cinema and performed a spiritual call to arms.  Looper merges genres in an intriguing and cohesive melange, but I did not feel it offered me the combined emotional and intellectual satisfaction of those previous films.  Looper has much to admire and to enjoy, regardless of what it is like and unlike, but once again, expectations were too high and had a negative effect upon my appreciation of the film.  That said, I imagine it will be rewarding on repeat viewings, and like Prometheus, should be an interesting film for philosophical discussion.