These days, it’s nearly impossible to find futuristic science fiction that doesn’t include familiar cyberpunk tropes. This is particularly true of sci-fi that takes place on a future Earth or otherwise Earth-like planet. We’ve long discarded the notion that, provided society doesn’t collapse before then, the world will someday look like The Jetsons, Logan’s Run, or A Clockwork Orange. Instead, we’ve focused our collective attention on megalopolises, technology that more or less gives us superpowers, artificial intelligence that either match or surpass the capabilities of the human mind, electronic music, and pretty pretty lights. Our vision of what we believe to be futuristic has narrowed to more realistic expectations. For this reason, it might be easy to lump media like Ultraviolet or military sci-fi into the same category.
However, cyberpunk isn’t just a genre. It’s a movement, an ideology, a subculture united by the works that form it. All cyberpunk films, games, literature, art, and music are linked thematically around the idea that our advancements in technology are driving a wedge between us and our sense of reality. There are some examples of cyberpunk that imbue this mentality in all of their elements; if the protagonist of a story is eyes-deep in an incomprehensibly massive city populated by hackers, cyborgs, AI, virtual/augmented reality, and megacorporations, chances are it’s cyberpunk down to the marrow. However, there are other examples that oftentimes tread the line between cyberpunk and other science fiction genres, or otherwise branch off into something that is as-yet indefinable. While much of this still has enough elements to fall into the high-tech-low-life domain, there are still some outliers that seem to confuse fans or don’t fall onto our radar. Just as often as not, these examples of futuristic science fiction are good or even excellent in their own right–they just lack the cyberpunk edge.
The human imagination provides us with unlimited possibilities, so it’s not unheard of that there’s science fiction out there that contains similar ideas to cyberpunk but presents them in a different way. For instance, while Tron takes place in a virtual world and remains a defining influence on the portrayal of cyberspace to this day, one might argue that there’s really nothing “punk” about it, instead swapping the environments and weapons of Star Wars for a motherboard with a shitty graphics card and frisbees while leaving the character archetypes and plot structure intact. But sometimes it gets trickier the further we distance ourselves from the years of cyberpunk’s predecessors. Of course, everyone who knows cyberpunk defines it a little differently, so these maybe/maybe-not examples of sci-fi that float in the nebulous waters between genres might qualify for some, but won’t for others. I don’t care how they’re ultimately defined–sometimes you just gotta let a good story just be its own thing. But the one good thing about pedantically over analyzing your favorite sci-fi properties is that it changes the way you think about how you define things, and allows you to challenge what you believe to be true. And hell, you might even stumble across a new movie, book, or video game that you didn’t know you needed to experience.
Speaking of, let’s talk about Looper. Back in September of 2012, before I even knew what cyberpunk was, I caught it in theaters and I’ve been hooked on its savvy sci-fi noir sensibilities and crackling dialogue ever since. Maybe it’s cyberpunk, maybe it’s just a cool fucking movie, but I would argue that Rian Johnson’s third neo-noir is nearly a modern speculative film essential.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lives a simple life in 2044 Kansas City, filled with parties, hookers, drugs, and murder. He’s what’s called a “looper”, a hitman hired by the mob of 2074, which exists in a future so heavily monitored that most crimes are nearly impossible to get away with. That is, unless one has an illegal time machine to send targets back into the past before bumping them off, effectively erasing all evidence of their deaths as it has occurred 30 years prior in an America that is facing an economic crisis on the level of the Great Depression. The one catch of Joe’s chosen profession: each looper’s final assignment requires them to assassinate their future selves, in order to tie up their employers’ loose ends.
Things change, of course, when Joe’s loop (Bruce Willis) appears, getting the drop on Joe before he can finish the job. In order to implement damage control to a loose end wreaking havoc on the past, young Joe meets up with old Joe in order to try and reel him in, wherein he discovers old Joe’s purpose for returning to the past with a vengeance; he’s trying to prevent the death of the woman he loves, who was gunned down during his abduction. He plans to do this by killing the childhood counterpart of the Rainmaker, a boogeyman-like criminal overlord with apparent supernatural abilities who’s been closing loops at an alarming rate in 2074.
After an ambush by the mob’s gat men led by Kid Blue (Noah Segan), the Joes become separated, leaving young Joe with one of the possible locations of the Rainmaker’s childhood home, where he plans to cut his older counterpart off at the pass. Dying of thirst and drug withdrawal, young Joe soon finds himself in the care of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her five-year-old son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon) on their farm outside the city. Joe eventually discovers that Cid has telekinetic abilities off the charts, and has been prone to violent, deadly outbursts when angered or frightened. Realizing that Cid will someday become the Rainmaker in an attempt to prevent his mother’s death, Joe finds himself as an immovable object standing directly in the path of an unstoppable force with the fate of his and Cid’s futures in his hands.
Every time I watch Looper (which is quite a bit) I can’t help but be in awe of the amount of depth put into every detail surrounding its world, giving us a look into the future that may be the most realistic I’ve seen to date. Kansas City of 2044 is not a good place to be–in the throes of a massive economic downturn that has been spiraling for at least twenty years, it’s not uncommon to see the desperate and homeless gunned down in the street for something so little as snatching a schoolchild’s backpack. Through unspoken clues, one can reconstruct a vague history of the world past Joe’s birth; Looper subverts the presence of early 2000s-era vehicles (likely a budget constraint) by attaching to them solar panel rigs that feed into rusting gas tanks, suggesting not only the inevitable gas crash patched over by mediocre technology, but a defunct auto industry as well contributing to mass homelessness and violent vagrant raids. Stylistically, Looper also delivers with a slick, self-aware ‘50s era style, lampshaded by Joe’s boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), and the occasional neon sign. Additionally, we do get glimpses into Old Joe’s timeline as the film progresses—after retiring from his career as a hitman, Old Joe moves to China, whose economy seems to have dodged the new economic crisis, and the visuals practically ooze modern cyberpunk sensibilities.
However, since cyberpunk is almost quintessentially dystopian, the question must be posed: is Looper dystopian? The answer, of course, lies in how one defines the term; dystopia, to some, is rather literal—“utopia”, borrowed from Greek terminology, has come to mean “good place”, and so the opposing “bad places” of dystopia can range anywhere from chaotic, post-apocalyptic wastelands in the vein of Mad Max to strictly-controlled, invasive societies stemming from 1984. However, the connotations of “dystopia” have come to refer more to the second variety over the years. After all, when a story is purely post-apocalyptic, the result is pure anarchy—and anarchy is kind of the ideal scenario for people who fiercely value individual liberty, despite its shortcomings. This isn’t to say that neither genre doesn’t adopt traits from one another—many dystopian works take place in post-apocalyptic worlds with their societies intact, while many post-apocalyptic stories toy with dystopian elements as well, commenting on humankind’s propensity to turn to fascism when the chips are down. In the most commonly-cited dystopian works, however, there’s always an authority of some kind to rebel against, be it corporate, governmental, or of some other variety.
Keeping that in mind, Looper’s vision of 2044 does not face the threat of a boot stamping on a human face forever at the time of its events. The closest thing it has to an “authority” is the Rainmaker’s criminal empire—law enforcement and corporate surveillance are seemingly nonexistent in the film’s two-hour runtime. Underworld regimes, however, are historically less a cause of society’s problems and more a symptom of them. This question of the validity of lawless, decaying worlds doesn’t just apply to Looper, but many other cyberpunk works as well, ranging from Automata to the Battle Angel Alita series—after all, when your greatest enemy is, essentially, the course of nature tearing civilization apart from the inside out, it sends a message nearly opposite of classic dystopian works—while the latter gnashes its teeth against oppressive constructs that prevent human evolution through (at best) misguided attempts to preserve it, the former criticizes the nature of free will. As an example, take 2012’s Dredd; while the Judges’ punishments are severe and certainly indicative of a police state, it’s merely a drastic response to a city eating itself alive as resources become more and more scarce. At one point, Karl Urban’s Dredd states that Judges are only able to respond to about six percent of all reported crimes, making them little more than a highly organized gang. Society in Dredd is not fucked due to “the Man” keeping the rest of its inhabitants down—it’s fucked because it sucked the world dry, and the world is repaying it in kind.
However, if you dissect the definition of dystopia even further, you might begin to see it in a more abstract fashion. Take Fahrenheit 451, one of the most referred-to (and relevant) dystopian novels ever written. There is no “bad guy” in Guy Montag’s world—the ever-growing anti-intellectual environment he finds himself did not emerge as a result of a hostile takeover or some corporate master plan to enslave the world. It simply grew out of society’s complacency. With this in mind, we may apply the term “dystopia” as a sort of system that, whether or not by design, actively prevents the individual (and by extension, society) from evolving into something more ideal. Also, it could be argued that all dystopias represent some sort of internal, sociological collapse, whether or not technology continues to advance or our buildings remain standing. It’s simple entropy–if something is not being maintained or built upon, whether it’s something tangible like urban development or more nuanced, ethereal concepts like human rights, it’s going to eventually collapse. If we apply these lines of thinking to Dredd, we can see that the violent setting of Mega City One is in fact dystopian, due to its rabid thirst for blood as a result of a complete numbness to the concept of brutality, which bars humanity from finding peaceful solutions to curb the rapid decay of its world. While not to the same extent as Dredd, the very same case may be made for Looper’s world.
However, if you’re here for the high-tech, low life aspect of gritty sci-fi, Looper has that covered in spades. Its version of Kansas City 25 years from now may look sleek and futuristic from the outside, but much of the film’s action takes place in highly-industrial, concrete-lined relics of the post-industrial era. In addition to the jury-rigged, salvaged vehicles it features, Looper provides a cynical take on its future inclusion of hoverbikes, which, while an exciting possibility, is tainted by the fact that the viewer’s first look at the tech shows us that it’s in a stage in which it is highly unreliable. This take on the future of gimmicks is further expanded upon by the inclusion of the TK mutation—by 2044, about ten percent of the population has telekinetic abilities, but those abilities are severely limited (with the exception being Cid, who goes on to use his ability to presumably slaughter a lot of people).
The biggest issue with Looper is the technology it revolves around: time travel. For myself, time travel is a sticky subject when it comes to cyberpunk, which typically treats its tech with a degree of realism, typically sticking with advances that are conceptually within our grasp. Time travel at this point in our history is not something that we can truly see the shape or ramifications of—in fact, there is no real evidence to suggest that time travel may even be possible, or whether any attempts at it will tear the fabric of spacetime to shreds.
However, this isn’t to say that Looper does not handle the subject matter lightly. Like its inclusion of the TK mutation, its rendition of time travel may seem far-fetched, but upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that this isn’t irreverent time-hopping like that of Doctor Who or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. We only get a glimpse of Looper’s time machine, but the time we have is telling. It looks to be a fairly massive, basic device that looks more like an industrial kiln, with a cramped interior chamber that sends its contents back to a set location. 2074’s crime syndicates outsourcing of their dirty work to the impoverished inhabitants of 2044 doesn’t occur out of order, as evidenced by the rash of loops closing within quick succession of one another. This means that time travel, being in its infancy, is only able to send things back at a fixed length of time.
On the other hand, critics and audiences have been confused by the seemingly-paradoxical handling of time travel, seemingly ascribing to both fatalism and free will simultaneously. To clarify, it’s established early on that the events that occur in 2044 will affect what happens to a looper that’s been sent back, and that these paths may diverge from what transpired. In the film’s most terrifying sequence, after Joe’s best friend Seth (Paul Dano) has let his loop run, his older counterpart begins losing body parts in real time. Likewise, every time young Joe deviates from his previous fate, Old Joe’s memories become hazy, proving that the future is a fluid thing, and that events can be changed, while also establishing that both Joes are somehow entangled on a quantum level.
On the other hand though, the central conflict centers around Old Joe’s search for the Rainmaker, which leads to what seems to be Sara’s inevitable death and Cid’s subsequent quest for revenge on the looper that murdered his mother. It could be theorized that Old Joe’s timeline was tangential to Young Joe’s, but that theory doesn’t explain how Old Joe might be affected by Young Joe’s actions. This confusion is intentionally subverted through the conversation between the Joes during the diner scene; Old Joe explicitly states that he “[doesn’t] want to talk about time travel… because if we do, we’ll be sitting here all day, making diagrams with straws.” This simplistic method of approaching time travel doesn’t seem to follow any logical theories about how time travel might work, creating numerous paradoxes in service of the story. But hell, for all we know, this might actually be how time travel might manifest itself. If we can do it.
As a casualty of the world they live in, the characters in Looper suffer from serious parental issues. Joe, for instance, was orphaned at a young age after his mother suffered a drug overdose. Likewise, Sara, during the first few years of Cid’s life, left him in the care of her sister in order to continue a life of excess until a tragic event turned her life around, and the damage of her actions is present in their relationship. Cid’s path after Sara’s death reflects Joe’s, and this is highlighted by parallel imagery used throughout the film.
Since the hedonistic lifestyle of the loopers seems to attract directionless, angry young men, interesting relationship dynamics emerge—Joe first finds a sort of surrogate father-figure in Abe, who originally recruited Joe into the underground lifestyle, but later shares a similar, somewhat twisted dynamic with his older self, who talks down to his younger counterpart in a fashion similar to two stubborn men of the same lineage, which draw relevant comparisons to the modern struggles between millennials and baby boomers. This dynamic is common in Looper. Though Seth only interacts briefly with his thirty-years-down-the-line self, their bond seems to be something like that of an estranged son meeting his flaky, deadbeat dad down the line. Similarly, Kid Blue is constantly yearning for Abe’s approval but seems to only be met with disappointment, and there are theories that suggest that Abe is Kid Blue’s loop. Through this clever writing, Looper seems to suggest that childish behaviors like mindless hedonism and violence are resultant of the dissolution of parental relationships with their children, reflected by Sara’s assertion that, if she can raise Cid right, he could use his telekinetic abilities for good.
Ultimately, though, is this a cyberpunk message? There is a certain level of alienation involved for sure—not just with the aforementioned dissociation with violence, but between the loopers and their older selves. Joe of 2074 seems almost completely removed from Joe of 2044, constantly baffled by decisions he’d made thirty years prior. Digging deeply into noir roots, Old Joe asserts (rightfully) that his younger self is a child, working purely in his own self-interest. In the same way, if the theory that Abe is Kid Blue’s loop holds water, Abe is constantly criticizing Kid Blue’s decisions, eventually resorting to physical violence in a fit of rage that may be born out of self-loathing for his past actions. However, this level of alienation is a far cry from the mindfuckery descended from new wave sci-fi, more closely associated with the existential angst of living under late-stage capitalism in the classic noir.
So, my fellow dystopiates, is Looper cyberpunk, or is it a stylish science fiction noir that lies just outside the margins? Leave your answers in the comments below.