What moviemaker’s blog would be complete without at least one post reading a meaning no-one else sees into some movie?
Just in case you missed the block capital letters in the title of this post, I am about to share my interpretation of the environmental meta-narrative in Rian Johnson’s new film, Looper, and that will involve mentioning key plot points as well as the ending. If you have not seen this film, do not read this post until you have. It’s a movie worth seeing with fresh eyes. Don’t let me ruin it for you.
If you’re still reading this post, that means you’ve seen the movie, so I won’t recap the story for you. I’ll cut to the chase.
During the film, you may have caught many references that implied a period of instability prior to the 2040s setting of the film. The present day of the film is rife with neo-Western lawlessness, the Hobbesian war of “all against all”. A man shoots another man in the back for stealing his suitcase. Hoodlums run riot with guns. The line between law enforcement and the criminal element is non-existent, one behaving as an extension of the other.
The primacy of precious metals as currency points to some sort of economic collapse. The repeated mention of Mandarin being the language of the future, paper money being emblazoned with Mao, the sage advice that China rather than France is the place to go – these story elements tell us that the economic collapse was followed by the rise of China.
Cars, with few exceptions, are either battered ‘old world’ cars with solar panels or electric cars. The homestead on which Emily Blunt lives operates on solar power, which features heavily in the background of most of the exterior shots. Her crop, sugar cane, means biofuel. Her flying field sprayer points to small-scale domestic agriculture as a target market of innovation. At one point, when faced with the suggestion that they should burn her crop to get a clear view of who might be coming, she says that even if the crop is failing, it still contains the seeds for next year. No Monsanto terminator crop, then. Also, a telling statement that what we have now is worth something for the future and should not simply be defensively liquidated. All this points to the fact that the present day in Looper is a post-peak oil world. This is important, because peak oil entwines the environmental and economic elements of society. The morality play at hand here can be read ecologically or financially, socially or politically – by arguing that this is a post-peak world, I am saying that all of these are present intentionally as a holistic image of a near-future global situation.
So what of the characters? The four primary characters can be split into simple categories:
The ‘old’ generation: Bruce Willis, representing the Boomer generation.
The ‘present’ generation: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, representing those of us between the ages of 20 and 40, a group in which I include myself.
The ‘next’ generation: The boy, representing those currently too young to have political or social sway but still held hostage by the behaviour of the other two generations, in one scene literally.
These three make a trinity very obviously akin to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – the child’s telekinesis provides his character with an otherly nature that fits this interpretation. The conversation between Willis and Levitt in the diner is a father/son argument if ever there was. The idea that they are the same person strengthens my theory that they represent the cyclical destructive habits that one generation learns from the other.
This leaves Emily Blunt’s character: Mother Nature. Gaia, if you’re a fan of James Lovelock. She nurtures her child, the ‘next’ generation, in the face of the chaos and violence wrought by man. She is fierce and protective but not cruel. She is, eventually, held hostage by both the ‘present’ (Jesse, the hitman sent to find Levitt) and the ‘old’ (Willis playing out the Terminator/Sarah Connor dynamic). She makes peace with Levitt once he recognises how she and her child should be treated.
So how does this analysis frame Looper as an environmental morality play? Here goes…
The ‘present’ generation is engaged in a cyclical, self-defeating hedonistic exercise dressed up as a fulfilling life, mainly geared towards either repeating or clearing up the mistakes made by their forebears, the ‘old’ generation. The ‘old’ generation have rules that make this cycle of behaviour both inevitable and pointless – old criminals are sent back to be killed by their younger selves. The serpent devours its own tail. Administrating this closed loop is an ‘old’ generation puppet, who governs the ‘present’ generation with brutal control. Are we not currently ruled by the ‘old’, mainly through fear and brutality?
The addiction to ‘dropping’ (using a drug dripped into the eyes) can be read as any number of particular behaviours – fossil fuel usage, drug abuse itself – which quite literally cloud one’s sight, make one unfit for much other than alternating bouts of anti-social and hedonistic activity, lead to dependence and harsh withdrawal in the event of the drug’s unavailability. One could even read this as a representation of anti-depressants and more broadly the use of psychoactive prescription medications to allow people to be happy, or at least not catatonically depressed, by their senseless and unsatisfying existence.
All of the violence committed by the ‘present’ generation only afford them, eventually, a 30-year retirement as a member of the ‘old’ generation, in which they can do whatever they want with themselves, spending the money they accumulated off the back of the ‘present’ generation. The fact that both ‘worker’ and ‘retiree’ are the same person makes the metaphor all the more telling. Eventually, the ‘old’ man is sent back to be killed by his ‘present’ self – the loop is closed, the retirement account is spent/annulled, another worker retires to take his place. The serpent devours its own tail.
Enter Mother Nature, guardian of a child who in the future will wreak a horrible revenge on the ‘old’ generation by revolution, forcing them out of the picture altogether. Why? Because of what was done to it by that generation. By brutality, short-sightedness, selfishness and greed. The ‘present’ generation is in a curious position of simultaneously working for the ‘next’ and ‘old’ generations; do we not work for our children and our parents?
What is the ‘old’ generation’s reaction to this upstart ‘next’ generation? To destroy it in order to preserve the things the ‘old’ generation enjoys; Willis wants his life back, his wife back, his peaceful retirement back. To achieve this, the ‘old’ generation attacks not just the ‘next’ but also the ‘present’ generation, but there is a bitter twist to this: in the loop of time, the death of the present generation destroys the old generation but still leaves the next generation alive with what’s left of Mother Nature.
The only way that the ‘present’ generation can save the ‘next’ generation is by destroying itself, and by extension the ‘old’, in order to leave room for the new. Mother Nature can only watch as this all-too-human drama unfolds. She is held hostage, threatened, occasionally in jeopardy, but ultimately it is the human who is extinguished by human activity – Mother Nature survives. The ‘present’ generation is forced right to the brink, only making the decision of self-sacrifice when faced with watching the ‘old’ generation and ‘old’ ways obliterating any hope the ‘next’ generation has of doing things differently, of evolving. Levitt’s character, to atone for his earlier feckless selfishness, has to break the loop of repetitive and destructive foolishness against Mother Nature and the ‘next’ generation, and in so doing, he is redeemed.
All of the social, political, economic and environmental upheaval around us is right there on the screen. The age of austerity, trading the future of an entire generation for the retirement accounts of a few. The consumption of resources now that can never be used again. The bizarre trap our present generation feels, on the one hand knowing that to keep more for the next generation we have to take from our parents and grandparents, on the other hand slowly realising that whatever choice we make, it is us today, here and now, who will have to make do with less or even nothing at all.
So, Mr. Rian Johnson, my compliments to you, sir. Either intentionally or not, you have crafted a morality tale for the peak oil age, one where we live inside a time loop, visiting the sins of the father unto the son, robbing Peter to pay Paul, running in circles until we go extinct. It ain’t hopeful, but dammit, it’s good cinema.
And that’s the movie you didn’t see. Thanks for reading.