Time travel in Looper

"Every second that passes is bad."

Let's talk about Looper.

It's rare that I've seen a time travel movie which is so serious about its subject matter and serious in its subject matter while simultaneously being so unclear in its mechanics. At one end of that spectrum is Primer, which has hardcore (albeit fictitious) scientific principles behind it and which builds its story almost entirely on the logical consequences of those principles. At the other end we have Doctor Who in which time obeys whatever wibbly wobbly rules it needs to obey "today" in order to make today's stories work, but which gets away with that, because its stories and premise are as essentially "light" in tone as the "science". In Primer, you have to think very hard about how time travel works just to decode what you're seeing, let alone to grasp the emotional story. In Doctor Who, the harder you think about it, the more you're going to suffer and the less fun you're going to have.

Looper, in the middle, is unusual. But the most interesting thing about the movie, the line which leapt out at me when it happened, is when Old Joe (Bruce Willis) says, halfway through (not) explaining time travel to Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), "This is a precise description of a fuzzy reality."

Every time travel story uses a model of time travel which best fits the story that needs to be told. Many stories use their model of time travel and the logical ramifications of that model to actually drive the story. Time travel is hard to understand for most people, which often necessitates didactic scenes in which the rules, whatever they happen to be, are explained clearly so that we understand them. Another common way to handle this is to have a quick once-around-the-block, where time travel is demonstrated on a small, controlled scale and the viewer can get it straight in his or her head, so that he or she can understand the story that's going to be built around these concepts. Looper is no exception, with initial guiding concepts being laid down brutally clearly in the very first scene.

But what Looper does, which I haven't seen before, is explicitly lay down fuzziness as one of its rules, and then go on to use that fuzziness to drive its story.

*

Before I go any further into the mechanics of the movie's model of time travel, there's a question about exactly how far one should go at all. I have a personal rule never to think about a work of fiction more carefully than its creator(s) did, but interviews with writer/director Rian Johnson suggest that he thought about it all extremely carefully, so I'm not worried about going too far in that direction. I'm also prepared to accept his explanations of his own work as gospel. It's not like the director and his movie are at odds here; the events appearing on the screen are what he wanted to put there.

An orthogonal and much more important question is whether there is, indeed, a magical totally internally consistent explanation for how time travel works in the Looper universe, with or without the built-in fuzziness. I am prepared to accept that the answer to this question is, deliberately, "No". Looper tells us everything that we need to know to understand the story. It doesn't necessarily tell us everything we need to know to understand the science. There appears to be a lot of factual information omitted for the sake of tightening focus on the story, and this is perfectly cool. That said, there's a lot of data on the screen, and at any given moment it seems like at least most of it is consistent, so we'll see.

A final question is whether Looper's time travel is intended to be analysed in the way I intend to analyse it. In the same scene mentioned above, Old Joe tells Young Joe not to think about it. Some people interpret this as an instruction meant for the audience. This interpretation doesn't work for me. Firstly, that would be ludicrous. Time travel is central to the story and the way in which time travel works is critically important in the way that it shapes that story. Secondly, even if he's really speaking to the audience, Old Joe still needs to have an in-story reason for saying "Don't think about it" to Young Joe. When we delve into Old Joe's motivations, we discover that there are actually extremely good reasons for him to say this. "Don't think about it" isn't a warning about the story. It's part of the story.

*

Fuzziness: Old Seth's grisly past/future vivisection/extremity-loss scene. It's impossible to watch this without thinking of Marty McFly's hand fading out of existence in Back To The Future. It's difficult to imagine that scene not being the inspiration for it. And it's easy to imagine that quite a lot of Looper's time travel mechanics fall out of a desire to make this scene possible. In fact, most of the evidence supports Looper's model of time travel being very similar to Back To The Future's. Including the fuzz.

Young Seth is having bits of himself removed in real time. Each one puts future history onto a different path, which has effects on Old Seth, who returned from the future. What seems to happen, though, is that this is a universe which is lazy and which resolves inconsistencies in the lowest-effort way possible. Just because Young Seth has lost a finger or a foot in the last ten seconds doesn't change Old Seth's location in the world, or how he got there. Old Seth's immediate past, in which he ran away from Young Seth and made it halfway up a fence, still happened to him, and never stops having happened. What happens is that the two histories - one in which poor Young Seth lives out a sad life with no fingers, and the other in which he grows up intact to become Old Seth, is looped and then successfully flees for his life - blend together in the worst possible way. The physical reality is a suddenly-absent finger. Or two. Or four.

More interestingly for story purposes, Old Seth's memories must undergo the same hideous discontinuity. We don't get a good read on what he's thinking, but he clearly realises that he is losing extremities in real time and that ten seconds ago he still had his nose. As Old Joe explains fairly clearly in the diner, Old Seth's regular short-term memory is probably alternating with memories of being mutilated as a young man and living out increasingly unpleasant lives afterwards.

In truth, Young Seth doesn't have to lose a digit for this fuzzing of reality to occur. For the entire time that any character is in the past, the effects that they're directly and indirectly having on the past cause fuzzing in their own heads.

More fuzziness: Old Joe states that he has no children with his wife. He travels back in time and kills an innocent child whom he believes could grow up to become the Rainmaker. As a result the future changes shape and Old Joe feels it in his head: Young Joe grows up and meets the same woman, but this time they have a child. His wife is still murdered but now, inescapably, their child must die too in the same assault. And so Old Joe immediately suffers for his crime. An eye for an eye.

When Young Joe meets Sarah, new futures open up. Old Joe's memories of his wife start blurring, replaced with memories of a life with Sarah instead. It looks like it might even be a good life. But it's not the life Old Joe came back in time to fight for, so Old Joe fights it. He has a pocketwatch with a picture of his wife: he closes the pocketwatch and never looks at it again, nor do we ever get to see inside it for the rest of the movie. Old Joe tries to hang on to the future he wants, and hides from the futures he doesn't want. He succeeds. (Otherwise, why does he even keep moving?)

These are great scenes, and they are scenes which other models of time travel do not make possible.

But that brings us back to the diner scene and a big question: Why does Old Joe keep moving? What is he trying to accomplish?

Old Joe remembers Rainmaker's rise to power, his wife's murder and his own return to 2044. That's now one possible history. In another possibility, presumably, is a scenario where the Rainmaker is killed, by Old Joe, as a child, and so Old Joe lives happily ever after in the future, with his wife, and never has any reason to return to the past.

But there are some pretty serious problems with this. Just to start with, we never get a hint that this second possibility actually exists anywhere in Old Joe's head, other than as wishful thinking. We can't tell that any of his actions in 2044 are pushing him closer to that eventuality. In fact, the two points of fuzziness described above suggest that he's actually getting mired further and further from it. Worse, no matter what Old Joe does to 2044, no matter how "good" he makes 2074, he'll never get that good ending. He might wind up remembering some of it, but the experiences - if they're had at all - will be had by a different Joe. Old Joe will remain stuck in the past, and he'll always remember a decent percentage of how and why he got there: because his wife was murdered by mobsters in a future now averted.

In his heart of hearts, Old Joe knows all of this. Young Joe knows some of the mechanics (he uses the carving-directions-on-your-own-forearm trick), and Old Joe has now experienced time travel first-hand. So when Old Joe tells Young Joe not to think about it, it's because he wants Young Joe to fall in on his side and help him carry out a plan which, in fact, withstands no scrutiny. Old Joe's plan is horrific, and it's not even revenge, it's catharsis.

*

The climax makes sense.

It looks like a causal loop. Old Joe comes back in time to kill the Rainmaker as a child. He inadvertently creates the Rainmaker who inadvertently causes Old Joe to come back in time. But now that we've been educated about fuzziness, we can see that there are other possibilities intersecting here. The Rainmaker doesn't have to exist for Old Joe to want to come back in time. Rainmaker didn't directly murder Old Joe's wife, and the mob of the future were going to come and loop Old Joe regardless of who was in charge. The botched loop would be enough to motivate Old Joe to go back and try to change history for the better. Old Joe doesn't have to shoot Cid (the grazed jaw, which becomes infected) for him to become the Rainmaker, because there are conflicting stories about him, and not all of them feature the prosthetic jaw. Old Joe also doesn't have to shoot Sarah for Cid to become the Rainmaker. There's a good chance Cid would accidentally kill Sarah himself before getting his TK under control. Equally, stories about Rainmaker's mother's death could easily refer to his biological aunt, who raised him, whom he definitely did kill and whom he believed was his real mother. There are bunch of ways to lock all of this down, but the truth of the matter is that the fuzziness is the answer.

It looks like a causal loop, and the resolution looks like a universe-destroying paradox. But this just isn't that kind of universe. Old Joe disappears, and Cid's future is better for it. That's all.

*

My reading of Looper is this: it is a movie in which time travel is bad. Time travel is outlawed, so only outlaws have time travel. Almost by definition, time travel can only be used to commit, or in support of the commission of, violent crime. Nobody travels back in time with good intentions. 2044 and probably quite a lot of the future beyond that year are hellhole eras because of this. Looper's universe invariably resolves chronological inconsistencies in the manner most physically and mentally damaging to the person to which they apply. Looper's model of time travel hates you and wants you not to do it.

Young Joe doesn't save the world with time travel. He does it by ending his existence before he ever gets near a time machine.

I've seen this movie once so far. If I've misremembered facts in this essay, I'm going to claim deliberate fuzziness.

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Discussion (28)

2012-10-06 01:53:50 by Krossfire:

Well, I guess this article is a good recommendation for the movie, I'm not sure if everything is shown the way you described it,but it sounds awesome.

2012-10-06 02:15:10 by qntm:

You read the whole article without seeing the movie? You know you've been spoiled pretty thoroughly, I hope?

2012-10-06 03:23:15 by GAZZA:

You say that the mob are going to loop Old Joe no matter what. I would be interested in your reasoning for this. The entire plot more or less revolves around the Rainmaker being the one that is going around closing loops - all the loops - and there is therefore reason to be skeptical of whether or not Old Joe was going to be looped at all in the absence of the Rainmaker.

At the beginning of the movie we are told (by Young Joe as narrator) that if you're still alive in 30 years it was SOP to close the loop. This is a fairly fuzzy condition, and one thing the movie ignores is how long this has been going on. Clearly time travel can't be perpetually about to be invented 30 years in the future. We know that Joe was recruited as a child - let's say around 10 years old - and Young Joe can't be younger than 20 himself. So that's at least 40 years (probably closer to 50) since Joe was recruited. Have they always been closing loops in this way, or is this something that was rare until the Rainmaker came along? The constant reference to "30 years" gives some credence, at least, to the idea that hardly anyone was being "closed" before the Rainmaker came along. Old Joe may believe that if he removes the Rainmaker, there is a decent chance at the very least of a few more years with his wife (and possibly child).

What is abundantly clear though is that Old Joe doesn't understand how the time travel works. As such his plan is merely a variation of "killing Hitler", which is a common enough theme; let's not forget that the Rainmaker took over several cities, which must have caused great loss of life. I believe we can regard his wife's death more as a personal connection to the overall atrocities rather than the only reason that Old Joe desires a Rainmaker-less future.

2012-10-07 03:15:51 by TheCustodian:

Hahaha I walked out of Looper saying "Okay, I need Sam's writeup of this now" and getting home I first checked E2 (nope) and then...of course. Here it is. You, sir, are the frakking man. Do you own a fountain pen? If not, I may need to get you one so you can explain this stuff to me on napkins that I can then frame. Or we can, as Old Joe says, use soda straws.

2012-10-07 10:44:38 by jonas:

Now I'm starting to wonder whether you've seen the film ''The Butterfly Effect''. It also has a fuzzy time travel model, though of course there are differences. It's not a very good film, but it might make for a study of time travel mechanics.

It's a bit off-topic here but I'm also starting to wonder how much Stanislaw Lem you've read. I'm not sure how many of his books have decent English translations now – I hope the effects of the Iron Curtain are fading now so there are translations. In any case, I believe all of Lem's writings that have backwards time travel have one fixed timeline.

2012-10-07 13:50:51 by CJ:

I agree with your analysis, but find it a fairly unsatisfying film for it. It seems that Cid probably will still grow up to be Rainmaker given his bum hand (more likely than in the original timeline, perhaps, because of more traumatic events) and so all that's happened is Joe didn't get to live as long this time around.

The thing I found really disappointing about the film was that the three female roles were mother-wife-prostitute. I write a bit about that, and my opinion of the denouement, at my my blog ("Thinking of a Different World", "Film Review: Looper").

2012-10-08 05:27:53 by Andrew:

My initial impression was similar: "what happens, happens" ("HGttG"), "Back to the Future", and an instantaneous dt/dt (err... historical alterations are resolved instantaneously, or at least very fast). More than that, though, is that those sent back in time seem to constantly experience an outlook like Cris from the movie "Next". My favorite line is when Old Joe tells Young Joe to not worry about the time stuff, or else they'll be there all night diagramming it with straws; the impression I got was that his initial impulse really **was** to explain it, but remembers it to be a fruitless enterprise and decides against it. Of course, it's wide open for interpretation, and regardless it seems to be terribly unpleasant: the effect of losing limbs is awful, so imagine that going on **constantly** inside the long-term memory section of your brain. Your conclusion that time hates time travelers is probably the most accurate statement you can make about it in that world.

2012-10-09 15:44:25 by Toph:

Hey there CJ, didn't know you read this blog too :)

2012-10-09 17:36:15 by SolomonGrunty:

Great review and I agree with the 'time hates time travelers' theme. I stumbled on this because I had trouble resolving the apparant inconsistency in the death of Old Joe's wife. If the future sends people back to kill them then how did they ever have the power to kill Joe's wife without exposing the whole time-travel criminal enterprise? If they are just disposing of bodies why not send the corpses back in time (although I realize this breaks the story's premise).

2012-10-09 17:59:15 by qntm:

That was a straight-up mistake on the mobsters' part. They burned down Old Joe's home to try to cover it up and it's debatable whether they got away with it at all.

2012-10-10 06:50:14 by Solus:

Sorry, I still don't get how "The climax makes sense."

The whole point of cutting off bits of Seth was that they couldn't kill him, as that would cause a paradox.
Joe kills himself, Old Joe disappears, the universe gives no shits.

Were the mobsters simply mistaken about how time travel works?

2012-10-10 22:55:23 by Adam:

There is one outstanding question I have about Looper, that I still cannot explain. When Old Joe comes back, he's shown doing so 3 times.

First, he's late. He comes back through time with no bag over his head, turns around to defend against the gunshot, knocks out Young Joe and then escapes. Young Joe returns to his apartment, gets discovered, falls onto the car, and then we jump straight back to the field again, to just before his arrival. He appears with a bag over his head, and is shot before Young Joe realises his loop has been closed. Young Joe lives out his life, becomes Old Joe and then makes the third trip shown, where he is again late and again makes his escape.

Is the first time just a peek into one possible timeline where he dies? Does he not really die and it's just a preview of what's to come later, when we see it from Old Joe's perspective? If the second time actually happens, how do cause and effect work if Old Joe is both shot and not shot in one continuous timeline?

2012-10-10 23:03:51 by qntm:

The third time and the first time are two separate depictions of the same events. You can tell by the way that the events that go down are exactly identical.

The second time is a flashback to the events leading up to the first/third time.

2012-10-11 23:44:40 by Krossfire:

Sam, yeah, I read the whole article, but thankfully, because there is no context for me, none of the details stuck other than the fact that it sounds awesome. I will re-read this once I watch it!

2012-10-14 06:30:39 by Ken:

I don't believe that Cid deliberately killed his aunt. At the kitchen table, Cid tells young Joe that he saw his mother (who is actually his aunt) die. He said he tried to save her but he was not strong enough. Later, we learn (from his real mother) that his aunt died when a bookcase fell on her. I think the bookcase did fall on her perhaps because of one of Cid's TK tantrums, but I think he tried to raise the bookcase from his aunt's body, but was unable to because he did not have enough strength, as he said to young Joe. This would make sense. It is much easier to push over a bookcase (even a heavy one) since bookcases typically tilt slightly backwards towards a wall (to avoid tipping forward). It is relatively easy to rock a heavy bookcase back and forth, building up momentum, until it tips over forward. Picking up that same heavy bookcase is very difficult however. Cid, with his TK, was good at destroying things, (think of a little child breaking a toy during a tantrum) but was unable to make broken things whole again (the same child cannot fix the toy he breaks). Thus we have the situation where he causes his aunt's death by accident, not on purpose.
Referencing the second time travel appearance of Old Joe, where Young Joe actually kills him, I think that it is a playing out of Young Joe's suicide at the film's end. The film establishes that memories of past events "fuzzify" after time-travel (Jeff Daniel's character goes even further when he says, "Time travel fries your brain."), so perhaps the "Young Joe kills Old Joe" episode is a merging of the memory of the last moment of Young Joe's life with the death of Old Joe. Young Joe sees that the future will be terrible if Cid becomes the Rainmaker, so he kills himself. The second episode then becomes a projected mental image of Young Joe killing Old Joe to save Cid and the future. It is, in fact, the last image of Young Joe, inasmuch as he dies and Old Joe disappears, simultaneously.

2012-10-14 14:09:50 by Connor:

Please reply to my email Sam.

2012-10-21 09:08:16 by Omni:

But I can't figure out what the "original" timeline was and how it changed from old Joe being tied up, to him fighting and being untied.

2012-11-04 01:42:48 by Edawan:

"The third time and the first time are two separate depictions of the same events. You can tell by the way that the events that go down are exactly identical."

Unless it's a mistake by the filmmaker, the first and third times aren't the same. The first time, Old Joe leaves a note for Young Joe saying basically to run away, but the third time he does not do it before leaving the scene.

(sorry I'm late to the discussion but it only just came out in France)

2012-11-15 23:30:44 by Tim:

It all fell apart for me at the climax (not withstanding the confusion of Old Joe coming back several times, at the same time ...)

Nothing in the story could have happened if young Joe was dead, he could never have become old Joe, old Joe could not have come back, and therefore young Joe wouldn't have to kill himself, therefore old Joe could exist, and be sent back in time.....

I'll get my coat :)

2012-12-01 23:14:18 by Lauren:

One of the things I found most interesting about the film, which I think very neatly plays into the ideas you have here, was Cid/the Rainmaker's motivations for "closing loops. All the loops." It's pretty clear initially that he's hunting Joe, and thus trying to prevent his own mother's death, but as we see in the end this is just one of multiple possibilities. Furthermore, given the way Old Joe was only sent back in time through the Rainmaker's efforts to close loops, it's entirely possible that Cid would know this or figure it out and thus act deliberately not to alter that reality but to preserve it the way he remembered it. This especially makes sense if Young Joe were to have killed Old Joe, saving Cid and Sarah, or if things played out the way they ultimately did. I like this implication, then, of the latter possibility that Cid might still become the Rainmaker, but for different reasons.

The most notable part of all of this is that, like your observation of the overall plot of the movie, it appears at first to be a simple causal loop, wherein Cid becomes the Rainmaker and starts closing loops in an attempt to stop Old Joe from killing Sarah, thus unwittingly causing Old Joe to kill Sarah, but then it turns out that this isn't the case at all. It <i>appears</i> to be a causal loop, but then it isn't. The movie goes in a different direction. It's playing with your expectations. More fuzziness.

2013-01-18 01:09:01 by Norswap:

@Ken

The bookcase fell on Cid, and in his fear, he used his TK powers, which caused
the death of his aunt.

@Edawan

Maybe he simply goes to the car, then comes back and put up the note?

Elsewhise, very good explanation, which reconciled me with one of the
inconsistencies I saw in the movie: how could old Seth still escape if he has no
limbs?

A few potential inconsistencies, and ways to understand them:

- The fact that at the end, old Joe "vanishes". Given what happens to old Seth,
  old Joe should rather crumble with a hole in his chest. Admittedly you "you
  get what's worse for you theory" covers this. But I find this theory a bit
  easy and was more convinced by the "lazy universe" theory.

- How do mobsters (Abe and his crew, or even mobsters from the future) know if a
  loop has escaped? Maybe they are outfitted with "tracing technology" from the
  future. Except "tracing technology" is the reason why you can't dispose of a
  body in the future. Possible explanation: the tracing still works, but does
  not cross time boundaries, and Abe is able to pick it up.

And the best for last:

- Why the heck do you need to "terminate" loops? The movie says something to the
  effect "it's super illegal, so you have to do it". So they are afraid that the
  loopers will talk? If so, what prevents loopers to talk one week or one year
  before they are sent back?

  Possible explanation, which does not seem to be supported by the movie: they
  actually send the people to kill from later than 2074 (say 2104), a period in
  which it is super illegal we-kill-your-family-and-your-dog-if-you-do-it. To
  prevent the loopers to talk in 2104, they send a crew to clean up loopers in
  2074.

  And why the 30 years periods? It makes no sense. Assuming the first looper was
  sent back in time right before the super-illegal-period, then subsequent
  loopers, sent back 5 years later will have their 30 years period overlap with
  the super illegal period, thus making the point of sending them back moot.

  But let's get back to the initial question "why do you need to terminate
  loops". Why can't you send loopers back in time, let the live side by side
  with their young selves. You might even consider sending their wifes and dogs
  too. Admittedly, the fuziness in their mind would be a problem. Why not send
  them back to before their young selves were born? A possible explanation is
  that they don't have the technology/power to do that.

  We can do better still. Why not pick midle-aged future people to work as
  executionner in the past, then let them enjoy their retirement in the past?
  These people would be picked old enough to be sure they would be dead before
  their birth, so no mind fuziness ensues. Surely the 30 years period allows
  that.

2013-01-19 09:33:36 by Josh:

I'm all for plot-related time travel devices, such as "fuziness", which make us think what is happening to old Joe, but honestly this movie has one critical and irredeemable error that ruins it. We are introduced to a paradox that effects the entire movie about 15 minutes in, from the moment young Joe kills Old Joe we are then reeling, to deal with the aftermath of these actions. The problem we encounter is that no matter what theory we apply to the time travel, we can't escape the ramifications of this throughout the movie. When the movie establishes that young Joe and old Joe are in fact directly linked in a single timeline (by way of scar messages) where there is only one history of events, the movie slams into a brick wall at 120 MPH and goes up in a mushroom cloud. So if we agree that the Joe's are directly linked together it is impossible for old Joe(when he was young Joe) to shoot his future self, and then NOT travel back in time as old Joe to be shot and killed by his younger self, completing a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they are truly linked then old Joe has no choice but to die, he can't escape that fate, it was signed the instant he killed himself from the future. Now the only other option to believe is that old Joe is from an alternate timeline, one in which his actions of killing his future self will not be the same when it comes to young Joe taking a shot and killing old Joe. In this timeline old Joe can stop his younger self from killing him, because this young Joe cannot possibly be the same person as old Joe. Of course if the movie went in this direction than the scar messages should not work, and ultimately the sacrifice of young Joe will have been in vain. When young Joe kills himself it should have no effect on old Joe because they share different futures. Now I don't know how exactly how the movie should have panned out, but when your entire movie becomes a paradox 15 minutes in, I think something went wrong.

Agreed?

2013-01-19 09:58:38 by Josh:

I have to say I'm actually quite surprised that not many of you picked up on the fact that the entire movie is in fact a paradox.

2013-03-23 19:29:11 by Daniel:

I'm not an expert in time travel. :) But it seems like the simplest way to explain the way time and time travel work in this universe is one simple rule. You can't affect the past by anything you do in the present or future, which doesn't bother me because it seems pretty self evident to me in the real world. When changes are made by the time traveler himself or by effects to the younger version of the time traveler it affects the time traveler himself (his physical self or his memories) but doesn't change anything in the past of that timeline because you can't change the past once it has already happened (unless you travel back in time, of course. :) )

In terms of the 3 versions of the timeline, versions 1 and 3 are the same, I agree. The second version is just showing us how old Joe became old Joe because he wouldn't exist if he hadn't at some point killed himself. If he then creates another time line by breaking away from his captors and coming back untied then I don't see why that timeline wouldn't also be affected by young Joe's actions on himself because it is one of many possible versions of his future self.

Not a perfect movie although I think that the time travel itself is much less of a problem than the reason for closing loops in the first place (which if I remember right is in the contract that the loopers sign (or whatever) so it's something planned even if the Rainmaker speeds up the process). There is no great reason for closing the loops. Maybe they want to kill the loopers off right as time travel is invented so they don't cause problems but that doesn't make sense with the 30 years they give them all unless they are all killed by around 30 years before time travel is being used by the mob.
There are other basic problems but this is the biggest one.

2013-04-28 22:51:12 by Anonymous:

"The whole point of cutting off bits of Seth was that they couldn't kill him, as that would cause a paradox. Joe kills himself, Old Joe disappears, the universe gives no shits."

I also thought this was a massive plot hole. However, a friend came up with an explanation:

The guys cutting off bits of Seth had made a lot of money by working with a powerful gang 30 years in the future, who were sending them back gold and silver. They therefore had a vested interest in the way this particular "version" of the future turns out. If they did anything to change the future, this gang might not become as powerful, or might not even end up existing at all. This would cut off their money supply (and might even make all their existing ill-gotten gains disappear).

Basically, the reason they couldn't just kill young Seth wasn't because it would cause a universe-destroying paradox; it was just to protect their income.

2013-05-14 16:05:34 by Mike:

My girlfriend asked the same question: if they're only amputating Seth, and refraining from killing him for fear of paradox, why is Young Joe willing to kill himself in open defiance of all the trouble such an act is thought to cause? The answer is that Abe and his gang would still be alive to deal with any paradox fallout from killing Seth, while Young Joe will just be dead. The only people he cares about (Sarah and Cid) are about to die and be set on the path of the Rainmaker, respectively, if he doesn't kill himself, so it's not like things can possibly get much worse.

Also, to address the idea that any successful execution of Old Joe by Young Joe would also cause a paradox, I think the above argument about the past never changing is correct. This is borne out by what happens to Old Seth. While he's in the car, one of his feet disappears and causes him to crash, but this did not retroactively affect the timeline: Young Seth's amputation doesn't rewrite events so that Old Seth never drove to where he was. Similarly, when Bruce Willis!Old Joe escapes from Joseph Gordon-Levitt!Young Joe, this doesn't reverberate backward to cause Bruce Willis!Old Joe's own Old Joe to escape from him back when he was Young himself.

Finally, Old Joe is grasping at straws when he loops back to kill the Rainmaker. While it's true that the mob had plans to loop him irrespective of the Rainmaker, it's possible that the Rainmaker's rush to close all the loops made his underlings sloppy due to their fear of him. If the mob was following protocol as usual, and not rushing, they would be more likely to spare Old Joe's wife because killing her isn't worth the trouble. Any chance for Old Joe to save his wife is better than no chance, which is what he's looking at if he doesn't loop back.

2013-05-17 18:19:20 by Mike:

Further extrapolation: I said that Bruce Willis!Old Joe's escape doesn't retroactively cause an escape by the Old Joe that he killed when he was young. I stand by this statement because in the analogous case of Seth losing his feet, it didn't retroactively cause him to have been unable to operate the car all along. However, given what Old Joe tells Young Joe about remembering Young Joe's experiences as they happen, I'd imagine that Bruce Willis!Old Joe does have some incongruous memories of his own Old Joe escaping back in the day, even though he knows for a fact that that couldn't have happened. Time travel fries your brain like an egg, indeed.

2015-12-28 15:33:36 by Joe:

This doesn't answer at all how this "fuzziness" is self-consistent, with the obvious answer being: it isn't self-consistent, holding this movie to scrutiny is pointless.

If Old-Me travels one minute back in time and then destroy the time machine that Young-Me had planned to enter... what happens? "The timelines blend in a fuzzy way" you say. What does that mean? The time machine is destroyed, Young-Me can't use it, so Old-Me begins to disappear a-la Back to The Future, poof, paradox resolved...? Except how did Old-Me exist in the first place? Where did he come from? If he came from an alternate universe, then there's no reason for him to disappear, and his actions are entirely independent of Young-Me or his time machine. If he truly is the very same Young-Me who went back in time, then it's impossible for him to destroy the time machine, because it obviously wasn't destroyed when he used it, so it can't be destroyed now, and in fact any change in history would contradict the un-changed history that led to these events.

We're left with the two standard options: multiple universes, or a contradiction (usually called a grandfather paradox). A third option, contradiction-free immutable timeline, was discarded when we decided the past can be changed.

Looper, no matter how "fuzzy" it tries to be, cannot escape having to choose one of these options. (They're exhaustive, you can make a diagram if you like.) Once you decide the past can be changed, you're forced to have either a grandfather paradox or "orthogonal"/"parallel" universes that do not interact. Since the time-travel events in Looper do seem to affect each other, we're left with a paradox.

And no amount of reasoning can fix self-contradiction.

This discussion is closed.