'Looper' Seems Behind the Times, But 'Cosmopolis' Approaches Timelessness

Perhaps it's a function of generation, but I remain fascinated by the short period during which Charlton Heston was Hollywood's Man of the Future, its übermensch of dystopia. Maybe it was simply the success of The Planet of the Apes (1968) that steered studios and the crag-like old-school star mutually toward scripts such as The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973), but what emerged was a fairly durable triptych of films that also read as elegies for classic postwar Golden Age culture as it succumbed to nuclear madness, hippies, and libertinism. Nothing supports that idea more than the presence of the great trundling automaton that was Heston, a creature of red meat and Scotch who was out of place (onscreen, at least) in any time after 1965.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, still feels of his moment. His boyish quality helps him retain a not-that-much-older bro vibe, and his sylph-like twinkiness makes him both hot and non-threatening. His charm and physical grace are eternal. Strangely enough, it's not him that feels reactionary in writer/director Rian Johnson's Looper (Sony), but the film itself.

The premise involves a late 21st–century future in which targets are binged back to the mid-21st century via time travel to face execution at the hands of special assassins. As with any decent time-travel flick, it gets a little too loopy to encapsulate easily, but when assassin Joe (Gordon-Levitt) finds himself facing 30-years-older Joe (Bruce Willis) with orders to kill himself, the plot wheels spin into motion.

The loopers, as the assassins are called, are all young men—precisely, we figure out, because the cash, women, drugs, and fast cars of looper life outweigh any concerns about a distant, and thus abstract personal future. (Especially since everyone else in 2044 seems to be living out of a shopping cart.) So far, so good, as examinations of heedless present squandering without long-term thinking go. And Gordon-Levitt brings game, but he's hampered by contact lenses and facial altering designed to make him look more like Willis. The fact that future Joe (an aging but bankable star) determines how present Joe (a young actor one film away from an A-list breakout) looks is a big clue to the big hang-up here.

Johnson earned massive film-nerd goodwill with Brick, his breakthrough 2005 high-school noir, and Looper is both clever and generally adroit. But Willis isn't the only creaky thing here. When Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son enter the scenario (so late in the game and so abruptly that I mistook her for a different character for about five minutes), Looper jukes left into, essentially, The Terminator in reverse. What felt at first like a new sort of sci-fi flick for a newer age starts rounding the same old generic action-flick bases. As an entertainment, it's respectable and right on time; as an advance, it's shockingly backward.

While Gordon-Levitt bubbles under, Robert Pattinson has emerged as one of the biggest male stars on the planet right now thanks to the Twilight movies. Spending some of that studio capital, he embodies a different, and perhaps more accurate sort of man of the near future in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (Entertainment One). Working from Cronenberg's adaptation of Don Delillo's novel, Pattison tones down the sparkly torturedness of Edward Cullen for Eric Packer, a young trader/mogul of vague but vast means. He decides he wants a haircut, climbs into the hermetic world of his stretch limo, and sets off across Manhattan to his barber.

There is a whiff of a seed of a bud of a plot in the ongoing intel piped to the bodyguard (Kevin Durand) that parties unknown are trying to kill Eric—one of the film's small scores is that it presents a near future in which a realistic ambient threat level against the ultra-rich is an accepted fact. As the limo crawls through traffic, various associates stop by the back seat—almost materializing, like Dickens' Christmas ghosts—to offer news or counsel or sex (ever half-supine and passive, Eric is always a bottom). As the stretch creeps forward, Eric and his life slowly come apart.

Like Gordon-Levitt—like any teen heartthrob—Pattinson is boyish and unthreatening, but that helps sell his performance, and Cronenberg's movie. While there a tinge of Trump in Eric's subtle tri-state honk, the character is more like a contemporary take on a young Roman emperor—imperious but, at root, a boy, callow and brittle despite having the world for a plaything. Pattinson changing tone slightly from scene to scene here adds depth, rather than detracts.

Cronenberg stays so faithful to DeLillo's source material (right down to the almost Mametian stiltedness of the dialogue) that Cosmopolis, like its print progenitor, winds up easier to admire than to love. There is nonetheless much to admire in Cronenberg's portrait of a not-unfamiliar world of obscene wealth and widespread discontent, and of a master of the universe who is, at root, as clay-footed and vulnerable as any mortal. That's a theme that resonates sans neologistic lingo or time travel, and in any time.