'Looper': The ending explained
'Looper' has a lot of sci-fi twists. Here's a walk-through of how the time travel in the film worked.
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Time travel stories are tricky; there always seem to be loose ends left dangling, and/or connections that don’t quite add up. Looper, unfortunately, suffers this problem as well.Skip to next paragraph
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The biggest issue, as always, is the multiverse factor: if a guy from the future comes to the past and starts mucking with history, it either A) creates a separate timeline that runs parallel to the original one (allowing for two versions of history), or B) The actions in the past forever alter the flow of a single timeline, allowing for just one version of events. Looper plays fast and loose with this time travel mechanic, at times relying on both single timeline and multiverse timeline approaches to push the story forward.
For example: Old Joe still existing after he meets and affects Young Joe shows that multiple timelines are possible – but tricks like Young Joe carving messages in his arm that show up on Old Joe as scars would have us assume that there is one timeline that wherein the fate of one Joe is directly tied to the other. Johnson gets by the issue via vague expositional throwaways such as Old Joe’s memory – is it being revised by his actions in the past? Or is he open to remember several versions of history? (Sorry, no clear answers – it’s too cloudy to say for sure!)
However, a few minutes of thought reveal a lot of paradoxical problems woven into this plot:
Old Joe & The Rainmaker
The biggest thing to address is the paradox involving Old Joe’s mission to stop the Rainmaker (Cid). Looper shows us a montage of Joe’s life in which Young Joe in fact unwittingly kills Old Joe out in the cornfields, and goes on to live what he thinks will be his happy, post-looper life – only to become the drug addict gun-for-hire (and eventual lover) that is Old Joe. Old Joe then jumps back to the past to change this course of events, and the movie we witness is therefore the alternate timeline where Old Joe escapes his execution.
…However, the movie hints (in the diner scene with young and old Joe) that Old Joe’s heinous actions in the past are what push young Cid to become the fearsome “Rainmaker.” As we see in the climax of the film, Old Joe’s crazed mission forces Young Joe to kill himself to save Cid – but this is a paradox.
If The Rainmaker exists in Old Joe’s future timeline, it suggests that Old Joe’s baby-killing mission in the past was predetermined to happen. So then how could there ever be a version of events where Old Joe was executed by Young Joe, and Young Joe goes on to become Old Joe?
Even if Old Joe had fulfilled his destiny (killing Sara, disfiguring Cid), Young Joe would have been aware of his older self’s actions and been changed by them – he wouldn’t become the Old Joe we saw in the montage, because the exact thing that would’ve made Cid the Rainmaker would also change Young Joe forever (the presence of Old Joe).
Bottom line: Old Joe’s timeline where both he and the Rainmaker co-exist is a paradox. A version of history wherein Old Joe kills Sara and creates the Rainmaker is also a paradox. Old Joe cannot be the origin of the Rainmaker as we are told he is.