Joseph Gordon-Levitt arrives at the Toronto world premiere of "Looper." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
TORONTO -- The Toronto International Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with a peek into the future -- in more ways than one.
The festival's annual opening-night gala at the city’s upscale Roy Thomson Hall featured the world premiere of "Looper," Rian Johnson's dystopian time-travel tale about a hit man circa 2044 named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Joe is a "looper," tasked with offing mob targets sent from the future. But he finds himself in a pickle when he is unable to shoot a target who is a future version of himself (Bruce Willis), as the older man then embarks on a dangerous crusade.
But it was a different forward-looking aspect that animated the Toronto proceedings Thursday night.
"Tonight we invite you to step into the future," said festival artistic director Cameron Bailey before the screening. "It's the first time we've opened the festival not only with a science-fiction film but with a U.S.-China co-production. It's not that common yet,” he added. “But this is the future of filmmaking."
In addition to several Hollywood entities, "Looper" received funding from China financier DMG after filmmakers decided to relocate scenes that were supposed to take place in Paris (and were to be shot in Louisiana) to Shanghai.
That move gets a sly nod in the film as a character played by Jeff Daniels tries to persuade Gordon-Levitt's Joe not to move to Paris. "I'm from the future," he said. "You should go to China."
As it turns out, the Shanghai-based scenes pass quickly in the film. A different version with more China-centric scenes will be released in that country.
(Incidentally, this was also one of the splashier opening-night choices. "Looper" marks a departure from recent years, when Toronto opened with Canadian-centric films. It launched last year with a non-Canadian movie, but it was a documentary -- Davis Guggenheim’s U2 exploration “From The Sky Down.")
A Sony Pictures release that will hit U.S. theaters in three weeks, "Looper" is the latest genre reinvention for a director who previously reimagined noir in an Orange County high school ("Brick") and put his stamp on the dueling con-men oeuvre ("The Brothers Bloom," which premiered at this festival a few years back).
Even more than Johnson's previous films, "Looper" sees the action come fast and the concepts even faster. It's the kind of movie in which characters say things to each other like "Thirty years ago was yesterday."
But Johnson takes on not only a genre that has been explored in classics such as "The Time Machine" and "Back to the Future" but also sprinkles in supernatural elements via a gifted/disturbed child.
It remains to be seen how well a headtrippy movie that both expands and mashes genres can do at the box office. The template may be another Gordon-Levitt film, "Inception," though this is a decidedly grittier effort than Christopher Nolan’s sleek big-budget work. Then again, Johnson has often been about showing a new way, a path to the future, even.