Looper, Rian Johnson, 118 mins, (15) / Holy Motors, Leos Carax, 115 mins, (18)

Willis battles his younger self in a sci-fi that's like 'The Terminator' remade by Terrence Malick

Two superior science-fiction films are out this week, both so byzantine that if I recounted their premises in any detail, I'd use up all my space, and would have to steal some from Visual Art. Here, then, are the short versions. The idea of Looper is that the gangsters of 2072 have found a novel way to make their victims vanish without trace: they send them back in time to 2042, where hitmen called loopers are waiting to shoot them and dispose of their bodies. One such looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has no qualms about bumping off these involuntary time travellers – until, that is, he recognises one of his targets. It's his own older self, Bruce Willis.

Yes, you read that correctly: skinny little Joseph and beefy, broad-shouldered Bruce are supposed to be the same person. Gordon-Levitt does a sly imitation of Willis's lopsided smirk and his scratchy drawl, and there's a nice in-joke which sees him peering worriedly at his hairline in the mirror while wearing a Die Hard-issue vest. But his coloured contact lenses and his rubbery facial prosthetics make him resemble a Japanese shop-window dummy more than he resembles Willis. His appearance is so offputting that it might have been preferable if one actor had played both variants of the character, as Willis did in Surrogates.

That issue aside, Looper is a brainy, idiosyncratic, melancholy thriller. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, who made Brick with Gordon-Levitt in 2005, it doesn't keep rushing from one action scene to the next (as in the Total Recall remake), taking its time instead to establish its flawed characters and its grubby, film-noir atmosphere. Indeed, it's a good half-hour before Willis and Gordon-Levitt come face to waxy face. While we're waiting, Looper presents the Kansas City of 2042 as a striking vision of urban decay, where the 1 per cent spend their silver ingots on narcotic eyedrops, and the 99 per cent risk summary execution if they step out of line.

Strangely, it's when Willis shows up that the film loses some of its momentum and originality. We're all geared up for a battle of wits between the two incarnations of the same man. Instead, Gordon-Levitt has a long sojourn on an idyllic farm with Emily Blunt, while Willis stomps around murdering the people who will cause him problems in the future. In its second half, Looper is basically The Terminator as remade by Terrence Malick. It's enjoyable, but less so than either The Terminator or a Terrence Malick film.

Even more loopy than Looper, Holy Motors is Leos Carax's first film since Pola X some 13 years ago. Carax's frequent collaborator, Denis Lavant, stars as Oscar, a mystery man who is chauffeured around Paris in a stretch limousine – shades of David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. Oscar, it seems, is an actor himself. He has been assigned nine roles to play in turn throughout the day, so he changes his costume and make-up in the back of the limousine, emerges to act out a pre-arranged scenario, and then gets back in the car so that he can be whisked away to his next appointment.

On one level – and it's the kind of film which makes you use phrases like "on one level" – Holy Motors is an anthology of short films, each of them pastiching a different genre. There's an inner-city gangster movie, featuring Oscar as a shell-suited thug. There's a nostalgic melodrama, complete with a chanson sung by Kylie Minogue. And there's a bizarre farce about a grunting troglodyte who abducts a fashion model (Eva Mendes). The remarkable thing is that Carax draws us into the story every time. Thanks in no small measure to the astonishingly versatile Lavant, each discrete episode is so involving that we're thrilled or amused or frightened by it, even though we know that we're watching an actor playing an actor playing a scripted part.

Or are we? Carax keeps us guessing as to whether Oscar is performing for microscopic cameras, or whether he's somehow stepping into numerous alternate universes. Like The Truman Show given an art-house twist, it's a film about the ways that life and entertainment have been muddled together by reality TV and social networking. But it's also a surreal autobiographical reverie (Oscar is Carax's own middle name) about how lonely and wearying it is in the movie business, putting on a front, all day every day, until you're left with no identity of your own. For a film that's so concerned with illusion and pretence, it carries a surprising amount of genuine emotion.

Those are two possible interpretations, anyway. There are probably a dozen more. Holy Motors is accessible and fun, but Carax pulls the rug from under you whenever you think you have it worked out. You won't be sure what to make of it, but you will be sure that it's the most ambitious and stimulating film you've seen in quite a while.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy