Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels 15A cert, general release, 118 min

This exciting sci-fi flick proves there is still intelligent escapism at the multiplex, writes DONALD CLARKE

IF RIAN JOHNSON could go back in time, he would probably arrange things so that this first-class sci-fi film emerged as the immediate follow-up to his 2005 debut, Brick. Let’s just forget about The Brothers Bloom, Rian’s fitful 2009 conman comedy, and pretend that he achieved that impossible feat.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of Brick, is once again asked to work through a series of artful film noir pastiches. But the style has become less arch and the intricate plot – a spaghetti of time-travel paranoia – is considerably better formulated. The film even manages a believable, touching romance. No better science-fiction film has been released this year.

Looper’s central premise is worthy of Philip K Dick. We are moving through a version of the near future that is still a few decades away from the invention of time travel. In that more distant era, a body of hoodlums has devised a brilliant (one might argue overly complicated) way of eliminating undesirables. The unfortunate victim is beamed back 30 years and shot by a professional assassin – the Looper of the title – thus vanishing completely from his or her own time. But the gang doesn’t want any of the Loopers blabbing when they reach middle-age. So, from time to time, the younger assassin is required to kill an older version of himself. Do you follow?

Johnson clearly appreciates the complexity and logical fragility that characterises such time-travel stories. When Joseph Simmons (Gordon-Levitt) encounters his own older self (Bruce Willis), he inevitably pauses and allows the middle-aged version to escape. Later, the two men (or, rather, both versions of the same man) meet to discuss this unfortunate quandary. Older Joseph dismisses any serious effort to justify cause and effect. Such efforts are, he suggests, now doomed to failure and confusion.

Maybe. But Looper does a better job of making sense of the nonsensical than any time-travel film since Shane Carruth’s undervalued Primer. The film is packed with beautiful, terrible ideas: an older Looper finds bits of his body vanishing as his younger self is slowly tortured to death; Willis suddenly becomes aware of previously unremembered incidents as Gordon-Levitt alters the past.

So head-long is the action and so absorbing is the emotional torment – young Joseph ends up sheltering with Emily Blunt’s plucky farmer – that one can easily ignore that fact that, despite the application of futile prosthetics, Gordon-Levitt could hardly look less like Willis if he had been born a woman.

Welcome proof that the mainstream can still accommodate intelligent film-making.