Just as history repeats itself, there's a fair bit of repeating in Rian Johnson's exciting new film Looper. A stately, matte-finish sci-fi action drama (yes, it's as busy as that sounds), Johnson's bracing picture is essentially a redux of themes and images previously explored, to great effect, in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men and Christopher Nolan's Inception. We've the same bottomed-out near-future of Men, dwelling in the frayed remains of what comes after something terrible, and, just as in Inception, we're treated to an elegant mind-bender that holds less and less water the more you squint, but still feels like the creation of a stunning new mythology. Looper manages to feel familiar but also fresh and exciting, which is no easy feat.

The main setting of the film is Kansas in 2044, where a gleaming city has sprung up (I suppose it's Kansas City) and then, at some point, begun to decline. The city is full of "vagabonds," seemingly everyone is packing heat, and a murderous mob is running things. Johnson gives us fascinating, tiny details to lend credibility to his vision of a tattered future — we see makeshift solar panels stuck to worn down cars with tubes sticking out of their gas tanks, images of destruction flicker unwatched on television screens. The world is not in great shape, though it's still a livable place. One denizen eking his way along is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a taciturn, serious fellow who works as a "looper," meaning he whacks people the mob sends back from the future. Time travel hasn't been invented yet in 2044, but in thirty years or so it has, so the time travel-less past makes for a great place to dump a body. Joe does the work with disinterested efficiency, socking away money (in silver form) for an inevitable rainy day and spending his free time at a nightclub/brothel where he does eye drop drugs (seems to be the substance of choice in '44) and cuddles up to his favorite girl, Suzie (Piper Perabo). This is not a morally conflicted, repressed soul. This is just a guy getting by.

But of course the easy, druggy, murdery stasis of his life is soon rattled, as the future mafia tries to "close his loop" — when a looper's future self is sent to be unwittingly killed by his younger version, voiding the contract and freeing the looper up to do whatever he wants for thirty years — and things go awry. Older Joe (Bruce Willis, whom Gordon-Levitt has been somewhat awkwardly made to look like) has other plans in mind for the past and escapes his execution, beginning the film's grinding chase and giving us lots to wonder about in regard to theories of time travel and butterfly effect and all those other head-scratchers. Younger Joe's pursuit eventually takes him to the rural home of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon, perfectly fine, as far as child actors go). Their meeting is not an accident, and it takes the storyline in a new, surprising direction, one involving another science-fiction trope that's only very lightly hinted at in advertisements for the film. (Think Emily Blunt and a cigarette lighter...) The movie also finds its emotional core in that dilapidated old farmhouse, and, rather gracefully for such a hard-charging, violent film, slowly becomes a story about the cyclical effects of neglect and regret. That may sound like a bummer for people expecting a sleek and impersonal autumn thriller, but Johnson has crafted a large enough film to house all of those elements together comfortably.

As he demonstrated in his debut feature Brick, also starring Gordon-Levitt, and the under-appreciated The Brothers Bloom, Johnson has a specificity of voice and vision that seems destined to put him on the map with some pretty heavy hitters, Cuarón and Nolan among them. Looper is his first big studio movie, and he seems to the manner born. Because of this film's larger budget, Johnson is able to create a thoroughly realized visual world to match his verbal panache. In fact, unlike his other two films, Looper is less about the talking and more about the knotty, reeling spectacle. And what a spectacle it is! Working with cinematographer Steve Yedlin and production designer Ed Verreaux, Johnson has built a world that's wholly believable, yet no less starkly beautiful for all of that realness. Or, rather, imagined realness. Like Children of Men, this seems like a chillingly plausible future, one that is not obliterated by some sudden cataclysm, but rather stuck in a spiral of slow decay. (America, at least. In one arresting sequence, China appears to be doing pretty well.) That decay is peppered with moments of bone-jangling violence, all of which Johnson films with a calm measuredness that makes it all the scarier. The most torture is visited upon poor Kid Blue, a mob outfit lackey played with perfect weaseliness and surprising humanity by Brick alum Noah Segan. Keep an eye out for this guy, he could be doing bigger things in the future.

The acting in the film is uniformly strong. Gordon-Levitt makes the successful against-type choice to actually lose a little bit of his swagger to play this young gangster. It works because Joe isn't, of course, as hardened and invulnerable as he likes to project; there's a chord of ruin and despair in him that is causing him, like the city around him, to slowly rot. Willis matches that well, piling on an extra layer of brokenness, acquired like soot over the years. They make a nice person, Gordon-Levitt and Willis. Emily Blunt is, thank god, given a bit more to do than the standard "Please explain the plot to me and protect me" action girl character, and, as ever — really, is there a more appealing young actress working today? — here she is firm and sharp but also soft and graceful. Johnson writes her character well enough, though the film's general dearth of women characters — there are three, two of them serve mostly as Mother figures (and, in Perabo's case, as a hooker), and the other is a waitress — is something I hope he takes note of. It's not a terribly cheery place to live, this futuristic Kansas, but that doesn't mean you should keep the ladies out.

Looper is not exactly the film one might expect, it has more sentiment and softness to it than the trailers and ads suggest, but what it mostly is is something that feels firmly like the mark of a movie artist ascending. I find it encouraging that Johnson wanted to blend a rich, emotional story in with all the ain't-it-cool camera tricks and visceral action. It means he's operating with both head and heart, and he's doing so in smart, specific ways. Though the ultimate sentiment of the film is pretty broad and universal, Johnson has placed it in some pretty original, particular surroundings. Sure Looper is reminiscent of the great films mentioned up top, but it feels more like conversation than theft. He's expanding and altering their ideas. Anyway, forget movies of the past. This is the present, this film. And Johnson just may be the future.

*****

Were we to be stuck in the past, it might be fun to be back in college, where everyone is shiny and ambitious and sings gorgeous harmonies with each other all over campus. Well, OK, that might not have been exactly your or anyone else's college experience, but it is the one that Anna Kendrick's character Beca has in the new musical comedy Pitch Perfect, a zesty little romp through a heightened version of the thriving world of undergraduate a cappella.

Written by 30 Rock alum Kay Cannon, Pitch Perfect is initially jarring, with all its prickly and outta-nowhere jokes whizzing by at lightning speed. But once you settle into its supercharged rhythm, it's easy to relax in the flow of the oddball thing and enjoy where it takes you. Acting as strange complement to all of the awesome a cappella numbers, there are big gross-out vomit moments and lots of Rebel Wilson, playing a lovable weirdo named Fat Amy, talking about her plus-sized physique. This is a Bridesmaids kind of a thing, with a smart and subtle and deceptively insightful social comedy padded out with the big, loud stuff that's more easily marketable. There are moments when the mix is awkward — in the wake of an otherwise believable fight, a choir girl makes a snow angel in puke — but for the most part the movie's chemistry is just fine. It nearly has the snap and vigor of Bring It On, which is one of teen moviedom's highest compliments.

Kendrick's Beca, a mash-up-loving aspiring DJ and producer, doesn't want to be at this school, located in North Carolina maybe, she'd rather be in Los Angeles trying to get her career started. But her dad (John Benjamin Hickey, doing his thing) is a professor there and it's free, so she is required to at least put in a year. So, Beca reluctantly auditions for an a cappella choir after one of its members, Chloe (a perky and appealing Brittany Snow), hears her singing in the shower and insists she come to the tryouts. After the auditions, which comprise one of the film's more inspired sequences, Chloe is sold. But the head of the Bellas, as the group is known, is not as convinced. The group's leader is Aubrey, a pinched and precise Type A played gamely by the up-and-coming Anna Camp. At 30 (just yesterday, happy birthday girl!), Camp might seem a bit out of range for a college kid role, but she glides in just perfectly, always committed, never condescending to the material. Of course Aubrey eventually relents and Beca is made a Bella, along with a bunch of other charming misfits, and the group gets singing.

The film's most joyous musical scene comes not at the big climax performance (which is definitely pretty great), but rather about halfway through, when the campus' four a cappella groups meet at the bottom of an empty swimming pool (just go with it) and have a battle. It's a call-and-response, up-the-ante challenge kind of a thing, and manages to be both cutely dweeby and actually cool. As Glee so aggressively tries to teach us, there's nothing dorky about being able to do something creative really well. Though unlike that tiresome show, Pitch Perfect doesn't raise its kids to the level of angels. They're just kids, of all shapes and types, who like to sing and are good at it. Presumably other kids are elsewhere doing other things they like and are good at. Really it's a testament to, like, finding yourself in college more than it is about how specifically beautiful and amazing these throat-trembling dreamers are. No, this is far too earthbound and pragmatic a little movie for that kind of thing.

While the basic structure of the movie is pretty boilerplate — social wariness melting into unity, a meet cute with a boy, conflict/fight followed by glorious resolution — Pitch Perfect manages to find ways to tweak the genre, infusing its own chords and key changes (music!) wherever it can. Like the performances within it, Pitch Perfect is something of a mash-up itself. It's part musical, part gentle coming-of-age tale, and part raucous college girls comedy. The movie strikes a few discordant notes here and there, but, for what it is, Pitch Perfect sounded pretty good to me.