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Joseph Gordon-Levitt: The King of Science-Fiction

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Sep 29, 2012 | 5:24am EDT

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Nobody knows exactly where Joseph Gordon-Levitt was for those few years between the end of 3rd Rock from the Sun and (500) Days of Summer, but logic dictates that he was probably on a space expedition through the Triangulum Galaxy, or confined to an underground lab with the mission of inventing an immortality serum. Logic dictates, people. The man is not restrained by the realities that you and I face in the day-to-day; he's a veteran of other worlds. 

Fake worlds, but still.

Gordon-Levitt has played a part in just about every conceivable facet of contemporary science-fiction and fantasy in his twenty-odd years as an actor. He's tackled the otherworldly, the superhuman, the technologically profound, the transcendence of human conscience. He was even on a show about vampires. Gordon-Levitt's new release Looper affords the actor the frontier of time-travel, a sci-fi staple dating back to stories of ancient Hindu and Judaic mythologies.

Looper comes from writer/director Rian Johnson, who works to illustrate not just a vast, innovative reality, but a vividly personal story at the focus of the movie. Instead of attending only on to the mechanisms that would facilitate a universe in which time-travel could manifest, Johnson set out to tell a story about a human being existing in this very universe. And that's the point of good sci-fi. Sure, it might come at the expense of some of the intricate details that would make this world more encompassing to the viewer, but really, what's the point of looking at a crazy world if there aren't normal people therein reaping the benefits and hardships?

At the true dawn of his career, Gordon-Levitt starred in 3rd Rock from the Sun as alien Tommy Solomon, an intellectual and deceptively aged information officer, who joins colleagues Dick (John Lithgow), Sally (Kristen Johnston), and Harry (French Stewart) in an expedition to study and understand the customs of Earth. In doing so, the foursome becomes more ingrained and overtaken by Earth culture, ending up truly invested in their mock lives as Earthling lookalikes.

Anyone who has seen 3rd Rock wouldn't be likely to deem it a strict sci-fi. More than anything else, the series was a comedy, and a zany one at that. Gordon-Levitt and company engaged in kooky situations and wacky misunderstandings, the likes of which even Jack Tripper would raise an eyebrow to. But behind all this is the very basic science-fiction spine: aliens studying, learning about, and becoming people. The inherent humanity in all living things, wherever they might be from. Newcomers learning about the world. Pick a metaphor, it works! That's sci-fi for ya: stories about incredibly, obnoxiously simple themes, told through even more obnoxiously complicated venues.

Another recent sci-fi foray for JGL was Inception. Now, dream-travel is admittedly less traversed terrain than time- or space-travel, but authors like Philip K. Dick and filmmakers like Richard Linklater have done wonders with the idea, and Christopher Nolan's 2010 hit inspired quite a bit of debate and thinking-back: a quality of any great sci-fi or fantasy. Beyond the high-stakes, higher-concept, sometimes hard to follow thriller, there was a very simple story. A man's desperation to go home, back from whence he game, to find a family and a life that he has long been without. And at the end of the movie... well, you probably already have your theories about the end of the movie. But it's less about the questions of the dream reality, and more about the question's of this man's soul. Does he find a home? Is he periled to live a lie? And more importantly, does the answer to that question actually matter? Inception presents a deep, universally relatable musing: the idea of reality. Is reality just what we see, think, feel and believe? Or is there something existing beyond all that that would negate our senses, nullifying them as fallacy?

So many of JGL's works fall into the categories of science-fiction, fantasy, or some other supernatural signifier. But at the core of each of them, there is a humanity. The Dark Knight Rises, as are its preceding films in Nolan's Batman trilogy, is about, among other things, the differentiation between the man that is Bruce Wayne and the idea that is Batman. When Gordon-Levitt enters the story, he helps to satisfy the theme inherent in all man-behind-the-mask stories.

Whether or not Gordon-Levitt grew up loving aliens, monsters, time-travel and so forth, that's almost immaterial as to why he might have chosen these sorts of projects. Clearly, the actor appreciates the humanity in these stories. While sci-fi is off-putting to those who don't care for complex reality rules or otherworldly creatures, this list of projects proves that the real heart and soul of every science-fiction story is the humanity of it. From The Time Machine to The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Alien to Wall-E, sci-fi proves that it isn't about robots, aliens, time-travel, and superpowers. It uses robots, aliens, time-travel, and superpowers to tell stories about people.

So what's next for JGL? Parallel universes? Laboratory creations? It doesn't matter, so long as he's at the heart of the story, teaching us something about our world and ourselves.

[Photo Illustration by Hollywood.com; Photo Credit: Warner Bros. (2); Sony Pictures; NBC]

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