Earlier this year, a few critics made some bold claims about Prometheus, some even going so far as to proclaim it 2012′s answer to Inception and Source Code (i.e. the type of intelligent, complicated sci-fi thriller that only seems to come around once every 12 months). There are two problems with this point-of-view: 1) Prometheus was an extremely stupid movie, and 2) Looper is now out in theatres, and despite a number of scenes that could cause some to label it as a Western, it fits the description of “most intelligent, complicated sci-fi thriller of 2012″ much better.

And, boy, is Looper complicated—even for a movie about time travel. In one long tour-de-force sequence, Joseph Gordon-Levitt discusses the intricacies of time travel with Bruce Willis (who plays his future self) over coffee at a country diner, and Willis’ character eventually gets so frustrated with the conversation that he refuses to continue on without the aid of charts and diagrams.

It’s easy to feel his frustration. Other science fiction movies have dealt with the concept of going back in time, coming into contact with one’s past self and/or parents, and inadvertently altering the future, but Looper is the first to deal with the concept of a man going back in time, coming into contact with his past self, and trying to out-smart his past self because his past self is a hit man who has been paid to kill him. Needless to say, the paradoxes that this scenario opens up run a lot deeper than those of your standard Back to the Future-type plot.

In the year 2072, time travel is used mainly by criminal organizations as a convenient method of corpse disposal. To make things more difficult for the police, victims are bound and gagged, then sent to a remote farm 30 years in the past along with a bag of silver. The second that they arrive in the past, they are shot in the face by a Looper, who proceeds to take the silver.

But being a Looper comes with a catch: In order to retire, the Looper must kill his future self. Upon completion of the task, the Looper is given enough gold to live a life of luxury for the next 30 years, at which point he will get shot in the face by his past self. This is basically what happens to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), only his future self proves to be a lot more difficult to kill than anyone he’s previously dealt with. What follows is a taut cat and mouse game unlike any other. Case in point: What other movie features a chase scene in which one character communicates with another by carving a message into his own arm, then having it instantly materialize on the other character’s arm in the form of a scar?

The last time that Joseph Gordon-Levitt teamed up with director Rian Johnson, the result was Brick—one of the best independent movies of the 2000s. Looper is almost as good. Apart from an annoying subplot involving a bumbling henchman that feels like it belongs in something more along the lines of The Expendables 2, Looper is an exciting, enormously intelligent thriller that’s brimming with first-rate performances. If you liked Inception and Source Code, going to see Looper this weekend should be a no-brainer.