Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ceci N'est Pas Une Filme

The last time I reviewed a movie here on my blog, I was dealing with a sweet and well-realized love story with a very human, charismatic core, but wrapped around it was a half-baked SF/fantasy premise that the filmmakers hadn’t thought through properly. In Time is practically the exact opposite of that: the premise is clever, hooky, and well-developed, resulting in a well-constructed and clever world that comments effectively on ours. But the movie built around this premise barely exists, and certainly isn’t engaging.

Justin Timberlake (who I generally like as an actor but who is badly miscast here) plays Will Salas, an industrial worker in an indeterminate future where everyone’s effectively immortal due to genetic engineering. The only thing is that you’ve got a clock branded into your arm that’s perpetually counting down to zero, and you need to keep replenishing it by working. Yes, the whole movie is built around the double entendre of “time is money”. Essentially, you can choose between the security of knowing you have a substantial amount on the clock, or paying your bills. Down at the lower end of the spectrum, in the de facto ghetto (people are segregated in “time zones” based on their wealth—I did mention that this movie likes groan-worthy double-meanings, right?) people are often forced to live “day to day”, barely keeping ahead of the clock, working non stop just to make sure they have enough not to die in their sleep. A mistake in their calculations, a poorly-thought-out indulgence, or even just a failure to get where they need to go fast enough can be fatal.

One night, Will comes across a man (Matt Bomer) in a bar behaving erratically, almost suicidally. Will saves his life from a local gang of thugs, or “Minutemen”, at which point the man reveals that he’s fantastically rich—over a hundred years old, with another century on his clock—gives him an inkling of just how corrupt and rigged the system in which they live is. The next morning, Will wakes to find that he’s been gifted with the man’s time, right as he lets himself die (rather stupidly, if he was trying to help Will, as the immediate appearance is that he’s murdered him and stolen his time). Will goes on the lam to the logical place, buying himself into the highest-income time zone, to get a look at how the other half lives. Soon he’s hobnobbing with the ultra-powerful Philip Weiss (the ever-reptilian Vincent Kartheiser, playing an old man in a young man’s body) and falling in love with his daughter Michelle (Amanda Seyfried, another miscast actor who I normally like). But of course, the heat, in the form of “Timekeepers”, led by Cillian Murphy, catch up to him, and soon Will is in even more desperate straits than he started, on the run with Michelle and trying desperately to find enough time to stay alive.

Reading a synopsis of In Time, it sounds like a really smart, exciting action/SF film. The trouble is that writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) seems to have been so satisfied with the synopsis that he didn’t really take the next step and make it into a movie. I’m barely exaggerating—whole scenes are built around characters telling each other what the scene is about instead of, y’know, showing us. Likewise, whenever an “action” scene starts up, it’s so perfunctory you can almost see text popping up on the screen reading “insert exciting car chase here”. The most emblematic moment of this, as the Onion A. V. Club pointed out, is a moment where Will has to “arm wrestle” a Minuteman (time is exchanged by pressing forearms together, so this is literally a competition to drain the other guy’s life force). It would be exciting…if we had any idea what the rules were, or how it is you can drain time from your opponent without letting him drain you. The perfunctory explanation we’ve received from Will earlier about his secret method of winning arm wrestling competitions makes no real sense, so we’re left with a scene that’s just “Will gets in an arm wrestling competition. Will wins. Next scene.” We in the audience are forced to use our imaginations to fill in what would normally be the crucially entertaining moments of the film.

There’s one exception, a moment early in the film where Will’s mother (Olivia Wilde, who IS well-cast as an older woman in a young woman’s body) has to race through the streets to replenish her clock after overspending, which is legitimately exciting, but otherwise, this is practically a stage play.

I feel kinda bad ragging on the movie for this stuff; lord knows we get far too many supposed science fiction movies where the action and dazzling visuals are literally the whole game, and there’s nothing resembling an idea in sight. But Niccol’s seemingly overcompensated by making a movie that’s literally nothing BUT ideas, with no execution. While he has overcome some of the issues that dogged his earlier work (the sledgehammer-subtle symbolism, for instance, or the look-how-clever-I-am narration of something like Lord of War, his last movie) he seems less grounded than ever in the needs of cinematic storytelling. Niccol’s a good writer who could even be great if the right director would keep him in line (as almost happened with The Truman Show) but as a filmmaker he’s shooting first drafts.

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