Friday, November 4, 2011

In Time

Writer-director Andrew Niccol’s movies must sound great in pitch meetings. The Truman Show (1998), the only script he wrote and didn't direct and, not coincidentally, by far his best movie, is a prescient look at how horribly wrong things can go when reality TV gets mixed up with reality, period. Simone (2002) is about what will happen to us humans once we’ve taken artificial intelligence far enough to create digital “people” who can pass for real. Lord of War (2005) is about the international arms merchants who feed our perpetual state of war. (It’s against them, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have some fun with those guns. Picture a bullet’s-eye view of something getting blown up and exploding into a huge fireball.) Gattaca (1997) is about a couple of beautiful kids on the run in a winner-take-all world where genetic engineering has run amok and the wall separating the haves from the have-nots is practically unbreechable. In Time is another take on that same theme, plus a cautionary message about the growing wealth gap. (It’s against that too. Hey, those Occupy Wall Street kids will love it!)

In the world tensely navigated by In Time’s hero, Will Salas (a nicely nuanced Justin Timberlake), everyone is programmed to live until age 25 and then die, unless they can add more time to the LED clocks ticking away just under the skin of their forearms. The rich pile up decades, becoming virtually immortal, while the poor run out of time and fall dead in the street, like so many Holocaust victims—only much more photogenic, since everyone also appears to be genetically engineered to stay gorgeous and shapely forever.

It’s a promising premise, but Niccols pounds it into the ground, repeating too few ideas too many times, sometimes even in the same words (“For a few to be immortal, many must die” is one of his favorite phrases). Meanwhile, he uses lazy movie clichés to keep us entertained as Will tries to take down the system by stealing time from the rich and giving it to the poor.

Car chases, rooftop chases on foot, and gunfights are all dangled in front of us like mobiles over a baby’s crib. We also get Will’s rich girl-poor boy romance with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried, whose crimson bob, enormous eyes, and form-fitting wardrobe, which she somehow manages to keep on rocking even on the lam, making her look like an anime character come to life) and his poor boy-poor boy bromance with Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy in a Matrix-style black leather trenchcoat), the cop who vows to take him down. Predictably, the first ends well but the second is tragically doomed. (Sorry, dude, but for a few main characters to live happily ever after, many secondary characters must die.)

This is the kind of movie that can be transformed by inspired art direction, but In Time’s sets are unimaginative and oddly barren. A few of the props—the phones, the devices people slip over their wrists to upload or download time—look vaguely futuristic, but for the most part this world looks just like our own, only less so.

The set design and art direction raise questions the script never answers. Even In New Greenwich, where the rich people live, the streets are virtually empty of cars, and it’s not because there’s some cooler, more futuristic form of transportation in sight, a la Blade Runner or The Fifth Element. Where is everyone, and how do they get around? What’s more, there’s no talk of travel and no news of life anyplace aside from New Greenwich and Dayton. Has the whole work been reduced to just these two hamlets? What happened to everyone and everyplace else?

Dayton, the ghetto where Will and all his friends live, looks like any number of crumbling neighborhoods in post-industrial America, with its burglar-barred apartment doors and run-down corner bars, but its perils are more implied than felt. A small-time gangster named Fortis (Alex Pettyfer) and his boys pop up so often they feel like the only bad boys in the hood, and it’s hard to find the featureless, matte-black cop cars that cruise Dayton’s streets all that menacing when they look like crudely made toys.

It doesn’t help that there’s a Bugsy Malone feel to parts of the movie, as callow young beauties in the supporting roles try to make like world-weary sophisticates. And the supposedly impenetrable wall of privilege that protects the rich starts to seem awfully flimsy after Will and Sylvia broach it with no apparent effort, breaking into one of Sylvia’s father’s banks and infiltrating his phalanx of bodyguards.

If lack of nuance and texture push In Time to the brink of lifelessness, muddled ideas shove it over the edge. In a more kinetic movie, I could forgive the main character telling his girlfriend he doesn’t hate her for being rich because “It’s nobody’s fault what they’re born with” just before robbing a rich stranger and leaving her to die, in a move we’re clearly meant to cheer. And, much as I hate the common form of classism that involves romanticizing poverty, implying that it makes people cooler and more soulful, I can overlook it in stories that don’t take themselves so seriously. But in a movie that’s all about how the wealth gap distorts human lives and relationships, that kind of sloppy thinking and false sentimentality is a fatal flaw.

Written for TimeOFF

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