Friday, October 28, 2011

In Time: Fast-paced sci-fi thriller

In Time (2011) • View trailer for In Time
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, sexuality, fleeting nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang

Andrew Niccol has quite an imagination.

The New Zealand-born writer/director landed with a splash in 1997 with Gattaca, an intriguing sci-fi thriller that has aged well. Then Niccol really caught my attention with his Oscar-nominated script for The Truman Show, the following year: truly a work of genius.
Will (Justin Timberlake, center), out of his element in fancy dress, and
surrounded by wealthy people who instinctively realize that he doesn't belong,
nonetheless catches the eye of the headstrong Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried),
daughter of corporate titan Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser).

The Truman Show anticipated the realty TV craze that subsequently infested the world; Niccol’s next film, S1m0ne, explored the ethical parameters likely to emerge if computer-enhanced substitutes replace actual film and television stars (an issue that subsequently hit the headlines when advertising companies began to use dead celebrities such as John Wayne and Fred Astaire, shilling for — respectively — Coors Light and Dirt Devil).

All of which brings us to In Time, Niccol’s intriguing sci-fi spin on our real world’s increasingly deplorable divide of wealth between the have-nots and the have-everythings. Such social commentary notwithstanding, though, the approach here is more exploitative than contemplative; this is a B-thriller in fancy dress.

Nothing wrong with that, of course; plenty of gritty — and quite entertaining — action flicks have made excellent use of sci-fi elements, from 1973’s Soylent Green to 2009’s Echelon Conspiracy.

Here, in Nichol’s rather disturbing view of the future, immortality has been achieved: Everybody ages normally to 25, and then never looks a day older. One’s mother, sister and daughter become de facto physical peers ... which leads to some amusingly disorienting issues.

But the world’s resources are finite, and the entire population cannot be allowed to live forever. Ergo, time has become money ... literally. Somehow, everybody is born with a body clock embedded within the lower left arm. (We cannot ask how this occurs, or was allowed to happen; reasonable questions have no role in this scenario.) On a person’s 25th birthday, an inner clock starts ticking downward for one final year of life.

Except that it’s far less than a year, because everything in this world — food, clothes, lodging, entertainment — also costs time: an hour for a bus ride, several hours for a meal. This “price” is withdrawn electronically from one’s inner time-meter; should that meter drop to zero, heart failure and instant death follow.

The rich and powerful never need to worry about time; they control its use — and frequently misuse — in the manner of rapacious Wall Street brokers. Working-class citizens are a different story; they rarely have more than 24 hours on their body clocks, and must toil every day, in factories, to earn another day of precious life. Many fail.

Citizens are divided into “time zones” according to social status; our hero, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), lives in the poorest region, Dayton, with his mother, Rachel (Olivia Wilde). He is “25 plus 3”; she doesn’t look a day older than he. The two have managed, through hard-scrabble desperation, to keep each other alive all this time.

Will has his long-dead father’s sense of ethics; he’s an honorable man willing to assist somebody in distress. But Will’s decision to help the mysterious Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer, the charismatic star of TV’s White Collar) proves ill-advised; Hamilton, carrying an entire century on his wrist, has been targeted by a gang of “Minute Men,” so named because they steal time from weaker victims.

A man carrying an entire century is tempting prey.

One day later, a man is dead and Will is on the run, both from the Minute Men and the authorities; these “police officers,” known as Timekeepers, ensure that time does not stray from where — or whom — it belongs. This particular situation comes to the attention of a veteran Timekeeper dubbed Leon (Cillian Murphy, he of the spooky eyes), who becomes the unstoppable Javert to Will’s Jean Valjean.

Will, meanwhile, decides to make the most of a bad situation for as long as he’s able; he travels across time zones to the wealthy New Greenwich district. Caprice takes him to a casino and a high-stakes poker game with effete industrialist Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, appropriately decadent); that leads to an invitation to a party, where Will spends some quality time with Weis’ intrigued and impulsive daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).

Timekeeper Leon crashes the party, Will snatches Sylvia as a hostage while making a daring escape, and the chase is on. In the manner of all spunky young heiresses — in fiction, anyway — Sylvia quickly perceives her companion’s finer qualities, at which point love blossoms and things become, well, complicated.

I know, I know: way too much exposition. But this is a complex table setting, with plenty of plates and cutlery.

(As a troubling aside, this complexity bears disquieting echoes of two earlier tales by veteran sci-fi writers: Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, where nobody is allowed to live past 21 in the world of 2116; and most particularly Harlan Ellison’s award-winning short story, “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman.” The latter features a malevolent Master Timekeeper — note the identical term — who punishes citizens who waste time by withdrawing an equal amount of time from their body clocks, ultimately “turning off” chronic offenders. That’s uncomfortably close to Niccol’s key plot point here.

(And perhaps TOO close. Ellison quite famously — and successfully — sued ABC-TV and Paramount Pictures back in 1980, when their “original” television series, Future Cop, blatantly plagiarized “Brillo,” a story Ellison had co-written with fellow sci-fi author Ben Bova. Ellison also objected to elements of the first Terminator film, which veered unpleasantly close to his two earlier Outer Limits teleplays.

(Ellison takes his intellectual property quite seriously — as he should — and he did, in fact, initiate a lawsuit against Niccol and In Time last month. Stay tuned...)

The running, hiding and car chases aside, Niccol takes every opportunity to show the extent to which time truly has become money in this alternate reality. The details unfold quite deftly, in the very first scene: Will wakes up, greets a hottie we expect to be his girlfriend by saying “Hi, Mom”; she then “gives” him 30 minutes from her own counter, for “lunch money.” It’s all totally bonkers, of course, but Niccol sets the stage economically and makes no apologies for the many absurdities to follow.

And, truthfully, we buy into it. Will and the various extras cast as Dayton citizens quite effectively convey their minute-by-minute anxiety; when somebody’s inner clock runs out, it’s a truly nasty shock.

This world is laden with appropriate details, as well: some amusing, some chilling. Working-class stiffs are easy to spot, particularly if out of their element; they invariably move quickly, because every second is precious. The rich, in contrast, take their time. A local mission dispenses not soup, but minutes: all that the kindly minister can accumulate, without sacrificing his own life.

The irony, though, as Sylvia points out, is that she and her wealthy peers are just as trapped, albeit in a different way: Terrified of having their time stolen, they never do anything even mildly adventurous, or go anywhere without bodyguards. “The poor die,” she says, bitterly, “and the rich don’t live.”

Timberlake, although displaying little acting range, makes a reasonably sympathetic protagonist. He’s credibly resourceful and conveys the nervous agitation of one who never knows whether he’ll be alive in 24 hours. (“We never sleep in,” he says to Sylvia, while trying to explain their differing lifestyles.)

But strong displays of emotion are beyond Timberlake; his attempt at anguish, in the first act, is far from convincing. Fortunately, he spends most of his time on the run: a typical Hitchcockian hero trying to elude both bad guys and the law.

Seyfried, a much stronger actor, looks quite different without the long blond tresses that have characterized her roles in Mamma Mia and Letters to Juliet. She gives Sylvia a flip, snarky tone that is quite amusing; she also gets the best one-liners, whether philosophical or merely impudent.

Murphy is a riveting unstoppable force, his grim determination quite chilling. He’s always unforgettable, whether as the larger-than-life Scarecrow in the current Batman franchise, or as the deceptively suave terrorist who so memorably menaced Rachel McAdams in Red Eye.

Bomer makes the most of his brief appearance as Hamilton, who argues the drawbacks of immortality to a disbelieving Will. Collin Pennie also is memorable as Timekeeper Jaeger, who serves as a questioning conscience to Murphy’s Timekeeper Leon.

Niccol’s premise in The Truman Show was methodical, persuasive and quite credible; that’s not the case here. We simply cannot question all the unexplained details in this film, whether the big issues (why 99 percent of humanity would put up with this bum deal) or the little ones (why the citizens of Dayton wouldn’t tear the despised Leon apart, as he slowly walks, wounded and alone, through their community).

The final scene, although good for a chuckle, also is preposterous. But Niccol gets away with all this through cheeky audaciousness; the premise may be absurd, but the execution is fun. In Time certainly isn’t great cinema, but it’s plenty entertaining.

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