Monday, October 31, 2011

Squalor: In Time

At a point prior to the Netflix boom and at the height of Blockbuster’s inflated in-store rental costs, my dad did something out of character: he bought a small stack of DVDs in a Virgin Megastore binge.  They were all science fiction, and they were all things he’d decided his kids “needed to see.”  Amongst them was Logan’s Run, a movie in which cheesy plasticity is a virtue and guilty pleasuredom seems to be the loftiest goal.  In 1976, life until 30 meant a world built off of simple, airy silliness.  There are robotic monsters and miniskirts; all one really needs to survive 3.5 decades of scrutiny while remaining a story compelling enough to be frequently copied, referenced, and placed on the ‘must-see’ list by parents with a penchant for science-fiction.   The latest Logan’s Run copycat is In Time, a dystopian thriller with an A-list genetic make-up, but not much in the way of personality.   Where in Logan’s world life ended at 30, In Time features a complicated economic allegory in which folks are essentially guaranteed the right to live until 25.  At 25 you stop aging, and that’s fantastic, but in order to make the most of it you must then beg, borrow, and steal to extend your lifespan.  Time is money, money is time.  Society measures everything according to the clock under their skin.  Years are the currency of the 1%, while the 99% life in squalor from minute to minute.
If you asked me to explain it further, I couldn’t.  In Time demands that you suspend your disbelief for the entirety of its run.  To do anything else would certainly result in a headache large enough to lend itself to hospitalization.  Don’t ask, for instance, how the clock is wired to their physical circuitry.  For that matter, you should also avoid asking how they exchange time by grasping each other’s arms.  For the sake of everyone: please don’t even think of asking how this all happened, or what time this is set in, or if it’s at least 125 years in the future why everyone dresses essentially as they do right now, or, you know, how it is there’s no way to shut down the clocks instead of “bank” robbing seconds, months, and eons.  All of those questions are silly.  Please, just watch the pretty people dash madly about the screen.

You’re right, sometimes it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t ask you to think so much.  The problem here, however, is that In Time absolutely wants to be thought provoking.  Its story is one of complex economics and class warfare.  Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a young man living day to day in one of the slummiest ‘time zones’.  He toils in a factory for minimum wage, lives with his mother (Olivia Wilde.  Yep.), and watches the best minds of every generation obsess over one thing and one thing only: their remaining minutes.  In a forced twist of fate, Will meets a wealthy stranger hellbent on dying who gifts him a century, thus allowing him to finally take that dream trip into a time zone inhabited by aristocrats and tycoons who have lived for decades and decades in their perfect, youthful bodies.   One thing leads to another and soon Will is playing Robin Hood (or, well, Bonnie and Clyde) with Sylvia (an inhuman looking Amanda Seyfried), the over-protected daughter of one of the time-hoardiest Scrooges (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) in all the land.  Insert ‘time bandits’ joke here.   
As you read this, you’re likely thinking there’s something to it.  I agree with you.  The story has the making of an almost perfect action flick: social commentary, edgy criticism, chase scene after chase scene, bank robbing, and all the best reasons for a cast filled with young, attractive celebrities.   That last bit is part of the problem.  For all the supposed suffering, everyone looks too good.  For all the action, too much of it is devoted to repeating similar scenarios.  For all the raw opportunity, too much of the film’s dialogue is devoted to awkward exposition.  In Time is so complicated that its characters must spend the bulk of their interactions spelling out what’s happening.  So, while the film’s aesthetic is slick and stylish, its actors are clunkily plodding through bogs devoted to the discussion of time, puns about time, explanations, plot-advancing questions and tepid rejoinders.    It’s entertaining, but ultimately too serious to be much fun and yet too frothy for its message to carry any sort of weight.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol knocked it out of the park with 1997’s GATTACA, and with In Time he seems to be cobbling together the unused plot points from his eugenics thriller to make a second-string pot boiler.  As much as I like Justin Timberlake, he’s not much of an actor, and that becomes immediately apparent as he gives gut-wrenching sobs a stab in the middle of an empty street.  From his mouth, the flimsy dialogue grows ever-flimsier.  Each bad pun seems drawn out in a way that suggests someone wasn’t in on the joke.  Each typical bit of action movie deadpanning sounds all the more unnecessary.  As Will and Sylvia carry out their idealistic actions, they move closer and closer to an uncertain economic fate.  What good will a partial redistribution of wealth do?  What happens when it’s squandered?  What insures this doesn’t happen again?  Why do only a few seem to realize that living until age 150 isn’t ideal?  In Time bridges its plot holes with vaguely Marxist attempts at picking apart capitalism but fails to make its argument cohesive or at all clear.  When does it stop?  What’s the end goal?  Does it really apply to reality, or is that metaphor a little on the weak side?   While I was entertained by the film enough to engage with it and consider these questions, I’ll admit that part of me was really looking forward to the instant its time finally ran out.   


  1. That is such a sweet story regarding your father - it definitely sounds like something my parents would do!

  2. Good to know there are others out there like them!


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