In Time (US 2011)
Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 November 2011
In Time seemed to come out of nowhere. That’s what happens when you don’t watch American films or TV on a regular basis. The plot sounded interesting but when I heard that it was an Andrew Niccol movie I was determined to see it. Niccol is the closest filmmaker I know to aspects of 1950s/60s science fiction literature. His script for The Truman Show was quasi-Dickian. Gattaca is a favourite film for many reasons – not least its production design and cinematography. (Niccol, a New Zealander, worked in the advertising films business in London and he seems to have good contacts.) S1mone was, if nothing else, an original idea that satirised Hollywood and celebrity (simulacra and celebrity – another Dickian theme). I haven’t seen Lord of War – a satire of a different kind – but it has many supporters. In Time is said to be very similar in its narrative ideas to a Harlan Ellison short story ”Repent Harlequin! said the Ticktock Man’ written in 1965. Ellison appears to have filed a plagiarism suit against 20th Century Fox but there doesn’t seem to be any injunction against the film’s release.
In Time finds Niccol back in potentially Dickian territory. It has elements of Minority Report (a dogged policeman chasing the hero through an alternative future/present landscape), some design ideas that at least remind us of the intelligence of Gattaca, an underclass borrowed from Soylent Green and The Matrix and it ends like Bonnie and Clyde. What’s not to like? Best of all it offers the most sustained critique of a capitalist system (in which time is literally money and is accumulated by the few to oppress the many) that you are likely to see in mainstream cinema. Perhaps this is why the film has been deemed something of a flop in North America, but a hit in the rest of the world. With plenty more openings to come the ‘International Box Office’ is nearly twice North America. According to Box Office Mojo it has taken $13 million in Russia, but only $30 million in North America. In the UK, audiences have made it into a successful release despite only moderately good reviews. In some ways I think that the film is working like The Adjustment Bureau – which it resembles in narrative ideas and overall feel. With senses dulled by a succession of clunky action pictures, I imagine some mainstream audiences have been surprised to find a film that has intelligence, a romance of sorts and some good performances in amongst the obligatory car chases.
The basic premise is that this alternative society has evolved to the point where genetics and medicine are able to keep the population alive indefinitely. But to maintain control, the rich have developed a system which decrees that when anyone reaches the age of 25 they must ‘buy’ extra years of life in order to stay alive. The ‘life bank balance’ is displayed on the forearm and paying for anything is like giving up blood or receiving a transfusion of new funds when payments are received. When your time runs out, you die immediately. The elite have thousands of years available but the poor live, like the working classes have always done since the start of the industrial revolution, ‘on the edge’, borrowing time or pawning goods. The ‘inciting incident’ sees the hero, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) ‘receive’ over a 100 years of time unexpectedly. This young man from the ‘ghetto’, who is used to living with only a day or so ‘in the bank’, determines to visit the rich gated enclave in order to make a statement of some kind. He is driven by personal grief and an overall belief in living on the edge but also a genuine sense of sharing whatever he has – the nearest Hollywood gets to a socialist hero. (I don’t want to spoil the narrative, suffice to say that there are many interesting inferences about past insurrections, including perhaps actions by Will’s dead father.) Inevitably, Will ends up seducing/abducting Sylvia Weis the daughter of the richest man in town, a genuine ‘time lord’, and being pursued by a determined cop – a ‘timekeeper’ (played wonderfully by Cillian Murphy). The cop, of course, is from the ghetto himself and attempts to keep a ‘professional attitude’ towards his job even if his sympathies might be with the poor rather than the rich. Each day he works with only a limited number of hours on his arm so as not to attract too many time thieves, the piranhas of the poor communities. Alex Pettyfor plays a gangster with a British accent straight out of a Guy Ritchie film leading a group of time thieves known as ‘Minutemen’. This seems like a good bit of satire. As well as the pun on ‘time thieves’, ‘minutemen’ were American militia groups fighting the British in the War of Independence and subsequently the name of the US silo-launched missile defences against the Soviets. The cynical amongst us might see them as agents of the American ruling class – personified by in the film by Sylvia’s father (played by the curiously soft but vampiric Vincent Kartheiser).
The film looks great photographed by Roger Deakins in various shades of blue and sepia-gold. Production designer Alex McDowell worked on Minority Report and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood has a very long list of credits including Gattaca and most of Tim Burton’s films. However, I guess she was partly resonsible for my one niggle with the film. The rich girl hero is played by Amanda Seyfried who spends most of her time in the action sequences running and climbing/jumping in various short skirts and vertiginous heels, both stiletto and more substantial but all designed to ruin her feet. I wondered if this was some kind of hommage to the Anne Parillaud character in Luc Besson’s Nikita. (Ms Seyfried also sports an Anna Karina bob.) The first time we meet her, the little black dress and heels are appropriate for the setting but after that I was almost wishing for some product placement that would allow her to don skinny jeans and trainers. The rich girl with the poor boy is a genre staple of course but in this case a reference to heiress Patty Hearst, abducted by the ‘Symbionese Liberation Army’ in 1974, seems appropriate. There have been many sniffy reviews about Timberlake and Seyfried and their acting abilities but I thought that they were both fine in their roles and exactly what this kind of material required.
The main sensible criticism of the film focuses on the difference between the ideas heavy first half and the action-packed second half. The first half certainly has a very clever script – possibly with too many ideas. I’ve seen some reviews that suggest that the writer has not thought about the ideas at all. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as the promotion of the film has followed the same misguided route as that for The Adjustment Bureau. The trailers we sat through before the film were all for violent action films. I’m not an action fan but the sequences in In Time seemed OK to me. There are some interesting twists in the closing stages and the final shot is terrific. Take this as a genre film which makes satirical points about greed and inequalities in capitalist society (while simultaneously fetishising youth and the promise of sexual excitement – not actually shown) and you have an entertaining night out. The more I think about the film, the more the ideas come. The central premise means that no-one looks over 25 and the actress playing Justin Timberlake’s mum (Olivia Wilde) is actually younger than he is. This is a neat comment on Hollywood and roles for older women – cf Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis, the actress playing his mother in North by Northwest who was actually a few months his junior.