Friday, November 11, 2011

In Theaters: In Time

In Time poster and IMPAwards link

Andrew Niccol is probably one of the most undervalued filmmakers around today. While Gattaca and The Truman Show both caught attention, not much of what he's done in this millennium has met with acclaim. But he's always working with interesting ideas and applying a distinct low-key touch to his films. In Time is an unexpectedly relevant film, a picture about the growing divide between haves and have-nots released just as a lot of the have-nots have finally become vocal, and it couches this in a metaphor that's both obvious and powerful. It's high concept, but makes sure to ground the concept in genre convention, this time a thriller. The blend of concept and genre is rough around the edges, but it works more often than not.

In a vaguely defined near-future, time has become literal currency. Medical science has stopped the natural aging process at 25, but once a person hits 25, they have one extra year to live. They can earn more time by working, but also have to pay time for goods and services. The poor don't live very long, the rich are virtually immortal, and they're kept apart by expensive toll gates and market manipulation of prices in the ghettos to make sure nobody saves up too much. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a poor man, literally living day to day making time storage boxes for people who can afford to save up. One night, a man whose glowing wrist tattoos proudly display a century to spare shows up at a bar Will frequents, and when Will saves him from a group of gangsters, he wakes up the next morning to find the century in his possession and the rich man dead broke. When Will is too late to save his mother (killed by a sudden uptick in bus fare), he decides to try and beat the rich at their own game, paying his way across the toll booths into the paradise of New Greenwich, and there gambling his way to a fortune. This gets the attention of some very friendly and unfriendly people, and soon the Timekeepers, on the lookout for anyone with too much time to spare, start to track him down- which makes him, and banker's daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), set out to break the system entirely.

The concept of the film is not entirely original, and a few elements- notably the Timekeepers- were apparently similar enough to Harlan Ellison's work that he managed to sue for a screen credit. Niccol tries to explain the premise without over-explaining it. The mechanics are simple; a character's time remaining is printed on their arm like a glowing tattoo, and they can transfer time by grabbing another person's arm. (This makes theft easy, which is why the rich put up so many barriers, and mobsters prowl the ghetto going after anyone with too much time. People try and keep their arms covered.) Running out of time means a person just stops being alive- there's no decline or degeneration, and they stay youthful even in death. The mechanics of how prices are manipulated across time zones aren't delved into much (there are a few shots which I would love to freeze-frame when this comes to disc), but we know enough for the plot to make sense.

There is some cheating. This is a thriller with a lot of chases, and everyone having a ticking clock on their arm is used a lot to add suspense, but it's a little too obvious when time is being stretched out beyond what the characters actually have on them. It's standard procedure in movies like this to manipulate the actual flow of time, but when exact time in the story is vitally important, it's easier to tell when the movie isn't playing fair.

What keeps the film from being great is that the thriller element feels forced; there are car crashes and chase scenes because that makes the movie easier to sell, not because that's the best place for the story to go. It's something of an abrupt switch- Salas is a little too badass in the action sequences for someone who was just a regular working stiff all his life. It's fun to watch him and Sylvia find ways to screw with the markets, though, even if this idea isn't taken to the strongest conclusion.

There's something very likable about this film even if it panders a little. It has a refreshing clarity about how broken its system- and by association ours- really is, avoiding didacticism for the most part but simply acknowledging this is the unfair reality. Timberlake is more convincing as a blue-collar schlub than you'd think, Seyfried is appropriately posh, and Cillian Murphy does a great job as a dedicated Timekeeper who works from a perverted sense of justice. The film's cinematography is by Roger Deakins, and it's gorgeous, being surprisingly colorful without detracting from the tense atmosphere.

In Time is ultimately an engaging yarn. It's got social currency and the refreshing forthrightness of a film that gets to say what others aren't about the world we live in, and while there's a clash between the social critique and the action-adventure elements, ultimately it finds a balance. Some of the potential is missed, but there's still a lot to enjoy here. Hopefully Andrew Niccol won't have to go too commercial next time.

Written and Directed by Andrew Niccol
(With some elements based on material by Harlan Ellison, I suppose)

Grade: B

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