Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 31, 2011 3:34 pm 
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JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE AND AMANDA SEYFRIED IN IN TIME

One day at a time

In Time is the kind of movie you may like better when you go back to it, because it's so stylish, but it's not very engaging the first time through, except visually. The renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins' yellow and blue tinted images and the stark urban landscapes are an elegant twist on the usual dingy apocalyptic future images. Andrew Niccol, who showed in Gattaca that he could create a memorable sci-fi world using given settings like a Frank Lloyd Wright auditorium, stages a lot of the action in big empty spaces, just unused freeways or vacant lots really it would seem but soaked in acid color tones and populated by wonderful gas guzzlers. Seventies monsters roam these spaces as a ghetto hero (Justin Timberlake) is pursued by an agent of the state called a Time Keeper (Cillian Murphy) and when Timberlake's character temporarily strikes it rich he drives a giant silver bullet Jaguar that tears up the road and then crashes. The world of the rich consists of posh hotels and casinos, with a kind of wedding cake fascist grandeur like a Mussolini mausoleum.

I suspect Gattaca was better than this, maybe much better, though it didn't meet with universal acclaim either (In Time has gotten a lukewarm response from many US critics). But after all Gattaca, with its own sci-fi world of a genetic class system, was how Ethan Hawke met Um Thurman. Jude Law was relatively new to the screen and exuded fresh charisma. This time Niccol's future world, which has some of the same ideas swirling around in it, is more doctrinaire and less interesting.

In Time's premise is excruciating, an obsessive dead end that cannot really be fully explored. In this world, no old people exist. Did some Hollywood concept man think that up? Individuals grow to the age of twenty-five, and then just stop aging. But at that point a luminous string of green digits appears on their arm indicating how much time they have left. They are given one year, to the second. They can add to it, or donate it, or use part of it to pay for things, because the time indicated on the arm is also the currency for which all things are bought. The population is kept down by milking time from the poor who are constantly dropping dead when they run out of time. A cup of coffee costs four mintues. A fancy car costs ten years. And so on. This is the last world you'd want to live in. And unless you're extremely rich, you rush around all the time trying to make or find more time. Time is also stored on metal gadgets and can be downloaded onto one's arm. A millionarie (Vincent Kartheiser) has a time-lending business and owns a vault containing his first million -- years.

There are several ideas here, none much developed. The main one is that the rich exploit the poor and the poor can never catch up. Nothing too new there. Another point is that the poor, because like Timberlake's character, Will Salas, they must live literally from day to day, have more exciting and challenging lives. The rich, like Philippe Weis (Kartheiser), live surrounded by hordes of bodyguards, lest their secure and plentiful time be stolen from them, and their only object in life is to avoid risk. The natural order is disrupted because a man's daughter, wife, and mother are all twenty-five. It's creepy. (This possibility was evoked with sharper satirical overtones in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.) Will's father, who died when he was young, was a kind of Robin Hood who stole time and gave it away to the poor. Will links up with Weis' daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), who needs some excitement in her life. Another theme is simply the tyranny of time. We see people running out of time, running for their lives in a literal sense. Niccol repeats the image of Will running toward a loved one to save her. Everybody twenty-five or older sees their time running out in big digits on their arm. It's a concentration camp tattoo of time. Niccol wants to "create the ultimate metaphor of living in the present," the 12-step recovery idea of "one day at a time" or the classical notion of carpe diem, but he's made it an oppressive concept that makes you long for a lotus land altogether outside of time.

Accumulating time, in the case of the rich, and staving off extinction, in the case of the poor, seem to be all people think about. After fifty or seventy-five years of being twenty-five life gets to be boring and Will meets a man ready to expire who gives him a hundred years. Will escapes into the time zone of the rich and, gambling with Philippe Weis, wins a thousand years. He begins to live large and runs off with Sylvia. After that the film becomes a chase-action-adventure story with Robin Hood touches and a duel between him and a prominent Time Minder called Raymond Leon (Murphy), who was born in the ghetto but became an agent of the system and the rich. Leon's fate shows with grim bluntness that agents of the rich are no better off than the poorest of the poor.

Timberlake acquits himself well here but his role has far less character than Sean Parker in The Social Network and he hasn't got any of the snappy lines Aaron Sorkin gave him or the chance to be funny he got in Friends with Benefits. As compensation, he becomes an action hero in a good looking high concept movie. The dialogue of In Time tends to be rather flatfooted, however. Seyfried's job seems to be looking like a porcelain doll. We can understand how Sylvia would be attracted to the danger of Will's life -- his winnings don't bring him any real security -- but she may lack the humanity to fully act upon that attraction.

There is a curious pull between the ideas and Niccol's fascination with visual style, and a desire to imbue his tale with a sense of danger. As the danger ramps up, details of the concept fall by the wayside, and it might not survive close scrutiny anyway. The film exploits the looks of Kartheiser, Murphy, Seyfriend, even Timberlake skillfullly, Timberlake's compact, slightly unformed quality, Kartheiser's porcelain skin, Murphy's equally transparent face and luminous pale eyes, all conveying a sense of an unnatural suspended youthfulness. It's in conveying the core idea of the narrative in images that Niccol excels, and that's certainly cinematic. But his imagery has a dry, clinical side that makes it striking but cold and uninvolving. This lacks the pathetic, heartrending quality Spielberg achieved in A.I. and there's no acting of the intensity of Haley Joel Osment's, though Murphy and Timberlake make good opponents and Kartheiser as in Mad Men is in his element as a chilly narcissist.

I would go out to see an Andrew Niccol film. His Lord of War dramatized a significant subject too, and he wrote (but didn't direct) The Truman Show. His fantasy/sci-fi blends social consciousness and visual style in a way that's interesting even if they seem partially at war with each other.

In Time (109 min.) opened in the US October 21, the UK November 1, 2011.

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