RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 15: Andrew Niccol’s “In Time” (2011)



The Players…

Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy and Vincent Kartheiser, with Olivia Wilde and Johnny Galecki.

The Story…

You know the old saying, “Time is money?” In dystopian, future LA time is not only money, it’s life. So when one day poor Will rescues a suicidal, century-holding businessman deliberately and literally wasting his time, it sets off a series of events that will take him deep into forbidden territory: the affluent suburbs of the absurdly wealthy. There, Will discovers that the 1% indeed lead their lives much differently than he does.

They have all the time in the world.

The Rant…

Remember a few weeks back we took a spin with Will Smith in I, Robot? I got all heady about the place and value of science fiction as a genre, with movies and otherwise. S/F tales are essentially all about the human condition under very tight scrutiny. Said scrutiny usually lends itself towards very specific messages S/F gussies up with a lot of deceptive whiz-bang. You wanna get down to it, Star Trek isn’t about boldly going anywhere. It’s about learning to get along with each other. Blade Runner has less to do with Harry Ford retiring Replicants than asking the age old question, “Who am I and where am I going?” ET was about family, not rescuing the titular character. Close Encounters was about communication, not necessarily with Greys. And Supernova was about a cut James Spader boning Angela Bassett. You know, the human factor.

Keeping this in mind—no, not the f*cking stuff—S/F has either gotten a bad rap or a slipshod execution at the movies. For every Matrix there’s a Johnny Mnemonic (Oh, Keanu. Such a dodgy career). I think this happens not because S/F is such a niche market but Hollywood displaying evidence time and again that they have all the managerial skills of a stalk of celery when it comes to packaging the product. S/F isn’t about warp drive, but human beings. Hollywood smiles and nods and green lights another jillion installments of whatever fevered idea is borne from JJ Abrams’ demented brain.

To better explain what I mean, the “science fiction as legit cinema but not really” scenario, plays out kinda like it did in the late 60s music industry.

Hear me out.

As told in Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain’s historical Please Kill Me, he was ostensibly hired by Elektra Records as a publicist, but Danny Fields adopted the mantle of “house freak” for the men in grey suits. In the late 60s, Fields was a very young gun (if not a loose cannon) working for Elektra to try and drum up some rock n’ roll talent to sign on the established folk label. Despite their acoustic leanings, Elektra wasn’t so backwards as to not smell dollars signing on some o’ them longhaired bands.

Problem: the old, doddering, monied guard knew jacksh*t about rock, let alone what demographic to pander to. Enter Fields. Reckless. Druggy. Had “connections.” And above all many decades younger than the guys who signed the cheques. Fields would venture out into, well, the field and sniff around local scenes to gather intel on what was hip—the next big thing—and report back to his superiors as which lane of travel Elektra should drive. It was how Fields got the Doors signed to Elektra despite an acrimonious relationship with Jim Morrison, which nearly prevented the record deal. But, hey. A freak’s gotta do what a freak’s gotta do. As long as Daddy’s willing to pay for your crashed car.

The brass delighted, readily admitting their pop cultural ignorance, and in rolled the talent (and cash). And Fields was justly rewarded his body mass in weed, pills and booze. Not to mention his very own office, name on the door and all that. Fields alluded years later that his relationship with Elektra’s higher-ups was symbiotic, albeit tenuous. He scammed on the old men, knowing full well they had no clue what the kids’ dug, and figured they didn’t care. “Get us the band, Danny Boy. Here’s a fat wad. By the way your office big enough?” Hell, they had Fields to do their dirty work. Just get us grist for the mill; we don’t care what grain you harvest.

Hollywood is Elektra in the 60s, and S/F is Fields on a junket (emphasis on the “junk” part). Tinsel Town doesn’t get S/F on its basal level, but if they see dollar signs in the next potential Star Wars they’ll throw a cheque at any young rapscallion of a director with a copy of The Man In The High Castle tucked into his ass pocket. That’s how all movie productions work, though. Got a good, profitable pitch? Regardless of the genre, let’s pull it back and see if it rolls.

I’d like to think that most studios who are indeed careful with their investments demonstrate some discretion regarding how a given film is made. The scenarists are allowed to write, and the suits make sure the script is up to business snuff. The director is permitted necessary creative control, provided it doesn’t infringe on company time. And cast’s SAG rights are always respected.

That’s the key term. Respect. Scripts penned by Academy-recognized screenwriters are carefully considered. Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino’s next projects have any possible merits weighed. Hell, even a John Williams score may be handled with kid gloves. But an S/F project? Pfft. Whatever. You, with the Avatar tee-shirt. You wanna try yer hand at this here script scrawled by some dude named Heinlein? We’re gonna go grab a beer brat. Here’s a cheque. Now get lost.

S/F as a concept for movies is at best misunderstood and at worst derided and not respected. Hollywood’s never sure as to what they have on their hands. They throw it to a Danny Fields and cross their fingers they’ll see a return on investment. Meanwhile there’s that new Woody Allen project to tend to.

A man who knows quite a bit about both writing S/F as well as writing for Hollywood is Harlan Ellison. I’ve mentioned him before, most recently in the I, Robot diatribe. He was upset when James Cameron co-opted a pair of his teleplays from the old Outer Limits TV show and morphed them into the first Terminator movie. Ellison gets a bad rap nowadays for being almost reactionary in his legal actions. He appears hair-trigger to sue anyone who might even allude to dipping into his well without a say-so. Seeing that he’s been screwed that way in the past more than once, I can’t really blame him for his defensiveness.

An argument could be made (and I’m making it) that the motives behind Ellison’s quick-tempered litigations are less about compensation lost and more about creative security; acknowledging the right of any writer to claim ownership of their work first and whatever benefits said work may reap second. So long as it respects the writer, their work and acknowledges both the effort and time it took to finish the final project. Simply put, you f*ck with a writer’s muse and livelihood, you’re pissing down their throat. Be it Hollywood, a New York publishing house or any dimbulb with a blog, respect the work and its creator or face some consequence. Even Fields eventually got the sack from Elektra.

I only bring this up because In Time—even before it hit theaters—riled Ellison and his retribution was swift. He claimed the movie’s storyline was lifted from one his best known short stories, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktock Man.” The general gist of the story describes a rose-colored dystopia where instead of time serving the people, it gets served itself. Anyone who wastes time gets it taken out of their lifespan by the titular Ticktock Man and his hordes to maintain a balance. Something like that, and for the record if I misconstrued the story’s actual message or failed to honor Ellison in any way, it was unintentional. Please call off any dogs. I loved “Paladin Of The Last Hour.”

In Time had a similar premise. After watching it, I could see the parallels with Ellison’s story and why he would’ve been miffed. The party line reported that Ellison hadn’t even seen any advanced screening of the movie; he went off pop and threatened litigation. Again. Ellison’s gripe seems to echo my bitching about S/F not being respected in Hollywood. Might go even far to say that the brass assumed folks don’t read much anyway these days, so, yeah, scam this story. It’s only sci-fi. Make sure the ball caps are pre-ordered and ready to ship off to Costco. And get that kid with the Dick in his pants to get cracking. No, not that dick.

Anyway, In Time was another throwaway sci-fi flick that failed to respect the genre proper. Yeah, yeah. It had the current hot young stars, and the director made a splash years ago with other S/F projects. But it was lacking. So much so that after Ellison allegedly caught a glimpse of the finished film, he tossed out any notions of suing. He figured the film sucked so that it presented no threat to his legacy or bank account.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Again…

Time is short in the ghettoes of LA. Literally. Ever since the eugenic experimentations, humans only have a lifespan of 25 years. You wanna hang around longer? Better mind your time. Again, literally.

Time is now the casual currency. You wand a loaf of bread? Ten minutes off your life. A bus ride uptown? One hour, please. How about a home? One decade. And all that is only blessed if you have time to spare. Most folks in LA’s “time zones” can only scrounge up a month’s worth of groceries with a week’s worth of time. After that starve or…time out.

Will Salas (Timberlake) was born into a time zone. Only carrying maybe a few hours on his person at a time and running everywhere. He like all his friends have the clock at their back. Very few have the luxury of years at their disposal. What kind of “life” is this if you’re always staring down death at the end of the day? Or hour? Or minute?

One evening after work—pay day; Will earned another week of life, such as it is—Will and his buddy Borel (Galecki; good cameo by the way) go to grab some beers at their watering hole. To their surprise, as well as everyone else’s, there’s some strange dude buying round after round of drinks for everyone in the bar. Weird. If this guy all that time to waste, what the hell’s he doing in sh*tty dive bar in the time zone?

Rumor has it that the guy has a century on his arm, and is just pissing away his time for the hell of it. A century? Like, 100 years? And he’s just giving it away? This upsets Will. He knows that if this man is just flaunting wealth like that in a sh*t part of town, it’s sure to attract the Timekeepers. When the time cops show up, with their sniffing out suspicious use of time, better haul up stakes and get lost, lest they sweat you for possible time infringements.

And of course they show up. Leon (Murphy) and his thugs demand of the strange guy where he got that century, and why is he just pissing it away. This being a time zone—where every minute counts—having such time to waste is very suspicious. Leon’s aim is, “What you doin’ ’round these parts, boy?”

After some subterfuge, Will gets Mr. Century out of there to find haven. They bunker down and Will gets to asking questions. Like where’d he get the time and why just give it away? The man whose name is Henry is distraught. He argues that since the dawn of time-as-currency, there’s been a major imbalance in power between the haves and have-not. The wealthy have years, decades, centuries, maybe even millennia at their fingertips. The rest of the rabble have maybe days, more likely hours. Henry argues that people aren’t meant to live forever, especially at the expense of others’ time.

Both decide to crash for the night, Will’s head crammed with more questions than answers. In the morning Will finds Henry gone, and his century uploaded onto his time clock. Great. Now he’ll be a possible candidate for Leon and crew to shake him down. But Henry’s philosophizing shakes something loose in Will’s brain. If the wealthy are living forever, and Will and all his buddies have a week at best, where is all that time going?

Will decides Henry was right. Why should only a precious few live forever while the rest scramble for seconds? Will takes his new century and puts Henry’s postulate to the test. He’s going to head into the belly of the beast—the disgustingly rich suburb of New Greenwich—and figure out how the other half lives.

But in order to get to the heart of the matter, it’s going to take Will some time. Maybe even 100 years…

You know what a gimmick is, right?

Okay, now what’s the difference between a gimmick and the Maguffin?

The former was coined by Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve mentioned the term several times here at RIORI. A Maguffin is the reason—usually an object, but not necessarily so—for a movie’s being. It’s like the titular treasure from The Maltese Falcon, the Ark of the Covenant from the first Indiana Jones movie or even to some degree The Matrix. It’s what’s pursued but never fully captured. It’s kind of like a fog bank, surrounding the atmosphere of a movie without making its presence directly known or even accessible. It’s alluded to, even within casual dialogue.

A gimmick is all over the place. In movies its always in your face, right out there. It’s discussed much. Shown off too much. And eventually distracts the audience too much from the story proper. In short, it’s the opposite of a Maguffin. That device is rarely overt, allowing the audience to add their own eggs.

That being said, the time exchange facet of In Time is very clever. Time as currency. Whomever accrues the most time—as in, “the most toys”—is the most wealthy. The time-rich control society, with the ability to live forever, and the poor rabble has to keep a very watchful eye on their minutes and seconds. And when one runs out of time…well, you know.

Like I said, clever. And it gets overdone right quick.

The whole “time as currency” bit is really all that In Time has going for it as a hook. But this is my only major grievance with the film (which I’ll get into greater detail later). Oh, sure. I have others; Ellison’s cursory dismissal isn’t without merit. The issues I take here is that apart from the time clock schtick, In Time doesn’t have much originality to it, nor is the acting particularly potent, also the allegorical nature of the story isn’t kept in check. You know, bad guys wear white and that kind of thing. Like the imp that is a gimmick, everything in In Time is all up in yo grill. Word.

In Time tries to be in the vein of the relatively new sub-genre of S/F noir. I say relatively since the first proper film that tried to do this (and succeeded) was just a little over 30 years ago. In 1982, to be exact, is when director Ridley Scott unleashed to to an unwitting public Blade Runner (when I say unwitting, I mean it. The thing crashed and burned at the multiplex only to be redeemed years later when the time was right). Scott’s dour vision of future LA, all clogged like Lang’s Metropolis, environment all polluted, overpopulated, decrepit, and awash in this perpetual state of identity crisis—especially for the cast.

LA of 2017 was not shiny. Neither is the dystopian vision of Los Angeles in In Time. It’s all cement and desperation, thousands of its denizens on a short leash. There is this urgency of survival, and not unlike Blade Runner with its rampant anonymity, the world of In Time is grimy and bleak. S/F noir? Worked in Runner. Not so sure here.

The diff here is the not so subtle issue of a class system. Sure, such a thing was at the fringes in Runner (come to think of it, other classics of S/F noir like Metropolis and even the original Terminator has underpinnings of classism, too), but it’s about as subtle as a whoopee cushion filled with Kool-Whip here with In Time.

The first thing I feel watching the movie was the pressure. Now I know that tension drives a script, but it should be organic. It should not be front and center. You need to feel it, not see it. The whole gimmick with the time clock thing? Relentless. The audience can figure out the gravity of the players’ circumstances within the first fifteen minutes. This does not need to be choked down our throats. Nor does this forced urgency add up to tension. And it does very little for the message of the film.

There is indeed a message, and one bolstered by the time of the film’s theatrical release. In Time had the fortunate synchrony of being dropped when the Occupy Wall Street movement was just gaining steam. Like in real life, the world of In Time illustrates a keening picture of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. In this case, those who have the time and the rest living on literal borrowed time. Sure, it’s not such a subtle metaphor for our wealth-happy culture, but the plot’s implications could’ve been delivered with a less obvious intrusion on our skulls.

From S/F class warfare allegory we go careening into a derivative action film. I guess director Niccol figured that too much philosophizing upsets most audiences’ attention spans. Better to have Amanda Seyfried in too much makeup and an arresting cocktail dress. That and a few bad car crashes—which doesn’t help the crappy cinematography—thrown in for good measure.

It’s a curious thing, though. Once we enter Logan’s Run mode with Will and later Sylvia everything in the story gets very linear. Odd, and perhaps another metaphor (or maybe just Niccol minding the budget). For a film ostensibly about running out of time, we end up following the straight line to the end of the story with precious few twists. I say odd because if you think about it, a straight line is all that Will knows, in contrast to over-privledged Sylvia. I like this kind of subtly. It’s the kind of setup that one doesn’t pick up on right away, but its implications slowly sinks in over, well, time. This kind of storytelling is often much more effective at conveying some deeper meaning than some gimmick overplaying its hand.

As the acting goes, Timberlake is serviceable, if not a bit wooden. Will’s desperation and eventual determination lack urgency. I know he inherits a century, but his drive winnows away as he gets deeper into enemy territory, and even more so on the lam. It’s almost hinting at all will work out in the end. The tension isn’t maintained and you know where the story’s headed, regardless how tangly the whole execution gets.

Let’s talk about Amanda Seyfried, shall we? No, not in that way. Could her role as Sylvia be any more stereotypical? Poor little rich girl, out in the cold, hard world with a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome eventually evolving into Bonnie to Will’s Clyde. Again, is this another example of trying to reign the audience back into the fold with a familiar trope? What’s more is that she and Timberlake have a chemistry that could only be called awkward. I know. Two kids from different sides of the tracks. Sometimes it works. Here it didn’t. This film is about faces, not presence.

Speaking of tropes, what truly got under my skin with In Time was the fallback on two tried and true subtexts within the plot. With all its spotlights on greed run amok, the movie drops a pair of themes that can be synonymous with unbridled capitalism. I guess Niccol didn’t think the average audience—not to leave out ardent Timberlake and Seyfried fans—would be wise to the two pronged attack of “who watches the watchers” and the classic “sins of the father” subtexts. I did, and when done right, it can be rather affecting. Here, for the first one, since the entire populace is under the gun, why later flat out say that no one in the upper reaches of the time-saturated knows what’s been going on and for how long? “This is how it works, and we answer to no one but ourselves.” Upsetting? Sure. Been done before? Yes. Clever when smothered by a gimmick? C’mon.

The second part is so played out, or at least wasn’t given a fresh spin here. What I particularly dislike about this device is that it often excuses the villains’ motives. Well, it does that here with In Time. Some could make the argument that Will’s adversary, Vincent Kartheiser’s time magnate Phillipe Weis playing all innocent at the end of the whole mess could illustrate how the ludicrously rich are ignorant of their own wealth, or at least of its origin. Is this supposed to drum up sympathy for the fallen? Maybe, and if it were in the same vein as the linearity aspect of the story, it might have worked.

Despite all the flourishes, In Time plays out as stock, stale, self-important and more than a bit trippy. There was a germ of a good idea here. It’s too bad Niccol fell back on gimmickry and warhorse plot devices instead. S/F noir this ain’t. It tried hard, and the message wasn’t too on the nose. In Time‘s execution was sorely lacking, resulting in one of the most boring installments of RIORI to date.

Sorry. I really couldn’t make the—wait for it—time for it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This is a movie either for the patient or the attention deficient. What it’s not for is a thinking audience, or who aren’t easily moved by a paper thin S/F allegory. Time’s up (couldn’t help it).

Stray Observations…

  • “You want coffee or do you wanna reminisce?” There’s an ad slogan there somewhere.
  • Despite all the nanotech, time exchange, retrograde degradation in this dystopia, we still need pay phones.
  • “The clock is good for no one.”
  • The time jokes got old before the second act ended.
  • “Everyone can’t live forever. Where would we put them?”
  • Where exactly is Sylvia supposed to hide that piece?
  • “We look cute together.”
  • For some inexplicable reason I liked the automobile F/X. Even I doubt my own taste.
  • I’m surprised that the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run” wasn’t used in the soundtrack. My jokes aren’t for everyone.
  • Ellison co-wrote a draft with Isaac Asimov back in 1977 for a script to an I, Robot movie adaptation that never saw the light of day. Just sayin’.

Next Installment…

Mel Gibson purposely rams his fist up The Beaver. No, not that kind. You’re a sad, sad perv, you.

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