RIORI Vol 3, Installment 39: David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010)


The Social Network


The Players…

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Tyler Pence and Max Minghella, with Brenda Song, Rashida Jones and Rooney Mara.


The Story…

Harvard sophomore and computer wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg almost single-handedly creates social media with his revolutionary FaceBook program and all the responsibilities and woes that entails.

That’s basically it, folks.


The Rant…

I have a love/hate relationship (status) with FaceBook. Maybe you do, too.

Like the rest of y’all, I use FaceBook for chatting with friends, news feeds, pop culture pap, promoting blogs and reassurance that I am not alone in this cold, cruel world without having to actually interact with human beings. That and nurturing a low-level feeling of narcissism. Like the rest of y’all.

I logged on as a FaceBook member back in 2009, two years after its launch, which is a century in a tech savvy game of catch-up. Did my research first, though. At first I was dubious about the new program. I had my times with MySpace and found it no better than anonymous catalog mailings and highway billboards: sh*t in my face I would rather ignore. Where’s the chicks? My sister indirectly wound me into the web. Email suggestion. Checked it out, met Tom and signed up.

And here my troubles began.

Little sis was—and still is—a Facebook junkie. Posting stuff seemingly every five minutes, of things grand and mundane by whatever standard she follows. From what I’ve seen, a lot of FaceBook friends (okay, all of them) can’t discern the difference between noteworthy events in their lives and meaningless dreck. Here’s an example I cooked up years ago when FaceBook was in its infancy, and its users were all so enraptured by the idea they could share every-bloody-thing about themselves and smear it all over the Web, whether you wanted to know or not:

Say you happened upon a really good sandwich shop. Chances are you’d tell your buddies all about it and recommend the ham on rye. Normal. Using FaceBook as extension of this common, casual interaction with others, if you would regale every single person you knew—and didn’t know—with your find where to get the ultimate Reuben, you’d be regarded as a nutjob. I enjoy sandwiches as much as the next guy, but I don’t need you on my lap telling me how to do so.

FaceBook is an open forum. People tend to forget this. Doubtless you’ve come across someone’s post about something you did not want to know about, like multiple videos of them getting that neck goiter incised. Or some guy dressed as a chicken, drunk and singing Rick Astley tunes. Or some heartbroken doof confessing—probably also drunk—their hatred of the opposite sex and how they’ll never get their original pressings of the entire Nickelback catalogue on Edison coil back from their evil, evil ex. We don’t want to see this sh*t (okay, maybe the chicken guy), yet we do—like or unlike, leaving comments as warranted—and inadvertently encourage our “friends” in being attention-starved narcissists that won’t quit poking people or posting funny cat videos. The ones with the goiters. You’ve seen it; you can’t un-see it.

It’s the Warhol theory in action, only 15 minutes isn’t enough. Thanks to FaceBook, users need perceived fame fed into their collective egos 24/7. The feeds have interrupted—some may say corrupted—how people have traditionally communicated for millennia: verbally. The intelligentsia has been bemoaning the death of conversation forever. With FaceBook, such concerns have accelerated into almost self-parody. Many of my FaceBook friends I have had to cut loose. Why? There’s a rather big difference between a post about someone’s new baby and…well, that Reuben sandwich.

FaceBook isn’t exactly an even give-and-take between users. It’s become more of a pissing contest with who has the “cooler” story, which memes are the most amusing and how many friends one can accrue online. Or at the end of the day merely a sounding board, in which the user really doesn’t give a f*ck about who is listening. Maybe it comes down to just some sort of desperate popularity contest. Listen, there is no way you can have 4,000 friends unless you’re the focal point of a major religion, like Moses or Elvis. It’s all malign self-importance unchained. At the end of the day, whenever that comes.

It’s really a shame though, since there are some very good, very practical things about FaceBook. Its network has allowed people to catch up with old friends and distant family members, too far away to visit (think about soldiers overseas). Infinite hits to expand your sphere of knowledge (good and bad). Breaking news customized to your concerns. Chickens singing “Never Wanna Give You Up.” All vital things this in our cyber global village. But all these links gets me to wonder: what are long term ramifications going to be regarding America’s ability to communicate freely under a constant spotlight? Privacy is at a premium lately. How much do you really want to give away? And what exactly would that stuff be?

I don’t think FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg fully considered the human factor when creating his social medium. Then again, maybe he did. All too well. After all, FaceBook was borne out of revenge; drunk dialing for the Internet generation. Hacking the Net to smear a girl is the ultimate form of: look at what this bitch did to me, America (or at least Harvard)! Like? Unlike? Comments?

Be careful which computer nerd you spurn in this day and age, ladies…


Harvard University, 2003.

Computer science sophomore and hacking wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) has been having trouble with his girlfriend, Erica (Mara). She can’t stand him anymore. He’s smug. He’s condescending. He thinks his genius is being undermined by the college community. That and he’s practicing a nice, little drinking problem. She dumps his ass.

And so begins the greatest form of mass communication since Gutenberg’s moveable type. From such humble origins. legacies are borne.

In a fit of drunken pique, Mark cracks into Harvard’s network and proceeds to rearrange the chess pieces to smear Erica all over the campus. It was a simple algorithm, Mark’s his roomie Eduardo (Garfield) happen upon his buddy’s malfeasance, and is immediately taken with the potential of Mark’s duct tape and baling wire hack. If Mark’s “Facemash” can unite the campus’ thirst for dirt, then what about airing laundry at other schools? And why stop at schools? Ed comes from not only a family with deep pockets, but also a business acumen that rivals any average student at Harvard. This includes the ridiculously affluent Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss (Spence and Hammer, respectively), who claim that they were the ones who suggested Mark’s new social media experiment as theirs. Well, only when nerdy Zuckerberg starts making some capital with his hacking.

No matter this. With Ed’s business smarts, Mark being a prodigy (with a keen though misguided grasp on the social sways towards your average college kid) and later lessons learned by a smarmy, once-keys-to-the-kingdom Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake), their social network will become too big to fail.

So forget the green-eyed Winklevoss’. Forget Harvard’s reqs and regs regarding Internet protocol. Forget your best buddy all hesitant in his understanding how to keep a fledgling Internet startup afloat. Forget you’re schmoozing with the first big file-sharing success story with the first big fail. Forget all that.

Harness your ego and especially forget Erica. She’s already forgotten you.

Unlike


Okay. Here’s a sort of companion piece to the whole “sandwich example” from above. It’s how the human factor gets ignored by the “men in the white coats.” And I ain’t talkin’ Bellevue bound here. Then again, I may be.

Many years past, I had a job in tech support for a mobile phone company. This was in the early aughts, when the first gen smartphones came on the market. Basic gizmos these; talk, text, web. That was it. No apps to speak of, let alone the concept of what an “app” was. I was a go-to guy to crack the hard nuts only the most affluent of customers demanded. It was a real latchkey operation back then. New tech rolling out faster than the tech guys—like me—could absorb and apply to the paying public.

The big new thing—only big when these new smartphone doohickies had actual keypads, not tap 3 three times to get F—was texting. It was more private than a phone call. When you place a call, half of the conversation might be heard by an inappropriate audience. Texts were quiet, and a bit more polite than an actual phone call when the recipient might’ve been in a place where chatting on a cell would be considered rude. Like in a movie theatre, or even in a surgical theatre for that matter.

Learned that one of the primary reasons for texting (it was called SMS then. Short messengering service) was to make cell phones accessible for the deaf. Can’t hear? No big. Just fire off an SMS and boom, target acquired. Clever, if not brilliant. Those dinosaur, brick, actual cell phones couldn’t accomplish that, let alone hold battery power beyond an hour. All hail technology.

That being said, here’s where the “men in white coats” theory comes into speculative practice. Some uber-smart dorks in lab coats reflecting on their work:

“Hey. Y’know, this SMS for the deaf is great. Now folks who can’t hear can utilize the mobile phone tech we devised. It’s all good.”

“…Well. I’m not so sure.”

“What’s that?”

“You know, people can abuse technology, as well meaning as our intentions.”

“What are you saying?”

“I mean, this SMS program is great, but what about cell phone users who can hear?”

“You’re losing me.”

“It might be quicker, and less intrusive, for anyone to fire off a text to communicate rather than place a call.”

“Your point?”

“My point is this: what if some people decide to send a text at an inappropriate time?”

“Like how?”

“Say, while driving. They feel the need to send a text while driving.”

“Oh, come on! Who’d be so stupid to use SMS while driving? You don’t see people reading the Times behind the wheel, do you?”

Splat.

The guys in the white coats forget the human factor; they forget the rest of mongrel America isn’t as smart as they are. That we have to put red octagon magnets on our bumpers to remind other drivers to STOP TEXTING. By the way, that cup of McDonald’s coffee you have between your thighs is mighty hot.

What’s my point? I feel that most movers and shakers (especially in the tech biz) fail to consider the human factor and how the average joe thinks and reacts. Sure, Robert Goddard just wanted to demonstrate rocket science as a valid endeavor. I don’t think he anticipated Werner von Braun’s efforts with taking large chunks out of London.

A bit harsh maybe, and probably something of a stretch, but I don’t think Zuckerberg was fully aware of what beast he unchained when FaceBook went public back in 2007. How could he? He’s waaaaay smarter than the rest of we unwashed masses. He had no time for f*cking around with Skyrim on the PS3. There were worlds to build. Here, have a smoothie.

I did say fully aware, however. The film repeatedly points out—at least as far as the script read—that Zuckerberg and his cronies knew what kind of dirt their peers wanted dished out online. Booze, babes and silly cat videos. Maybe chickens, too. Almost a decade on and it looks like those geeks were spot on; thumbs on the pulses of a million mouse shuffling hands. So not all dangerously intelligent computer dorks are very far out of the loop. Sometimes it pays to leave the D&D once in while.

This back and forth dynamic—a push and pull—of how those who create and understand the tech between those who use it (with limited to little regard of its potential) drives much of the plot in The Social Network. That, and piercing character study of the cast’s mindsets and motives; immaturity and hubris braced against being driven to succeed and profit. It’s the classic argument of new science in action: could we versus should we. And then what could we do next? When people are this creative and intelligent, they tend to forget how ignorant the general public is.

But maybe not this time out. Consider Zuckerberg’s muse. Girl trouble. And booze. In bersabee* veritas.

What I like most about David Fincher’s films is their deliberate, calculated, almost clinical style. It’s his signature. From Se7en to Zodiac to Fight Club, everything is precise, clean and well-paced without feeling rushed.  There’s a rhythm, a momentum. His execution is an even flow of urgency, always dusted with a little dark comedy to unnerve you back to reality, if only for a moment. Network is no different, yet it does have a different timbre than that of the director’s other works.

Network might be the first “straight” film in Fincher’s oeuvre. A surreal air always hangs over the man’s movies like a mist. There’s a haunted feeling in watching, say, The Game or Panic Room, as if something is always going to go horribly wrong (and often does) in the next scene. That Hitchcock air is mostly absent in Network, but not The Master’s skills channeled by Fincher; the movie is cold, menacing and exciting, cut with a very deliberate sense of purpose. Yet it still feels like something is going to fall off the hinges at the fringe of each scene. The deft tension is still there. It’s definitely a Fincher flick, but the rules have changed. Not to mention the subject matter. Strange things are afoot at Harvard, but it’s not about serial killers lurking in the shadows. Not this time.

So what’s going on with this change-up? First, Network‘s a biopic. This stuff really happened, albeit gussied up with some Hollywood flair and Fincher’s sense of vision. The film was based on a book, after all, and a far cry from a Fitzgerald novella. The whole docudrama aspect could be applied to Zodiac, Fincher’s other esteemed true crime drama. However the differences between that film and Network are Zodiac was scary and highly stylized. Network is a legal caper punctuated with the thrill of discovery against genius run amok. It’s a lot of other things, too, somewhat removed from Fincher’s established comfort zone, but I’ll get to that later. Stay logged in.

The second bit is that we have a legal drama on our hands. One buttered with psychological overtones aplenty, to be sure, but huge wads of Network‘s story revolves around FaceBook’s ownership, intellectual property rights and copyright law. Uh, kinda boring off the set of Law And Order: Wall Street (da-dum). Not here. Snappy dialogue and pacing correct any yawns produced by “who did what now?” and “why did they do what now?” The many scenes that bookend the tech stuff and the human factor are brightly lit, confining rooms where the powers that be try to outmaneuver the power that is, namely Zuckerberg’s shrewdness, smarts and savviness. It’s sorta like an underdog theme, but not like with The Replacements. Sure, the implied underdog is Zuckerberg, but all the legal probing and deliberation only makes Mark looking like he holds all the cards. And he does.

None of that sh*t above would’ve been easy to digest without Eisenberg’s brilliant performance as Mark. I mean, scant few of us know the guy personally (one jillion friends online or no), but our lead’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is terribly convincing of being the man himself. I’ll admit I’m not in loop about Zuckerberg’s personal life, despite his public image, but Eisenberg’s approach to the character is spot on in us knowing a guy like Mark; a person who’s your typical computer geek (mercifully avoiding the stereotype), too smart for his own good and possesses that impetuousness of youth. C’mon, we all know a guy like Mark, and despite how odious his behavior can be throughout the film, his quirks make the character relatable.

Quirks like Eisenberg’s clipped, punctuated speech. It’s akin to programming code, reflecting his whole identity. That identity is also insecurity personified, only redeemed by his work, which never ends. He has to constantly announce his genius, onto to have it rebuked by authority and peers alike. The guy is driven, you bet, but driven by what? Ego? Greed? A need to prove something? Maybe all three. Guess one has to be a bit Madoff to pull off his antics. It’s Eisenberg’s nervous and swift delivery that keeps the story chugging along at a brisk pace, an extension of Fincher’s craft.

Our other two leads don’t fare as well. Garfield and Timberlake are capable actors (I know. I’m as shocked as you are), but they don’t seem to have the verve as Eisenberg does. It’s not that they’re characters aren’t dynamic (which they are), it’s just they seem muted and a bit incongruent paired against Eisenberg’s Mark. Maybe this was done on purpose. In fact, I’m certain of it. We got the id/ego/superego dynamic going on. We dig that Mark’s the ego part already. Fine. Eduardo is the pinion on which the moral compass spins. The voice of reason. Mr Spock. Sean’s idful, and even though I fail to buy that the real Parker was that reckless, it was actually kinda fun watching Timberlake all loose and insinuating, leading a naive Mark down the trail to ruin. His Sean was like a smarmy Johnny Cochrane (is that redundant?), all fast talk and a prime example of the man on the white horse. Even though JT was a cipher (as was Garfield), he did a much better job in Network than he did with In Time. That thing’s kicking around here somewhere. Don’t watch it.

In addition to the psychological/legal drama Network is also a cautionary tale. No duh, and not just about what happens when unrivaled greed has no checks and balances. That and mucking about on the Web stealing virtual panties. It’s the human factor again, unpredictable and unchecked when the latest, shiny thingamawhatsit comes down the pike. Network showed very pointedly the possible future of a disconnected social media culture. Like now. Disconnected as far as actual human interaction goes these days. The whole “Fashmash” deal in the first act is prescient of all the psychological damage FaceBook can cause. It’s a cool foreshadowing, but chilling as well.

Network is perhaps the first mainstream film about programming that doesn’t dumb down nor mystify the impact of hacking within the Web. That being said, I cannot wait for the day when Hollywood finally puts the whole “computer hackers as gods” motif/fallacy to bed. Until then, which may never come, we can thank Fincher for his clinical, almost “coded” examination of the human factor nipping at the edges of too much smarts meeting too much tech revo too damned fast. Network isn’t The Matrix, but it does share a similar scope: tech as religion, and its acolytes. The movie is almost the origin story of a religion; look how quickly the students of Harvard and later elsewhere took “the facebook” to heart and it virtually single-handedly became gospel.

Christ, now I’m sounding preachy, and using too many religious metaphors in rapid succession. Good Lord.

I’m willing to wager that in 100 years FaceBook will be regarded as much as the Dutch East India Company is today: world-owning, too big to fail and its crown usurped by the never-ending march of (techno) progress. In the meantime, thanks to Mark and this movie we probably have a better idea where all this social media is headed. FaceBook has drastically altered the world’s way in which we communicate. Correctly, unambiguous and self-serving as it may be.

Well, at least no one’s crashed a car commenting on a singing chicken meme.

Just now.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Network is a very interesting flick, and not your usual Fincher flavor either, which all helps in the end. I understand that “interesting” doesn’t necessarily jibe with “exciting,” but when the only action scene in the film involves rowing, and you still find the rest exciting, for Pete’s sake like it.

Get it? Ha-ha. Who wants a smoothie?


Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t want friends.”
  • Eisenberg’s delivery reminds me of Clu’s in the original Tron.
  • “It was Caribbean Night.”
  • Song’s come a long way from the Disney Channel, man.
  • “This is not spam.” Yet.
  • Is this the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy? Maybe, because it actually happened.
  • “We have groupies.” Hmm. Foreshadowing?
  • The Winklevoss’ meeting with the prez was f*cking hilarious. Fincher’s knack for dark comedy doesn’t fail him.
  • “Fashion is never finished.”
  • Keen use of the club music. It’s almost like a supporting character.
  • “I’m 6’5″, 220 and there’s two of me.”
  • Is Zuckerberg borderline autistic?
  • “I remember something about a trombone.”
  • The soundtrack is great, courtesy of Trent “Nine Inch Nails” Reznor. He won an Oscar for his work here, so I guess not everything about the Academy’s standards is stodgy.
  • “I don’t torture chickens.” Alice Cooper must be relieved.
  • And yet Erica is still unimpressed with Mark’s smarts. Maybe not the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy after all.
  • “I’ll send flowers.”
  • *Latin for beer. Get it? I love being funny and clever.

Next Installment…

Dr Hanninal “The Cannibal” Lecter (before the fava beans) reluctantly lends his intellect to help the FBI nab the serial killer known only as “The Tooth Fairy.”

Ahem, waitaminnit. I mean: “…the great Red Dragon.

Yeah. That sounds cooler.


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

 


InTime-PosterArt


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.

00:00


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.