RIORI Presents Installment #196: Joseph Kosinski’s “Tron: Legacy” (2010)


The Film…


The Players…

Jeff Bridges, Garett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Bruce Boxleitner, with Michael Sheen, James Frain and Daft Punk (no, really).


The Plot…

Almost 30 years after computer programmer extraordinaire Kevin Flynn disappeared from his CEO position at Encom, his son Sam receives a very curious communique regarding dad’s probable whereabouts.

Young Sam listened to his father regale him with digital dreams and analog adventures he had while working within Encom’s intranet, The Grid. Back then they were just cool bedtime stories. Pure fiction, but no less real to Sam.

Turns out the call for help came in the form of an archaic page leading to dad’s old, abandoned video arcade. Curious, Sam opens up a past that he always thought ol’ dad was just making believe. Being sucked into the Encom System to win video games or die trying. Pure fantasy, right?

Well, like father like son as it’s been said.


The Rant…

Ever hear of the “Eisenstein Effect?”

No? Well, more on that later. Right now I feel a need to recap some sh*t. That and I aim to make this installment the longest in RIORI‘s lowly history. Even more bloated than the doomed I’m Not There installment. Why? Because this time out (again) I’ve got a lot to say. Again. On your bike.

For those scant few loyal subs to RIORI, you may have noticed I return to a lot the same theories, themes and stories surrounding the making of the films I review and the dubious machinations that are responsible for their release. I harp on pacing a lot, true. I thumb my nose at the perceived money-grubbing practices Hollywood tries to bamboozle audiences with, yes. That repeated, tired thing about the blues being played yadda yadda yadda. All true, most relevant and with hope insightful. I’d like to believe The Standard is as close to a proper mission statement as you’re going to get around here. That’s why once in a while I feel the need to reheat matters of how this blog came into being.

Wait. Might be easier to link to the frothing frenzy that is my homepage. I’ll wait.

*clickbait*

Alrighty then. Remember The Standard? One of the reasons I started this blog was to deconstruct the implied conceit and deception Hollywood has trolled us with over the past 20 years. However recall that the movie business is just that: a business. A multi-million dollar business with a relatively plastic overhead. I say relatively because there’s a butterfly effect in how studios make ends meet. If a certain tentpole does fantastic clean up at the box office and/or home viewing, the floodgates open for potential sequels, merch, contracts and perhaps give second tier stars a breakout role to further their cachet. It’s never, “Welp, we did well here.” It’s more like, “Welp, we cleaned up here!” The first school of thought is moving on to the next big project. The second is what to do with this hot potato except stuff it back in oven again until it’s a charred cinder. Use it up. Beat it into the ground. It’s akin to why Dave Matthews isn’t popular much these days.

Bottom line, and I guess it needs repeating, RIORI was established as a watchdog to sniff out movies that may as well left for dead as far as Hollyweird could be concerned. Essentially I’m here as a PSA, advising all you curious folks out there in the blogosphere to not just take what the big deal movies throw at you and praying you bite. It was that way when I was a kid and much hasn’t changed, until nowadays when it’s nakedly blatant. All I ask for is  the chill feeling of watching a flick regardless of what the “experts” may say. I ain’t no expert, just a dork with a blog. Big Trouble In Little China is one of my fave films, and in the endgame I am curious about sequels to my favorite flicks as well as tasteful digital kablooey. But like LeVar Burton cautioned after recommending new reading material, “Don’t take my word for it.”

Whew. That was a good one, eh? [pant, pant]

*cicadas buzzing*

Where was I? Oh yeah, this week’s flick. CGI and gaming and sequels and attempting to realize a plot. And the Eisenstein Effect. We’ll cover all that claptrap soon enough.

Right now let’s get one thing—no, two things—out of the way.

One, the original Tron was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Still is as a grown-up; lotsa fun. Don’t know what to watch? Queue up Tron for it’s CGI and Star Wars-flavored story. In addition to the movie being prescient science fiction with fantastic visuals and a versatile cast, it introduced me to one of my most beloved actors Jeff Bridges. From The Fisher King to The Big Lebowski to The Last Picture Show, he’s always good, engaging and humorous, as well as self-effacing, thoughful and with a great head of hair. Big fanboy here.

The second is pretty much an open secret. When the original Tron dropped in 1982 it was the first motion picture to feature (then) cutting edge animation via CGI. Computer generated imagery. It was then (now a tired cliche) a “game changer.” Video game changer, if you will. When Oscar season rolled around for the class of ’82, Tron got snubbed for a Best Visual Effects nod. Why? The Academy made the claim that the producers of the film “cheated.” They used computers. Consider that almost 40 years later, what with the MCU tearing up the box office. Without computers nowadays, big budget blast-fests that Martin Scorsese rolls his bushy browed eyes at would not be possible. For example, I saw on YouTube the gear Brolin had to wear and be green screened to turn him into the power hungry, misguided alien Thanos in pre-production Endgame. Without those zeroes and ones he would’ve suffocated in a deluge of latex. CGI a cheat? Pshaw.

Me nowadays? I’ve grown wary of excessive CGI in movies. Keyword excessive, and how’s that? Sh*t that’s irrelevant to propelling the plot. Bullet time. Lens flares. Fast motion trickery. And other silly stuff like digitally removing the march of time on actors. Cyber face-lifting. First time I became aware of this insidious practice was a music video for the then latest Rolling Stones video back in the 90s; some of the facial crags on Mick and Keef’s face were digitally airbrushed. Um, these were the Stones who set well known Guinness-level debauchery and rough living water marks. Why bother with the buffering? Did it make the song better? Was dumb to me. Still is, and yet.

There is that elephant in the room. Too many flicks these days rely on F/X to drive the plot, rather than apply an engaging story or sharp direction. Beyond every. Single. Animated. Feature these days, there’s a unholy host of movies that exist just to show off the newest, gee whiz, bucky gizmo digital whatsis like a kid on Xmas, shaking the presents. Middling stuff like Van Helsing, the Fantanstic Four reboot, the original Fantastic Four, Cats, Deep Blue Sea and whatever else Renny Harlin got his meathooks on. All of those movies are all about style over substance—and may end up under my scalpel in the near future—and small wonder why you felt cheated after watching them. Okay, some of those might be guilty pleasures, but it doesn’t change my point. A good movie is all about story, acting and direction. Not pixelation.

So what’s my point? Well, it’s no lie that CGI in movies is here to stay. This is mostly a good thing when smartly applied. IMHO, special effects should complement the film, not drive it. The original Tron is a good example. As a kid, despite the coolness of the visuals, I was invested in how Flynn, Ram and the titular hero would restore the Encom System to a free state rather becoming the digital equivalent of Stalin’s postwar Russia. Sure, I’d not pass up a ride in a light cycle, but I’d rather see the heroes triumph over the forces or darkness. Hear what I’m screaming? You don’t need the bleeding edge anything for a satisfying story like that which, let’s face it, never gets old.

Despite that Hollywood profits are not steeped in art, but rather wanna apply the latest digital carrot to lure you in, sometimes there’s a synchronicity where money meets art and shakes hands. A profitable film earns awards and esteem, despite what the snots at the AMPAS deem “proper.” Did Tron: Legacy achieve that? Was it as fun and cutting-edge as the first Tron?

Maybe. Hang on. As always. Hush, my darling Player One.

I’ve been a gamer pretty much since the 5th grade. A friend of mine had one of those classic Atari 2600 consoles, the kind with the decals made to resemble wood grain. We would hang out after school—perhaps a bit too long—o.d’ing on classic titles like Adventure, Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Vanguard and Pitfall! Very simple games, primitive compared to today’s titles. But they were fun and that’s what mattered. You betcha.

When Saturday would roll around—still without a console of my own—me, my crew and a gym sock full of scrounged quarters would pester someone’s mom to take us to the video arcade at the mall. It was to be an adventure, and sort of a “scream till daddy stops the car” tableau vivant. Set the stage, so to speak.

There was this (of course now defunct) video arcade which was the vanguard to plunk away a Saturday afternoon. It was called the Space Port, smack dab in the middle of the local mall. The entrance was made to resemble a UFO, neon lights and the whole wad. Mecca to me and my digitally drooling crew.

If you were a kid in the 80s, your joystick would tingle at the opportunity to try your hand at one of the latest machines Space Port tempted. There was Dragon’s Lair, which used then new Laserdisc technology to render a platformer illustrated by former Disney animator Don Bluth (EG: The Secret Of NIMH, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, et al). Those nifty Nintendo gallery machines that let you play a variety of console games, from Super Mario to Castlevania to Bubble Bobble and others. Sit down Sega sim racers like Pole Position or the motorcycling Hang-On! Only spending Xmas at FAO Schwarz could rival such a cornucopia of fun. Not to mention precious few grown-ups around to kick you out of your zone.

Back then gaming was not in the mainstream as is now. Video games were a culty thing, reserved for freaks and geeks who both needed an escape from the drudgery of peer pressure as well find a place to bond. The arcade was a hotbed of social activity not unlike Star Trek conventions, comic book shops, nascent otaku, kids who sucked at basketball and were frankly persona non gratia to the fairer sex. Oh, gamers back then were almost exclusively male. The arcade was the middle school version of a man cave. Boy cave. Same diff. A home away from home.

As was then, it’s always been about escapism even before my young, Twizzler addled mind understood the concept. Gaming then as is now is like getting lost in a good book, or a good album, or a good movie before God. Gaming was a portal into another existence that in addition to escapism, you were in charge. The book example is potent, especially based against required reading from school that once you write up the report you might be blooped for your own interpretation rather than what teach deemed the “proper” way to view the story (EG: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was about our hero hitching a ride down the Mighty Missip, soaking up the local culture with his fellow outcast buddy, Jim. Did you read the author’s note?). In sum, you were in control of these digital worlds, and no adult or popular kid could tell you different. Pocket full of coins, and you were a god.

Not unlike comic shops, the arcade was pitiable bubble, reserved for the lost and forlorn who needed a place to bond. Aim for the high score, debate which was better: Space Invaders or Galaga or Asteroids or Arkanoid. We gamer geeks knew the difference, and such discourse was valued for it was nothing the cool basketballers would get. Which is probably why the original Tron resonated with me and my fellow goony gamers.

The original Tron director Steven Lisberger got it. Not only did he forsee the potential of CGI in movies, but was also prescient how video games would eventually gain traction in the mainstream in the near future. His CGI rendered cinescapes reflected the games of the time. Think the angular styles of Atari and Colecovision console games. Watching Tron with its dark tableau punctuated with sharp blues and reds just screaming now. Well, now is now then, but if the original flick didn’t hold up we—I—wouldn’t be dismantling the sequel made almost 30 years later. That’s staying power, just like the allure of the arcade or a new PS5.

Tron was this is us. The junior gamers got it. When I was a pup I knew I was on the right track when my mom after seeing the film proclaimed she “didn’t get it.”

Score.


The Effect…

About the “Eisenstein Effect” (finally that). Ever heard of it? Of course not, because I made it up. Follow.

I consider it the gold standard of cinematic tribute. It’s where in a key scene (or scenes) of a contemporary movie pays tribute to a classic film image-for-image as homage, rather than some cherry on a DQ Blizzard held upside down. A good example of this is in Star Wars: A New Hope where Luke, Han and the gang receive accolades from Leia for a job well done. Director George Lucas more or less lifted this scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s epic Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will, and dubious subject matter be damned. Another fine example is—with not much surprise—how the big fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, vol 2, was lifted from Bruce Lee’s debut film, Fists Of Fury. Even animated flicks are prone this kind of tribute; Disney’s Beauty And The Beast‘s final dance scene mirrored Sleeping Beauty’s. And Aronofsky’s mindf*ck of a PSA Requiem For A Dream documenting drug abuse and its joys? Yeah, that bathtub scene. An identical scene (if not circumstance) appears in Satoshi Kon’s psychological thriller anime Perfect Blue.

Lastly comes from a fave film from my youth. The one that made the late Sean Connery my favorite actor. Brian de Palma’s big screen interpretation of The Untouchables, what with the daring shootout scene lifted from the latter’s seminal film, The Battleship ‘Potemkin’. It’s not ripping off. It’s homage, and director Sergei Eisenstein created Potemkin. Not to mention innumerable filmmakers like those above who offer a twist on an iconic film scene. A tip of the hat, if you will. I consider such flourishes as Easter Eggs for cinephiles. An inside joke between strangers. It’s a good thing, and enhances some intimacy about how we film lovers love films and vice versa. You get it or you don’t.

There’s a curious thing about interpretation and review: depending on who digests it says what the feature was all about. I’m not talking about personal opinion. I’m talking about the court of public opinion. See, Potemkin dropped in 1925, and therefore a silent film. It depicted the harrowing nature about serving in wartime on a Russian cruiser. Lenin himself (yes, that Lenin) praised the film as a triumph of propaganda depicting the bravery and sophistication of the Russian Navy. This was something of a myopic view, for Eisenstein cut his masterpiece as a caution of the futility of war and how Russian sailors were no more than cannon fodder. I’ve seen the film. Guess where my sympathies lie.

The Eisenstein Effect is, in essence, honest cinematic tribute. A director was inspired by a classic film and decided to appropriate a scene, twist it around in a tasteful manner and incorporate it into contemporary milieu. The original Tron did this, but unlike Lucas, Tarantino and de Palma director Lisberger caged scenery from the arcades like the Space Port. What was the primary influence, which an audience may follow.

When Flynn and his fellow renegade programs get beamed down to the game grid, they are charged to play versions of the hot game titles of the day. It’s all Atari fully realized. The Lightcycle and Space Paranoids of Flynn’s user creations perfectly echoed the arcade hits of the day. Lisberger was inspired by the arcades, and rendered those games lovingly in his film. Not the “conventional” Eisenstein Effect, but I made that crap up and was spot on in respecting the source material, namely those old skool, quarter gobbling, flash and dash arcade games, which your Mom didn’t get.

In the endgame if you think about it (but not too much) sequels can also be tributes. Sure, there’ve been some very deliberate footprints laid out. Some movies invite the potential of an overarching story (again: the Star Wars saga and the MCU). I’d never thought in 30 years the original Tron could invite a sequel. It does make logical sense, though. There was more of a story to tell, since the first film heralded in the digital age of filmmaking, and such technology is ever evolving. I suppose now that computer use is not longer relegated to geeks, hackers and the military—all one and the same, tee hee—as hot as it was in the early 80s. In the early teens it was CGI upload all the way. As of now: viral TikToks. Ain’t the future of digital video as entertainment grand? Sigh.

Yeah, yeah. I know, I know, I know. Shaddap and cut to the chase. I’ve felt for too long us moviegoers have been relegated to steerage, assumed to play well for crusts. Some perspective is always in order. It’s akin to how Tom Jefferson commented that one should never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. You ever flinch at the price of a basic pack of Twizzers at concessions? Of course you don’t. I don’t. Sue me. Like with all our pleasures and sins, you get what you give.

Beyond the big bucket o’popcorn, a sequel demands some attention. It once illustrated that some hot property of a film like the first Star Wars episode, or that The Godfather‘s source material insisted two movies to tell the whole saga, or bloody anything that moves too close to the MCU. Sequels are at most negative return on investment. Sometimes the first film warrants some chapters, like with Star Wars, The Godfather, the second, third and fourth Star Trek films, the entire James Bond 007 franchise, the Toy Story trilogy and Indiana Jones. There was more to expound upon, more stories inviting a cohesive whole. That last bit may be why those series flourished, aside of profit. I’d like to think so, for there are endless, unnecessary sequel made like I named back a bit that were nothing more than cash grabs. Example? The Die Hard series should of quit it with Vengeance, and should’ve skipped the second movie out of good taste (an icicle? Really?).

The aforementioned is important, for Tron: Legacy lifts its entire story—sometimes scene for scene—from the original film. Eisenstein again. It’s not a rip off, but a respectful nod dedicated to similar nodding fans saying to themselves “I get it.” Considering that director Kosinski was my age when the original Tron dropped I can only hope/pray that he was so in love as I’ve been that he had once watched Potemkin also. Or The Untouchables. Or pissed away a lot of quarters standing in front of a Timepilot machine. All worthwhile activities, by the way.

So. When does a sequel become a cash grab, a legit story progression of a tribute to the original film? A curious question, which these rants have not properly answered.

As the old adage goes, “The proof is in the pudding.” And I dislike pudding, unless I don’t.

Please deposit another 25 cents to continue.


The Story…

Dateline 1982: Encom’s software whiz kid Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is officially acknowledged as the programmer of several very successful arcade games. By his new resolve, Flynn rose to the rank of Encom’s CEO and launched a digital crusade; indeed computers are the guide to driving the future! With that flourish, Encom endeavored in shareware gratis to all American school districts and private universities alike. Information should be shared, not hoarded.

Dateline 1989: The birth of the World Wide Web, and info guru Kevin Flynn’s going off the grid. Encom’s prodigy was never seen again.

Dateline 2010: Upon the proper release of Encom’s next gen OS, Sam Flynn (Hedlund) keeps up his annual prank fest, thumbing his nose at the high and mighty Encom. They built his dad up, they took him down, and possibly out of sight.

Dateline 2012: Sam’s been wondering and a little less than pissed off about where Dad escaped to. No message, no reason, no clue. Until a very old skool message from wherever gets paged, before God, to Dad’s old “partner-in-crime” Alan Bradley (Boxleitner). Alan suggests the page was meant for Sam, seeing it was sent from Dad’s abandoned video arcade. Naturally Sam’s curiosity takes over, and wending his way through the forgotten machines he locates what seems to be Dad’s old Encom intranet portal. After all these years of Dad waxing philosophical about Encom’s System and the Grid, was there a pixel of truth in all those stories?

Click AGREE to comply.


The Review…

Fair warning. A lot of the following is riddled with spoilers. Hate doing it, but I gotta make things clear. Now who want’s s’mores?

This is odd, but akin to The Godfather saga (but less grand), one must see the original Tron to fully appreciated its Legacy. Just saying you need to watch the first to understand/appreciate the second. Lots of sequels play that way. I mentioned above about how sequels must enhance the going story to be worthwhile viewing. Yes, most part twos are a charred potato, rushed into production before the domestic box office tally has been fully scored. You can probably count those kinds on all yer fingers and toes, and if you’re a guy that makes thirteen.

I’ll see myself out.

After this. I feel that a little gestation period between sequels and threquels and prequels against the primary film helps justify an ongoing existence. Consider this: The first two Godfather movies were filmed sequentially, as were the original Superman movies. Both were in the can at the same time and were later tweaked to better bridge the two chapters. Our renegade archaeologist Indiana Jones worked in reverse; the cast proper was introduced in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, then Indy was back in the first proper prequel, Temple Of Doom and then the gang en toto was back in full in real time for The Last Crusade (save Marion, but now Dad). But Marion would show up years later, so yeah, full circle. Good examples of sequels and their ilk; there’s more of a story there, so let’s explore. And, yeah, I left out Star Wars now. Those chapters do go without saying, yes.

All being said, when a sequel gets released lightyears after the mother film, I start scratching my head. Like I said, sometimes it works (EG: Aliens, Terminator 2, Toy Story 2, etc). Most of the time it doesn’t (EG: Caddyshack 2, dishonorable mentions The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, any Jaws feature after the first one, etc). Anyone with a brain in their ticket holding stub knows what they are most likely getting into. Not to sound all grand or nothing, but quoting Thomas Jefferson once again, “People pretty much get the government they deserve.” Butter topping on that?

The last time I recalled a belated sequel to a movie was for the weeper Terms Of Endearment. This Oscar friendly paean dropped in 1983, and won a few vital awards, like Best Picture and whatever. It’s loose sequel, The Evening Star was unleashed to nobody in 1996. That’s a 13 year hiatus. The original Tron came out in 1982. The sequel in 2010. Wanna do the math?

That’s 18 years. Eighteen. I know I mentioned decent sequels demand a little breathing room. The crew behind Tron: Legacy must’ve been asthmatics. It’s all a good thing. Calm down. Here, have a Twizzler.

In hindsight after seeing Legacy its slow gestation made sense. Consider how the home video game consoles evolved so rapidly in the past 25 years. We’re at PS5 at the time of this installment, and consider its legacy since the 90s. Gaming has become a subculture to mainstream in a very short time if you think about it. The official console wars (not war, but plural) have been raging since the PSX dropped in 1995. Before that it was a pissing contest. Nintendo versus Sega, always trying to outsell more units. Players back then gave little sh*t to the inner workings of the SNES or Genesis (and their offspring), so long as the games were good. That last thing still holds today, what with true gamers knowing a tad more that just bitrate. Oh, and the Internet came along so there.

It is utterly numbing how fast consoles try to outdo one another. Despite being retro, I keep abreast of the latest specs of the next gen consoles and their gaming fodder, I just don’t invest in them. Why? Budget, nostalgia, budget, speed runs, ran out of HDMI ports and budget. And for the record I have eight and/or nine retro consoles corralled into a very exhausted Vizio flatscreen and multiple switch boxes. My pedigree as retro speaks volumes, and yet I still have a g/f to play Pokémon GO with. She’s the better trainer BTW, but I have two—two—fully maxed out Raichu. A boy and a girl. Wait, Pokémon breed?

*leaves rustling*

I’d like to think I have some qualifications as a gamer, albeit old skool. I mean I still have my very first console the g.1 NES—which I got as a twelfth b’day gift and is still working fine 20-some years later, thank you very much—a g.2 SNES (not the “toaster”), a Sega Master System, the Sega Genesis mk. 2, the underrated Sega Saturn, the extremely underrated Sega Dreamcast, a Wii, a Game Boy Advance SP (gotta play classic Pokémon somehow, pika pika) and a PS2 slim (which I bought new after hawking my old PSX and g.1 PS2). Anything else I check out Steam. I’d like to lay a claim I understand how a Tron sequel was inevitable, but not immediately so.

A movie based on/inspired by video gaming like the original Tron required patience for any going audience to catch up. Took a long time, even considering 90s boom. Now gamers are far more tech savvy, demand better programming and now we have MMORPG’s that connect the whole f’n planet into a virtual gaming world not unlike the Encom gaming Grid from those innocent days of yore that just needed a pocketful of coins and a Big Gulp to power up. Or a buddy you’d abuse to play Atari again at his house after school, guzzling down all his Gatorade. True story.

(I also almost bankrupted myself years ago playing Phantasy Star Online v2.0 on my broadband Dreamcast, which is why now I swear off MMOs. Also a true story.)

Legacy evolved as gaming evolved. Think the Metroid Prime saga, Wipeout Fury and other s/f racers, the Mass Effect series, etc. The inspiration was there—another tribute—based on how far we’ve come in gaming, for good and for ill. The games are more sophisticated now than the quarter gulpers of yesteryear. Legacy dropped at the same time when the PS3 (one of the most hot properties at the time) and the Xbox 360 in its stride engaged in battle, and the Wii swept them both under the rug with the first attempt at actual physical engagement into the game world. And Steam had already been viable since 2003. Like I keep hammering, gaming has become one with the mainstream.

So with evolution, a movie based on gaming and it’s ascent into the mainstream, despite said long gestation, I supposed it was about time that Tron would invite a sequel. And it did. And with that it did the gamers proud. That and those who like quick, crisp, organic CGI not exclusively reserved for action scenes or reducing facial wrinkles. Okay, all that was there, but there was also that ur-Eisenstein thing. And like the original, Legacy was also prescient as well as potent. Consider the film’s patient timeline, for instance. I’m pretty sure the original Tron was relegated to cult thing and some dandruff Disney was quick to brush away. However in TV land a lot of series were revived due to pressure from Internet posts and sympathetic network affiliates that needed to fluff up their schedule (EG: think Futurama, Family Guy and MST3K).

Here’s a kind of cinematic clickbait with Legacy. In the opening/flashback scenes, the last time young Sam spent with his dad Kevin was in the summer of 1989. That was the official/unoffical year when the US government declassified their network for commercial use. Look it up:

Berners-Lee, Timothy. Weaving The Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. Harper San Francisco (1999).

No hyperlink here; you’re gonna have to do some homework. The future just happened.

*burp*

That was enlightening. Back to the review.

Just a moment, some clarification. My g/f has become the practical Siskel to my jelly donut Ebert when plying my trade. Over the past few installments she’s watched the selected movies with me, offering up her observations and opinions. She did this a lot with Legacy, doubtless because we watched the original the night before and she found that movie to be a lot of fun. So as I have in the recent past I will make now policy: whenever you read “K:” in a comment it was her insight, not mine. She’s been very helpful, and deserves credit. Moving on.

At its core Legacy is about family. The ties that bind and all that entails. The first film had a hint of that. Fellow programmers trying to maintain the ethics of their once cottage industry up against the corporate machine, but there was no blood there. At the outset, Legacy illustrates the bond between Kevin Flynn and young Sam. K: Sam has all of his dad’s Tron merch on display in his bedroom, illustrating young Sam believes in Dad. It’s a bit touching, that and Kevin is just as much a kid and his son. Bonding. It draws you in, unless you have ice in your spine. The movie lets you melt at this point, and also inform you as to who Sam becomes as a grown-up. Namely, living in a garage as all good nerds do when creating. Like Dad with his hacking for the greater good..

Such a setup can be one’s undoing. Like with all sequels, there must be more to tell but also honor the source material. Legacy‘s example? Check out all the motorcycles in the first act. A nod to Tron? Maybe. Foreshadowing? Definitely. When we finally get down to game grid level, the Encom System resembles the gamescape of early 10s games as the original mimicked the early 80s arcade analogs. Like I implied: tech is ever evolving, and with Legacy as does the continuing saga. In sum, Legacy to Sam is all about catching up, if not with his absentee father but also experiencing that the Grid is real, and will challenge you as it did Dad. A family thing, remember?

What I dug about Legacy was that it was not as cold as the original. From my experience, director Lisberger wanted his world of Tron to be cold, yet producing its own light via the landscape crackling with electricity. At the outset if Sam’s adventure in the upgraded Grid is heated by the blooming reds of corrupted files. It’s not as clinical as the prime film. Legacy is more “symphonic” than the original. More organic. The first film had a soundtrack derived from the bleeps and bloops of old skool synths and arcade machines. Now we have Daft Punk driving the soundtrack, well adept at creating futuristic soundscapes (I own their first two vital albums. An inspired bit of contracting). Everything screams (K:) “Upgrade!” And it sure was. We had lots of flash, dash and Matrix-style action, however not really detracting from the family drama that acts as the backbone of the plot. As I said the environment of Legacy was less cold than the original. And much to my surprise, it worked.

Thanks to the new programming, Legacy‘s new color scheme was key to and thanks for its keen application this time out. I can’t compare the first the second film enough, but the use off color was an extension of the story thread. Back in ’82, blue was good, red was bad, CLU was yellow. And it was a heckuva reveal when the one-time cyber bloodhound of Kevin Flynn evolved/mutated in our antagonist, CLU v2.0. Yellow in Legacy meant bad news for Sam and crew. Think about it, if you’re working from your own private agendum who gives a sh*t what side you belong. And Bridges as CLU paired against virtual Kevin made a very clever Jekyll vs Hyde dynamic. Hey, sometime the old crap works.

Despite how CLU loomed large over the advanced grid, it’s not to say that Kevin and Sam are mere pawns in his game. But before we get to that, let us consider this “plot hole.” Namely: how the f*ck did CLU came back to full operation? This was a major issue with Tron fanboys. I had to ruminate over this bugaboo also. This glitch harkens back to young Kevin trying to crack the code to hack into Encom’s intranet.

WARNING: TECHNOBABBLE AHEAD!

Inquiring geeks want to know. In the real world, CLU is syntax with the computer language ALGOL (algorithmic language), which was developed at MIT back in the day designed for more or less “seek and/or destroy” programming. The root sub-language is in Cluster (ergo: “CLU”). Its syntax is designed to unravel very complex numbers. Namely, a pre-programmed rouge program to weed out unneeded data that may hinder a network, designed by an independent user (EG: Flynn as hacker). And now you know. Blame MIT.

Whew. Yer welcome.

That being babbled, CLU v1.0 was not destroyed by Master Control two decades hence, but rather appropriated into Encom’s network, rather than expunged as we were led to believe in the first movie. I bring this up to silence all the Tron dorks who were screaming “What the f*ck?” back in 2010. Do yer f*cking homework you hackers you. I did, and it took less time than dial-up. So there.

Whew v2.0.

Wait. K: Kevin Flynn’s present memory disk is the memory bank for the entire new Grid he created. It hold’s all system’s memories. If that gets into CLU’s hands everyone is in trouble. Smart girl, and also commented, “the student became the teacher.” Bingo. Moving on.

Back to the color thing; color’s vital here, day. Since we figured out that CLU and his minions are trying to achieve separation (read: sentience a la the MCP back then), not to mention insurrection. K: The characters that are red imply, “Yer gonna get burned, Sam,” as if on fire in rage; the blues are oppressed and must remain calm. It’s all zeroes and ones. And it’s a very apt analogy.

Am I looking too deeply into all of this? You bet. It’s fun to pick apart films you like. Star Wars nerds, change my mind.

But, as always, there are hiccups with Legacy. There always are. There was a sh*tton of data to download with Legacy, maybe to get the newbs caught up. Legacy had a lot more exposition and navel-gazing this time out. The original was all about show me, don’t tell me. The basic plot invited that simple, effective precept. Legacy felt more like the Matrix sequels, trying to reinvent the bicycle. The upgraded Grid is so very life and death that any mistep from the emotional Users involved will unravel reality. Heavy portent, and far from the light-hearted tone of the first film. I’m saying that Legacy is a well-constructed sequel (more of a tribute really), even for non-fanboys, but heavy, man. Heavy.

The execution here is less basal than the first movie, and jazzed up for more “sophisticated” PlayStation pilots—a lot more stylish—but the song remained the same. Good versus evil. Cool CGI that complemented the film rather than weigh it down. Nifty soundtrack, In sum, overall and counting the numbers Legacy tickled my 7 year old self now as for the same fun with the first one: digital fantasy, efficient action, geeky humor and devoid of artistic merit beyond the frame rate. Legacy sure as heck didn’t feel two hours long. Pacing, as always. Regardless of exposition and thanks to Jeff Bridges in a dual role.

Hear what I’m screaming AMPAS?

From the deck of the Potemkin: End of line.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a good companion piece to the original. Watch it paired with the first Tron and make it a double feature. It’s all good popcorn fodder, perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon.


The Stray Observations…

  • “We’re always on the same team.”
  • Mickey logo on Sam’s motorcycle helmet. Discuss.
  • Now that is a big door!
  • K: Was that some sort of shadow simulation over Sam’s route to Dad’s lab? Like with the last movie? Again, sharp girl.
  • No one: Sam’s shop’s named DuMont, probably honoring Walter’s avatar in the first movie. Ever wonder where that moniker came from? History time! The DuMont TV network launched in 1942, and was rival to ABC. Long story short, DuMont’s programming was too ahead of its time, but later cable TV took a nod from its misunderstood scheduling based on content, not just entertaining (read: like The History Channel, Discovery Channel and Food Network in the 90s). DuMont folded in 1956, almost forgotten. Walter was co-founder of Encom, old and almost forgotten. And now you know.
  • “I’m tired and I smell like jail.”
  • Anti-Tron purrs like an overfed cat.
  • Oh Lord. Not Journey again.
  • Notice all those motorcycles.
  • Did that dinner scene remind you of the last act of 2001?
  • K: Like father, like son.
  • I felt that Wilde was only brought on board cuz she was hot. And duh!
  • And her character’s name Quorra, Sam’s digital love interest and Kevin’s operative, means “heart.” Subtle?
  • “Made it.”
  • Sometimes life moves faster than zeros and ones. K: Kinda like Cheerios. Me: Kinda profound that.
  • “Yer messin’ with my Zen thing, man!”
  • Does this installment compete in length with I’m Not There? I lost word count.
  • “I’m a User. I’ll improvise.”

The Next Time…

Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl make for an unlikely pair of KIllers, but hey, so are most newlyweds.

Huh?

Pull!


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 59: Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys And Aliens” (2011)


Cowboys & Aliens


The Players…

Daniel “James Bond” Craig, Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, Olivia “that hot chick from House” Wilde, Sam “Justin Hammer of SHIELD” Rockwell and Clancy “Mr Krabbs and/or Kurgen” Brown, with Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Noah Ringer and Abigail Spencer.


The Story…

An amnesiac gunslinger stumbles into the Wild West town of Absolution, where he’s confronted by two potent adversaries. One is Boss Dolarhyde, a ruthless cattle baron who holds the town in sway, and God help anyone who crosses him or his family.

The other is invading aliens from outer space.

Wait, what?


The Rant…

Me and sci-fi movies have been buddies for decades. Ever since I caught ET back when I was six in the theatre I felt the nip and took its hand. It’s regarded as a classic now, but back then it was a gamble for both Spielberg and an S/F crowd raised on nasty aliens bent on world domination. Now Steve struck a poignant nerve with his prior S/F epic, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. That flick illustrated that Spielberg knew a thing or three about aliens being messengers of benevolence, fostering communication between worlds for the greater good. Only Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still topped Encounters when it came to addressing such a concept.

Smart stuff.

ET wasn’t much different than Encounters, if not in execution than in tone. Also about communication and understanding ET was a lot less heady than Encounters, and perhaps more accessible to the mainstream. That may explain why back in ’82 ticket takers at the local megaplex had to wear riot gear for fear of getting trampled by overly eager crowds to see if the alien critter got home (to say nothing of Reeses’ Pieces sales at concessions). The crowds in the early 80s dug S/F flicks, a genre once maligned as being puerile at best and mouth-breathing at worst. But thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope, folks came in droves to S/F movies, appetites whetted by not only Hope (or simply Star Wars back then, before Lucas went bonkers), the aforementioned Encounters, the gothic, terrifying Alien, technically the original Superman film (Kal-El was from off-world y’know), Disney’s first PG film, the dark and sinister The Black HoleStar Trek made it to the big screen—for good and for ill. My kingdom for an editor—and heck, even 007 went into space with the loveably goofy Moonraker. Virtually all of these ventures, big and not so big alike, had success with the whole ticket sales thing. Some even got a little critical notice. It looked like for the most part S/F movies were getting their due. The geeky shadow they cast (barring 2001: A Space Odyssey. That one always gets a pass. Do not dispute me) wasn’t so scary as before. Believe it or not, although ET was the culmination of S/F movies as thoughtful and smart, Hollywood (still) wasn’t convinced of it not being a turkey. Unsure if the muddled masses could take in the story of a castaway alien “so ugly it’s cute” stranded in Levittown with his pet/guru human. Word has it the whole wad worked, quite well, and kicked John Carpenter’s sharp remake of The Thing—you know, the one with the vile, shapeshifting, un-cute alien that engulfed its victims and assumed their identities in an arterial spray of gore and puke. Good sh*t—out of the multiplex faster than you could say, “I thought you were dead.”

All of that smart stuff.

And when S/F is thoughtful and smart, we’re best buds. Thick as thieves. Pick my brain and stretch my imagination, please, cute and not cute critters regardless. Although I’m rather choosy about what S/F movie I feel like subjecting myself to, truth be told it’s always been like how RIORI operates: a gamble. There are those films that are required viewing in the genre, unimpeachable without a roll of the dice. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, Star Wars: A New Hope, Planet Of The Apes (sans Marky Mark), The Day The Earth Stood Still (minus Keanu), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (excluding that wiry chick from Burn Notice/Scent Of A Woman, whichever you saw first), etc. There are scores more we could name, and despite the arched brow the masses often give the genre, it’s been a popular if not profitable one for over a century. A good example? Remember Voyage To The Moon? ‘Course not. You were barely an itch in your granddady’s crotch, but that novelty was technically a sci-fi flick. With pretty cool costumes for the time. 1902 to be exact. Film dork me.

Just being a smart-ass there. Breathe.

However did you notice that a few selections of the new wave of S/F flicks back then didn’t really cut the mustard in the “smart” department? It’s like the whole Highlights For Children “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” feature. One of these things is not like the other. No one could argue that Moonraker was intelligent, nor The Black Hole being a thinly veiled Biblical morality tale featuring obnoxiously cute robots with Disney eyes to boot. And Star Trek‘s leap into the void? Three words: creaky and dull. Hey, you can’t always shoot for the stars and not expect to miss the sun. Your shot may end up in a black hole. Sorry.

Let’s face it. Despite all the boundary breaking from back in ’82 my film buddy—how can I say this without have the ACLU come down on me like a ton of bricks for being “insensitive”—often rides the short bus. For every sharp S/F flick out there dozens—maybe hundreds—of wampa dung lurking in the shadows waiting to malign the genre ever further. Such may lay claim to some whiz-bang, crazy F/X, improbability factor looming large and just can’t wait to be committed to celluloid and be just plain dumb. I suspect a lot of directors who get handed the reigns to an S/F script assume all bets are off.  The wild flying monkeys trapped in my brain will finally have their voices heard! Call Scarlett!

Such bets often are off. Way off. We’re talking Saturn 3 off. Precious few filmmakers understand the golden gift of opportunity that fate and investors have bequeathed to them with an S/F project. Existentialist musings and the need for us all to communicate and better ourselves. Funk dat. It’s time for splatter and little matter. Just gimme that budget/wheelhouse and let’s see what sings beyond the blue horizon. Bring on the dancing blue horses.

Always wanted to wedge “bequeath” into this blog somehow, sometime. Scratch another one off the bucket list. Again, Mister smart-ass. What else did you expect?

Still, I have to wonder in light of too many dopey, misguided S/F movies made at the hands of some dopey, misguided director that if my pet film genre will forever smolder in the Seventh Level. I might have mentioned this prior (in fact I know I have) but it takes a sharp filmmaker to understand S/F ain’t all about aliens, spaceships and trying to convince us that Daryl Hannah can act. Well it’s not just that. Like all films, S/F is about stories, and about the human factor in particular. Standouts like 2001 was existentialism incarnate, not the Monolith doing its thing. Noted otherwise Michael Bay’s The Island was not about existentialism. It was about motorcycle chases, ripping off an even sh*ttier movie and forever chasing the butterfly that is Scarlett Johannson as a competent actress. Trust me, I saw both movies. Guess which one left tissue scarring?

(That smarts.)

In any event, my drunken wingman has had such a sh*t rep for so long it comes as only natural for the rabble to throw up their collective arms and shrug, “What the f*ck. This Lucy flick stars Scarlett what’s-her-tits. It’ll do.” Smart, thoughtful S/F is few and far between, and it only gets press when it’s smart and thoughtful. That and the CGI is used to enhance, not drive.

Yeah, yeah. Bitch, bitch. Welcome to my worldview. You made the hit and stuck around. Who’s the bigger dunce? Who’s so whip-smart here?

I call dibs, because I’m going to contradict myself…now!

Ignoring my preaching, sometimes we indeed do need a dumb, fun, socially non-redeeming S/F film to roll down the pike and goofily explain what a pike exactly is beyond an oversized spear and then get a cream pie to the puss. Dumb stuff, guilty pleasures, crap you’d be rather embarrassed to be caught watching and immediately hitting eject and slamming disc one of the remastered first season of Star Blazers. That kinda thing in the S/F world. Here’s a few trifles of questionable sci-fi, if only mentioned to explain why it took me until 18 to know what a bare breast felt like: Event HorizonLifeforce, Meteor, Outland (both starring Sean Connery! Joys aplenty!), Supernova and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. All choice schlock recommended by yours truly. Not the groping part, but yeah. All of them things are pure, dumb S/F fun, essential viewing as any Lucas-fueled phantasmagoria. Have I ever led you wrong before?

Shut up.

But what really constitutes “dumb fun” in S/F? It isn’t just moronic plots, hammy acting and laughable effects. Although those things help, I think the ace in the hole to ridiculous, head-slapping, MST3K-worthy material is a complete and utter lack of plausibility.

Huh? What’s that you say? It’s S/F. All of that truck is implausible. Alien life? That was a weather balloon. Interstellar travel? We can get only as far as the moon. Artificial intelligence? Um, does Siri count?

No, no, no. Chill. Have a cuppa. Shut the f*ck up. What makes good S/F work are a canny handling of the said human factor and (you guessed it) the barest scintilla of plausibility. I’m not saying that what’s depicted in most S/F movies could come to be. Alright, to be fair 2001 is very plausibleand if you consider the Star Trek franchise (old and new) who knows if we won’t be hoppin’ galaxies in 400 years? Those two examples stand out in the pantheon of S/F movies because it lends a feeling of “Huh…” to the audience, as if considering, “Well, what if?” or, “Hey, why not?” For example, it’s no coincidence that Chief Engineer LaForge of the Enterprise-D kept tabs on sh*t using a touchscreen tablet (it’s called a PADD in TNG parlance) and 20 years later in the real world we’re all toting iPads and/or Galaxies. A good example of plausibility in the perhaps not too distant made flesh. Digital. Smart tech. Whatever.

We’re not talking about that here. We be talking, “Oh, come on!” with laughs all around. Utterly unbelievable sci-fi gobbledygook and all its brain-melting glory. It’s vital now and again for any die-hard S/F fan, or regular Joe for that matter. Gotta have the bitter with the sweet to best taste the difference and spit or swallow. There ya go.

Okay. We’ve beaten that horse into glue. Horse sense maybe, or just horse smarts. How smart are horses anyway? Ever see how they behave in westerns? All it takes is a well placed sugarcube and water it won’t drink when you show it to them.

Right.

What does all this gibberish about good ‘n dumb S/F over thoughtful and provocative all mean here anyway? I mean, we get the whole “so bad it’s good” concept, but what am I really yammering about? Is it a retread of the lesson about in order to appreciate the good you gotta have some…I said that already? Well it’s still true. At it’s core, like all genres, S/F is meant to entertain. However unlike other, more mainstream films the genre demands—I mean demands—almost total commitment to suspension of belief with just enough wiggle room to allow “Huh..” When this precious balance is upset in watching S/F movies, the results can be disastrous, to both mind and body. I mean, c’mon, MASH was one of the most misguided S/F movies ever…

What?

Oh. Huh. Well as a S/F epic, that thing sucked on toast. Sure was funny, though. Riotous even. Like this week’s vaunt into the void.

Now draw…


Arizona. The late 1800s.

You wake up in the middle of the desert. No shoes, no ride, no memory. All you have is the shirt on your back, a mouthful of sand and a weird manacle affixed to your wrist. And it doesn’t want to come off. Where were you?

You make your way to a frontier town called Absolution in search of provisions, a bath and who the f*ck you are. The first place you break in to is occupied by a concerned, rifle-weilding preacher named Meacham (Brown). Despite you have no recollection of this man—or anyone for that matter—he sure as sh*t knows who you are. By reputation alone, Meacham marks you as the infamous outlaw and thief Jake Lonergan (Craig) and gives you a warning about shacking up in Absolution. This here was once a proud mining town until the stock wore out. Now it’s Col Dolarhyde’s (Ford) personal playground, and f*ck all that gets in his way. If Meacham’s offering any absolution for your amnesiac circumstance it’s just don’t get mucked up with Dolarhyde family affairs.

Whatever. All you want is a bath and drink, not necessarily in that order. Also figuring how to get this screwy gizmo off your arm. It stings. Almost feels like what they call over the telegraph wires “electrical.” Anyway, booze.

Isn’t always the way? You’re just trying to unwind, have a drink, contemplate your non-circumstances when the local sheriff crashes in the bar—and a weird, sultry lady (Wilde) lurking behind—ready to string you up for being an outlaw you can’t remember being. Absolution is Dolarhyde’s town, as has no recourse for infamous criminals. In spite of Dolarhyde’s guerrilla tactics regarding civic responsibilities, you’re the dunce that gets dragged off to the pokey. It might’ve had something to do with besting the Colonel’s drunken son Percy (Dano) in the town square, but you suspect it has something more to do with your rep. That and being The Outsider.

You quickly discover that while rotting in chains you are nothing of an outsider compared to the marauders Dolarhyde’s been trying to stop for months. Slaughtering his herd, scorching his land and ransacking his gold mining operation the good Colonel and this thugs have been trying to ferret out of Absolution. You’re supposedly a vicious criminal and master thief with an infamous gang at your hand, and the ideal prime suspect in mucking about with Dolarhyde’s affairs. You might be the outsider all right, with a missing history, but at least you came from somewhere.

The real Outsiders are only not from Absolution, they’re not from around these parts at all. Quite literally.

So when the paddy wagon you’re chained in (and with the son of the local heavy that caused all your woes) gets set on fire from a barrage of some sort of controlled lightening shot from an airship no one has even seen the likes of before, you have to ask your amnesiac, troubled past, incarcerated self this:

How the hell did I end up here?…


Before we swoop in and take Cowboys & Aliens by the metaphorical horns (heh), I always feel compelled to point out a literal comic book adapted into a motion picture, usually regarding movies that the average, upstanding citizen did know was a comic book movie (e.g.: Bulletproof Monk, From Hell and, yes Cowboys And Aliens).

Usually these nuggets slip under the radar because of their weird and/or mature content. Sometimes they’re books adapted from lesser known publishers (seems DC and Marvel already have the lion’s share of promotion out there in La-La Land. Batman? Spider-Man? Perhaps you’ve heard of ’em). Sometimes they don’t play as “comic-booky” as the more popular films of their ilk (Kick-Ass anyone?). Sometimes they’re so oblique without a popular cache that you just watch and go, “Whatever. This’ll work.”

Okay, Cowboys does fall under the aegis of all these factoids. I admit I went into watching this with eyes wide shut about the movie’s origins, but I plucked it not so much for it falling under the auspices of The Standard. That, of course, was part of the autopsy, but what really piqued my interest about Cowboys had precious little to do with the dailies I used to scan back in my comic shop monkey days. No.

It was something I caught by accident on the History Channel. Back when they aired actual history, BTW. Those were the days.

The program was called UFO Hunters or something like that. Guess now it was the dry run for the immensely but not understandably popular series Ancient Aliens, the show that tackles the mysteries of the Nazca Lines up against incredible hairstyles. Similar to its progeny, Hunters investigated UFO happenings, then and now, from around the US (and sometimes in other countries) by way of the detective work, forensic science, and/or interviewing eyewitnesses. If none were available—read: dead—scouring the historic record served in a pinch. From the ep I caught, it was a pretty cool show, with none of the foaming histrionics that’s Ancient Aliens’ signature. That and the Greek guy’s impeccable, trapped in a wind tunnel coif.

The scene of the crime for the episode I got sucked into was Aurora, Texas, an nice little patch of nowhere in the Lone Star state just north of who cares and a little west of where are we? The town’s claim to fame (as well as the raison d’etre for the producers to film there, natch) was a report of a saucer crash that occurred so long back it became less of the historical record and more like a beloved urban legend. According to the show, the Aurora incident (nicknamed “Roswell, Texas”) was a bit of both. Stories naturally got scrambled over time, but one thing could be agreed upon by Aurora’s legacy: something fell out of the sky back then.

And back then was in 1897, a full fifty years before the Roswell Incident.

The details were hazy, and shifting to and fro by the locals, but the thing that was certain that an airship of curious design crashed and burned in Aurora and its crews’ remains appeared unlike anything on Earth. That’s right. There were passengers aboard that UFO. Some declared them as “not of this earth” if not “Martian” outright. The bodies were given a proper, Christian burial in the local cemetery of all things, but not before the rough-and-ready media swarmed Aurora for news of the strange airship from out of space and its alien visitors.

That’s the bulk of the tale. A close encounter of the third kind. Talk to Spielberg. But the devil’s in the details. After the crash there were tales of unusual properties regarding the metals used in the construction of the airship, radiation poisoning from improper disposal of the wreckage resulting in maladies in the locals as mundane as advanced arthritis to more serious like birth defects to…other things. No to mention that one of the bodies interred was an “infant.” It is to wonder and have that mousse at the ready.

I think the key thing to consider about the Aurora Incident is that the locals, back in 1897, had next to no concept whatsoever as to how to comprehend a flying machine. This was in the middle of nowhere. No proper airships crossed their clouds resembling anything like a steady schedule. The Wright Bros were to take flight only a mere 6 years after the incident, and even then the general public failed to believe their feat real. With photos no less. Yet the testimonies of Aurora’s denizens fell in line with your contemporary mass UFO sighting, proper burials notwithstanding. In short, no matter how rural, isolated and not-20th Century folks might’ve been, they knew that weird sh*t had rained down from space onto Aurora, and most of it was far from explicable. So call Robert Stack already.

Okay. What the f*ck does this MUFON wet dream have anything to do with “dumb, fun” S/F and this week’s pile? Glad you asked.

The movie Cowboys And Aliens was inspired by a graphic novel inspired by supposedly true events. Read: the Aurora Incident. Big surprise. Author Scott Mitchell Rosenberg once commented that his comic was inspired by what may or may have not happened in Aurora all those decades ago. If you took in what I intimated earlier, Rosenberg considered the ramifications of pre-Industrial age folk encountering technology and essentially a home invasion of the like they simply could not comprehend. I’m paraphrasing here, as well as taking great liberties with Rosenberg’s musings. Still, such a notion could be akin to the events relayed in the original Terminator or how a few of the key players in Seven Samurai got offed by gunfire rather than swordplay (or got offed at all). How does the average Joe and Jane wrap their minds about alien (so to speak) tech interrupting—if not disrupting—their everyday existence? By Rosenberg’s vision, not well. That doesn’t mean the incurring party takes it lying down, of course.

Such is the stuff of fun. Stand offs. Fisticuffs. Get off my land. As for the silly S/F factor? Uh, the movie’s called Cowboys And ALIENS in case you forgot. You did, didn’t you? You and yer Pokemon Go. Focus!

Funny thing though (almost retracting everything I said above), Cowboys was not dumb. It was pretty sharp actually. The concept may have been dumb and silly, but put into the proper perspective the thing had clear eyes.

The nifty thing about Cowboys is that it’s two movies in one. On one hand we got us the classic Western tropes. Mysterious drifter. Scowling bully that holds the hapless denizens of a dying town in his sway. Gunplay. Whiskey. All the essentials. They’re played out in the traditional fashion but lacking any corn that a less canny director than Favreau could not resist. All of Absolution is grim and gritty, worlds—if not light-years—away from some S/F plot with marauding alien invaders mining for REDACTED.

The first act plays out kind of like classic Eastwood “man with no name” Westerns. We have a grim anti-hero, past a mystery, handy with a gun and carrying a sense of purpose. The big difference is for most of the movie is that Jake’s past really is a mystery, and even though later the pieces fall back into place, that mystery drives a great deal of the tension in the tale. At least the existential part of it. If Jake and Co were immediately plunked into extra-terrestrial hijinks there’d be no human drama, and Cowboys would swiftly mosey (if you can do that) into the overwhelming fast and stupid S/F I cautioned about before.

This whole setup surprised me, though. Well, I kinda knew what I was in for with a movie called Cowboys And Aliens. It starred James Bond and Indiana Jones. Jon Favreau—who helmed Iron Man, Zathura and the latest incarnation of The Jungle Book—knew a trick or ten about directing spectacles without processing them into rancid Velveeta. It was based on a graphic novel (heard that’s a safe gamble nowadays for movie fodder). Having human drama paired with only essential Western devices as launchpad into some space swashbuckling would usually lead into cinematic giblet gravy, and the reason I thought that (or at least took pause) was while I read the opening credits. I really do that by the way. I still don’t know what an ACE is.

The screenwriter/producers for Cowboys were the infamous glimmer twins of less-than-subtle S/F and fantasy flicks: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. A true mixed blessing. I’ve mentioned in the past for my fondness of Fringe, that warped X-Files meets Twilight Zone hybrid that Mr Spock occasionally popped up in. That show was good, but their other efforts were often received with ambivalence. The Star Trek reboot (which Mr Spock also occasionally popped up in) which was more about pyrotechnics and winking nods to Trekkies than drama. The seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens resulted in more questions than answers and even more plot holes. Lots of pyro and winking also. The manic Now You See Me, which went under the lens here at RIORI and I needing an Ativan after its viewing. Their sh*t can be mad entertaining, but as for nuance and grace, their sledgehammer-subtle concoctions can make for a grueling experience on the imagination—info dump upon info dump—and a need to have great patience, pay attention and try to keep up lest you miss something whizzing by at breakneck speed, which you need a crate of Red Bull at the ready because Adderall can get pricey.

Yeah, so these two lovable dunderheads penned Cowboys’ script. I repeat, I took pause at that. Then I crossed my fingers, recalling the best eps of Fringe and just shrugged, deciding to go with this and see where it went. The first thing I noticed after our hero crawls out of the desert is what the movie didn’t have. Not outright anyway. Knowing my Kurtzman-Orci track record I guessed the nasties from the great beyond would descend upon Arizona and start vaporizing cacti by the score before the bloody credits were over. Then Mr Spock would pop in.

Quite the other thing. The opening is gradual, the pacing is steady, there’s room to breathe and time to figure out what is up. We find our bewildered Jake marooned. We see him get into scrapes that suggest his troubled past. We get him to Absolution—a town name as subtle as a fart at a funeral—where he comes to a crossroads and the pieces/mysteries start falling into place. All at the speed of mind. I thank Favreau for this. Like before, the guy has a talent for spectacle, but his directing allows breathing room. That comment about CGI enhancing rather than driving a S/F flick? There ya go.

Consider this the calm before the storm. Right, it being the type of movie it is, we’re gonna get some pyros eventually. What I dug about the action in Cowboys is that it’s almost exclusively Western-style. Barring the weird manacle that blasts lasers, Jake prefers his sidearm to do the talking. In actuality, its both in tandem, but the gunplay is straight out of the old West. That little bit is a good example of how Favreau’s lens works here. There’s a canny fusion of Western and S/F action playing through Cowboys.  The man with no name that everyone knows. The outlaw as the “chosen one” in a greater, world-bending scheme. The humans and the aliens feuding over the same property, and it isn’t plutonium. There’s a lot of stereotypes and tropes with both genres, but they get so bent and twisted Cowboys comes over as fresh and thrilling not eye-rolling and a burlap sack of yawns. As I am accused of saying way too damned often, it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played. By melding these two tried and true warhorses—so to speak—we got ourselves a pretty deft, if not unusual S/F caper. With whiskey.

And a crackerjack cast, too. Yeah, yeah. I’ve already dropped the alter-egos here, but separate the actors from their iconic roles and you’re in for a surprise: character acting! Neither Craig nor Ford are known for deviating from their signature styles. They’re not like, say, Paul Giamatti or Forrest Whittaker, whose roles and delivery roll with the tide. No. We know Craig as tough, smug and gruff. We know Ford as tough, funny and gruff. We know Wilde as willowy and rather wooden. Um, as far as Cowboys‘ principal players roll, two out of three ain’t bad.

Craig’s Jake is tough, sure. He’s a gunslinger, first line of the CV. He’s also vulnerable, with no memory of his past and reminded of something he’s supposed to remember strapped to his wrist. Walking contradiction, and also shouldering this feeling of malaise that he deserved whatever has happened to him. This later dissolves into having the holes plugged (it’s almost inevitable), but while we get there we have a protag that is scared, fragile and despite carrying a piece is unlike any prominent role Craig has had before. Okay, maybe Mr X in Layer Cake comes close, but really can you picture Bond riddled with angst? Not for an entire picture. Maybe that’s why Craig looks so gaunt here. Well, that and being stranded in the desert.

Ford was having some fun here as the despotic Col Dolarhyde. Playing the baddie, the heavy, chewing it up. Folks are accustomed to Harry playing rapscallions and rough-and-tumble heroes, often possessing an air of insecurity and/or reluctance. Han didn’t want to get mucked up in the Rebellion. Indy just wanted to go on a cool expedition, not mess with Nazis. President Marshall just wanted Gary Oldman to get off his plane (who wouldn’t?). Virtually all of Ford’s roles have been him reacting to something, not being pro-active. It’s worked. But getting the opportunity to play the bad guy? A vicious cattle baron whose name is quivering fear on all the locals’ lips? Boy howdy does Ford do a fun job, all growly and menacing and ruthless with his enemies. One wonders why Ford didn’t try this schtick before? You can only run away from so many snakes before becoming one. That almost made sense. Quick with a gun, with a threat and an ultimatum, very few actors could pull off this 180 Ford did in such a fun way.

Wilde is kind of creepy here. It suits her enigmatic character, but let’s call a spade a shovel: the girl is eye candy. She’s stiff, she’s not natural, she overreaches. Again, it mostly works here considering her role. It just isn’t particularly enjoyable. Sure, she’s purty, but that’s where all her presence lies. This can be traced all the way back to he salt mine years up against cantankerous Hugh Laurie in House. Come to think of it, didn’t her character only made it onto Greg’s team because of her looks? Foreshadowing? Regardless of whatever, wedged between Craig and Ford, Wilde gets lost in the shuffle.

Besides the action sequences of scary, ravaging aliens and hell bent for leather outlaws Cowboys had oodles of tech points that were not only winning but essential to movie’s mood. Like I said before, we’re dealing with Western tropes here, so if there are going to be stereotypes they better be good, attentive, substantial ones.

There are, breathe easy. What Western would be complete without a convincing setting (at least as far as what we expect to see in a Western)? Right. A backlot. Not here in Cowboys. The landscapes are sweeping and stunning demanding our attention, “Damn, we’re in God’s country.” Big sky and exposed, the whole county screams isolation with only mere handfuls of folks trying to live. Looks like a good place where no one will look for a good place. Great cinematography is all I’m sayin.’

Like most Westerns Cowboys‘ pace is rather slow. It can make it feel edgy. There’s always either been a big blow out in act one, scene one of a Western (e.g.: Silverado, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, etc) or some slow build to a super major blow out (e.g.: The Wild Bunch…’nuff said). Then we get a Western that creeps, builds, takes its time even in light of the urgency. Looks like Kurtzman and Orci took a few pages from the old playbook and put ’em to good work without rendering them in the summer blockbuster blender. Sometimes you can have an even hand and not show it right away without bumming out the audience. Oh, and the sh*t really picks up later so have that with a slice of cake.

There’s lots of nice touches through Cowboys (the surgeon scene is a good example) that make its world-building barely skirt the mindless S/F fun mark. This film isn’t mindless. It is chewing gum for your mind. You dig Western films? Good. You dig S/F films? Also good. You dig movies about alien invaders trying to wipe out the townsfolk of a remote mining village and the quickdraws band together in a Seven Samurai-esque union to take the freaks down? Very good. You want it all stupid or do you want it “stupid?” Keep working that gob in your jaw and all will be well in viewer land.

Cowboys plays with a clever, entertaining, stupid, serious fun. Its a weird movie, but of the best kind. Think Independence Day, but with horses. It’s such a wonky, if not schizo movie that you’ll swear you’re watching two separate films. But they fold over well with each other, and that’s nice. Two flicks for the price of one.

Oh, and it’s dumb, too. Sometimes you gotta put your Fellini away (cuz he never did S/F).


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Cowboys is so freakin’ rife with all the goodies and baddies of both genres you’d have to be some sorry son of a bitch stick in the mud to not turn on, tune in and get yer mind a-chewin.’ Yee-haw.


Stray Observations…

  • “English.”
  • An interesting note: Wilde looks as if she’s wearing minimal makeup. Attention to period detail, or for some…other reason. Hmm.
  • “Give me your hand!” No.
  • The knife scene. Shades of classic Ford. We do miss them.
  • “God don’t care what y’are, son. Only who you are.” Best Hallmark card never written.
  • Of course the hat floats.
  • Ayahuasca. It works every time.
  • Nice shot, Doc. Nice shot.
  • “You’d better hurry.”

Next Installment…

Bob Dylan claims “I’m Not There” in his biopic. To a certain degree he’s right.


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.