Tuesday, November 1, 2011

IN TIME is Timely Sci-Fi

IN TIME Review:

- There are so few hard sci-fi movies made these days, that when one comes along my interest is most definitely piqued. What do I mean by "hard' sci-fi, you might ask? I mean films that use sci-fi concepts as more than just a backdrop or setting for a story, but that, instead, actually go in-depth to explore scientific concepts beyond what exists today. Hard sci-fi is as much about *ideas* - logical ones, plausible ones - ideas spun out of real science, politics, and society - as it is plot, characters, and setting. Now, in recent years we've gotten some great entries in the genre. Moon. District 9. And now, along comes IN TIME - but is it worthy of being put into that same category of modern sci-fi classic? The film certainly can't be faulted for lack of ambition - it seems to aspire to match the high-concept sci-fi adventure of classics like Logan's Run and Blade Runner. It comes to us from writer-director Andrew Niccol, who perhaps crafted his masterpiece when he wrote the screenplay for The Truman Show, and who made 90's sci-fi flick Gattaca into a mostly well-regarded cult favorite.

In Time is very similar to Gattaca in many ways - it's got a dystopian conceit at its core, one that creates an oppressive future-world where one man is trying to buck the system. In the world of IN TIME, time itself is used as currency. The good part is that, thanks to genetic engineering - beginning at 25, your body no longer ages. You'll look and feel 25 for the rest of your life. But here's the bad news: once you turn 25, a countdown clock appears on your arm. From that point on, you have one year to live - unless you earn time like we, now, earn money. Working earns you time. You can get time at the bank, even take out a loan. But you also spend time to buy goods and services. So every cup of coffee that you buy is hours off your life. That is, unless you're one of this world's time-rich elite. In this future, you see, there is a staggering divide between rich and poor. The rich - blessed with so much time that they are essentially immortal, live leisurely lives of excess and luxury. The poor, confined to ghetto-like "zones" are separated by armed guards and fences from the rich. Most live day to day - literally. They have only one day's worth of time saved up, and if they don't get their next paycheck ... they're dead. Crime and time-theft is rampant. The poor steal, gamble, scrap, and fight to make extra time.

It's a far-fetched but incredibly intriguing concept. And the movie gives enough thought to this premise that all the in's and outs of this world are, in my mind, enough to make the film worth checking out. Even when I wasn't enthralled with the movie's plot or characters, I was fascinated with the rules and inner-workings of this crazy world that Andrew Niccol had devised.

So yeah, the core concept here is strong enough that it carries the movie, and the setup for the plot is also rife with potential. Justin Timberlake plays our hero, Will Salas. Basically, Will lives in the ghetto and lives day-to-day, making end's meat to keep himself and his mom (Olivia Wilde - singlehandedly redefining the meaning of the Oedipul Complex) afloat. One day, however, he meets a mysterious and wealthy man (Matt Bomer) who has ventured away from his home. The man, replete with time, has lived well past his natural expiration date and is looking to call it a day. But before he does, he's decided to give his time to one worthy pauper. When Timberlake's Will comes to his aid in a scrape with some devious gang members (a dapper group of rogues known as the Minutemen ...), the mysterious benefactor deems Will worthy to inherit his fortune. And so Will, long confined to a life of poverty - essentially living on borrowed time - now has all the time in the world. But his newfound time-wealth also makes Will a target of the law (the Timekeepers), who suspect him of murder. On the run, Will decides to infiltrate society's upper classes, and play the role of a futuristic Robin Hood. Will seeks out Phillipe Weiss - the man who runs the banks that control time and are responsible for its highly uneven distribution. With Phillipe's rebellious daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) in tow, Will aims to topple the oppressive class system that's left so many in this world constantly facing down death.

Again, it's a super-intriguing setup, and it's definitely a scenario that greatly reflects some of our current economic disparities. You can't help but watch this movie and think of the whole "99%" movement. Where IN TIME struggles a bit though is in making its characters more than just props in this futuristic allegory. In the last few years, Timberlake has proven that he's a capable actor - in certain types of roles. But here, because there's so much going on, the film really needed a leading actor who could convey a lot of natural intensity and gravitas. And unfortunately, Timberlake doesn't quite pull it off. This is a character who's living day-to-day, always on the edge of death, in a race for his life and full of long-simmering anger - and I just don't know that that is all conveyed in Timberlake's acting. To be fair, the script doesn't always give Will a lot of real inner motivation or depth. The plot demands that he become driven to the point where he'll risk it all to take down Weiss and become a revolutionary, but we don't get to see much of that character arc play out on screen - it just sort of happens. Same goes for Amanda Seyfried's Sylvia - her arc is a little more fleshed-out (so to speak), but still, we don't quite feel like she's playing a fully-formed character. Nor are she or Timberlake playing iconic, archetypal characters like you might see in, say, Blade Runner. That said, the guy who does sort of elevate things is Cillian Murphy as Raymond - the Timekeeper who's in dogged pursuit of Will and Sylvia. As written, the character is your typical cop who's so by-the-book that he loses sight of his moral compass. But as played by the always-great Murphy, there's a depth and cool-factor to Raymond not present in some of the film's other characters. Although, I will say that another standout is Vincent Kartheiser as Phillipe Weiss, the rich, world-weary mogul whose boyish facade belies his age and status. Like Murphy, Kartheiser gives his character depth by playing up the fact that these characters look young, but they are in fact old and have lived long lives.

The other problem with the film is the script. While the underlying premise is strong, Niccol gets too heavy-handed with all of his time-talk. Minutemen, Timekeepers, the endless array of time-related quips ... the cheesiness of it all betrays the intended seriousness of the film, and leads to a number of eye-rolling exchanges. In general, the dialogue is just awkward and stilted at times. Coupled with the rather generic-looking direction, you wonder if the movie could have benefitted from a more dynamic and stylized look and feel. You can't help but wonder what a visual master like a Ridley Scott might have done with this, because as is, the movie could use a little injection of awe and wonder. Everything is presented in such a straightforward manner visually - the world is convincing, but also kind of bland.

At the same time, I definitely enjoyed the movie overall, and it kept me guessing about where, exactly, this was all going. While Timberlake isn't a standout in the lead, he's decent enough, and the strong supporting cast helps keep things interesting. There's some exciting action, and some intriguing twists in the plot. Most of all, the movie presents to us a really cool, well-thought-out sci-fi world that is fascinating and thought-provoking. It's too bad that things couldn't have been tightened up and tweaked, that the movie couldn't have been imbued with a tad more style, drama, and gravitas. As is, this is a good movie that could have been great.

My Grade: B

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