Monday, February 20, 2012

In Time

I don't generally write about movies I don't see on the big screen on my blog, but I have to make an exception for Andrew Niccol's In Time. I had seen the commercials for this movie when it was originally released in the fall, but they didn't do a lot for me, making it appear that the movie was more of an adventure movie in speculative fiction clothing than anything else. The cast was somewhat intriguing based on the commercials I saw, but even news that Harlan Ellison had sued the filmmakers with accusations of lifting the plot from his classic short story "'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" did not inspire me to see the movie, given the current state of austerity in the Speculator household. It was an abject failure on my part—I didn't do my research. Had I known that Andrew Niccols, writer and director of great SF movies The Truman Show and Gattaca, had written and directed In Time, I would have found a way to see it in the theater, if only to use my money to help ensure that thoughtful, intelligent speculative fiction movies continue to be made.

The movie reveals its setting and premise early on—genetic engineering has made it possible for humans to no longer age when they reach 25 years old. But in order to thwart the possibility of population explosion, the same engineering gives humans who reach the age of 25 exactly one more year to live unless they add more time to their "watch", an ingenious device that tracks how long a person has to live on a subdermal LED that can be seen through the user's skin. Money is no longer used—instead, the currency is time left to live. When buying items or when being paid, a person inserts their arm in a device which adds or subtracts the requisite time to their lifespan. This is fairly abstract and easy to accept with the generic setting aside of the sense of disbelief, but In Time makes it explicitly clear early on what this means: assembly line workers get in line for a cup of coffee, willing to pay a couple of hours and a little irate that the price has gone up since they were last at the coffee stand. A child begging in the street asks "Got some time?" and in fact is asking other people to give her moments from their lives to share with her poor family.

The effect of this on the population of Dayton, where the movie purports to be as it begins, is both subtle and agonizing. People don't walk down the streets as they move from place to place; they run, unable to afford the precious few seconds they have to walk from place to place. They gulp down their meals, again unwilling to waste time on simple bodily functions. Dayton is a working class factory town in In Time, and we learn that our protagonist Will Solas (Justin Timberlake) usually has no more than a day on his watch, working hard and providing any extra to his mother, played by Olivia Wilde. This poverty appears to be standard among the people of Dayton.

Once we get a feel for what Solas's life is like, he is given a century by grateful and depressed magnate Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer). We already know Solas is something of a philanthropist, giving his spare time to the beggar child and his mother, so it is no surprise when Solas first gives his best friend Borel (Johnny Galecki) a decade and the plans to give his mother a special gift from his century. But things go horribly wrong, and his mother's watch expires as he holds her in his arms. Furious and distraught, Solas decides to leave Dayton for another time zone, New Greenwich.

From this point forward, In Time allows itself to be viewed in two different ways. It can be seen as a Robin Hood type movie, as Solas becomes disgusted with the wickedly wealthy lifestyle of the people of New Greenwich, including Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) director of a huge international bank, and decides to steal from the rich and give their time to the poor and working class. Solas and Weis's daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) become heroes to the poor as they rob larger and larger targets and give out their spoils from a local rescue mission. The people try to help Solas and Sylvia as they run from the time police, called "timekeepers", and also from local gangsters who see Solas as destroying their own livelihood.

But the movie also has a sometime subtle sometimes vicious analogy running through it—the working class has no control over their lives since they cannot control the medium by which it must be measured. The Timekeepers headquarters has displays much like those you might see at a stock exchange, where the value of commodities is watched and one might presume, controlled. When the wealthy class, who also act as a type of government since they control the movement of funds, decide to that there are too many people, they raise the interest rates in a sort of economic eugenics. To make this point clear, Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) tells Solas the story of how all the working class hope to one day rise above the necessity to pay attention to their watches, how each believes that somehow, some way they will be the one to rise above the circumstances that hold them down and make their way to a higher class of living. And by repeating the phrase "time is money", it becomes easy to ask if a similar scenario is not currently playing out in our world today. I didn't find the comparison to be heavy-handed but it is still there for the viewers that think about the circumstances of In Time's plot. And the movie doesn't offer any answers for the ills it describes; like the earlier The Truman Show by Niccols, the movie is satisfied to hold a mirror up to culture and ask its audience to think about the repercussions.

In Time is not great—it is substantially flawed in whichever mode you choose to view it. References to Solas's father don't go anywhere and introduce a plot thread that is both obvious and useless as it is not resolved. Solas's run-ins with Timekeeper Leon are clich├ęd and the action sequences really don't offer anything new. But for me, the power of this movie is to see speculative fiction used to talk about current political and economic issues, in an engaging and thoughtful way. I imagine savvy conservative viewers might be offended at the characterization of current economic woes, but all fiction comes from a point of view. And conversations about In Time would allow those offended by the facile comparisons the space to make their claims. But from either side of the political spectrum, In Time is powerful for having that conversation, and an example of what written speculative fiction has that theatrical versions generally lack.

Keep an eye on this Andrew Niccol, fella; he's gonna do something, I tell you.

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