TROUBLE CITY

In Time

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This is one of those weekends when it really sucks that I can't get to everything. The most notable new releases currently in multiplexes include:

  1. Anonymous, a movie about Shakespeare, whose work I may have professed my love for once or twice on this blog.
  2. The Rum Diary, in which Johnny Depp reprises his role as Hunter S. Thompson alongside Aaron Eckhardt and Amber Heard at her sexiest.
  3. In Time, a high-concept science fiction movie that features Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Matt Bomer of "White Collar" fame.
  4. Puss in Boots, which has gotten a surprising amount of critical love despite the fact that it looks and smells like a giant hairball.

All of these movies might as well have had my name written on them in great big flashing neon. However, each of these movies got the exact opposite critical reception that I was hoping for, and I don't have the time or money to spend on four potential disappointments. Moreover, I've got work to do and Halloween parties to attend, which means that I've got to make a tough choice here.

For my part, I like to approach this problem with a simple question: "Which of these movies is most likely to be gone from theaters before I get a second chance to see them?" In this case, our candidates are a Dreamworks kiddie flick, an Oscar-bait movie starring Johnny Depp, a Roland Emmerich picture, and a movie with a politically charged sci-fi premise that's extremely risky and original.

In Time it is!

The movie opens by explicitly telling its audience in so many words just to accept the premise. The protagonist tells us that he's never had the time to ask about how the status quo came about, so why should we? The only explanation we get is that through some feat of genetic engineering (*coughbullshitcough*), everyone in the world miraculously stops aging at 25. That sound you just heard was the cry of joy uttered by every talent agent and casting director in Hollywood upon hearing about a movie cast entirely with young, beautiful people.

Anyway, with this species-wide immortality comes a requirement to manage the population in some other way. So it is that everyone has a glowing green watch that counts down the time left to them. When the clock runs to zero, in comes the Grim Reaper. As such, time has become the worldwide currency, which means that the uber-wealthy live forever while the poor drop like flies. Yes, this is a movie in which money literally equals life. You should already be seeing a theme develop.

There are also a lot of other consequences to this system that the movie explores to interesting results. For example, running or driving quickly is a sign of poverty. Avoiding risky activities (fighting or swimming, for example) and hiring several bodyguards is a sign of wealth. The system has also led to an unusual sort of fighting game, like arm wrestling mixed with highway robbery.

Oh, and let's not forget the so-called "time zones." In this world, the rich and the poor are literally separated into districts, with toll booths set up to keep people from the ghettos off the rich peoples' lawns. Again, see if you can spot the message here.

Getting back to the premise, our hero for today is Will Salas (Justin Timberlake). He lives in one of the ghettos, which means that he literally lives from day to day. This is a place where debts are sky-high and only violent criminals have more than 24 hours at any time. In fact, a watch with more than a week on it is enough to get a guy killed. Enter Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer).

Henry's been living for over a century, and he's got well over a century more left in his clock. Trouble is, he doesn't want it. Henry is perfectly willing to give what time he has to the first local thug that comes along (Alex Pettyfer) until Will saves him from violent death and proves to be the worthier cause.

Will receives the century that Henry has left, though the latter naturally kills himself in the process. This puts him on the radar of the Timekeepers, who are sort of like the IRS and the FBI put together. They are here represented by Raymond Leon, a no-nonsense man with over 50 years of dedicated experience on the job, played by Cillian Murphy. Leon is after Will because security footage places Will at the scene of the crime just after Henry timed out. Though the cameras didn't see how Henry killed himself. How convenient.

Meanwhile, after seeing a few more injustices done, Will takes his fortune to one of the wealthier time zones with the intention of shattering the system. Somehow. Skip ahead, skip ahead, Will meets Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the movie's resident slimy bank executive, Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Lucky for Will, Sylvia is one of those Disney Princess types who's tired of living in a gilded cage and yearns for adventure. Long story short (too late!), Will and Sylvia go on a spree of robbing Philippe's banks and start redistributing time. Sort of like Robin Hood by way of Bonnie and Clyde.

If it seems like I'm skipping over huge swaths of padding, it's only because the movie doesn't. Between Henry's death and the first bank heist, there's a quarter of the movie that just seems to wander aimlessly through so many showstopping plot holes. I realize that there's world building to be done and there's a lot of good drama in seeing this man from the ghettos adapt to the alien world of the bourgeois, but giving him an objective or a plan beyond "get incredibly lucky at a casino" would have been nice. Furthermore, the Feds are on his tail for allegedly stealing another man's time. GET A MOVE ON.

Pacing issues and plot holes aside, this movie still has to deal with extremely blunt dialogue that's as subtle as a sledgehammer. No, it isn't enough that this movie has unambiguous symbolism for economic inequality, it has to have unambiguous dialogue to press the point as well. That said, the movie does nicely put a dark and clever spin on such phrases as "Don't waste my time" and "Your money or your life." Hell, even that classic storytelling device of the "ticking clock" takes on a whole new meaning with this premise. No one says "Time's up" though, which I consider to be a missed opportunity.

Another problem with the script is that there are so many plotlines and characters that prove to be utterly worthless. Will's dad is mentioned a few times, but nothing comes of it. Pettyfer's character arc is concluded in a way that was telegraphed half an hour before and contributes nothing to the proceedings. Sylvia's mother (Bella Heathcote) gets just enough dialogue to show how threadbare her character is. Olivia Wilde is pretty much completely wasted as Will's mom, since the character is more of a plot point than anything else.

That said, Wilde does certainly make the best of what screen time she has. Likewise, Matt Bomer does a superlative job of imbuing his character with enough weariness to make a lasting impression with very little screen time. I almost wish that Bomer's character played a bigger part in the proceedings, even though the whole premise of the movie depends on him dying. Plus, if less Henry Hamilton means more Neal Caffrey, then that's a trade I'm perfectly willing to make.

To get back on point, Cillian Murphy does a similarly good job playing a man who's far older and tougher than he looks. Murphy is great at playing a cold kind of self-assured, and it's a skill that he uses to great effect in this role. That the makeup department gave him a few subtle scars certainly helps. Faring less well is Alex Pettyfer. Though he's convincing enough as a greedy and hot-headed maniac, this character is supposed to be north of 70. I just couldn't buy that from Pettyfer the way I could from Murphy.

As for Vincent Kartheiser... well, what's to say? He looks like a snooty, Botoxed, whitebread asshole and he acts like one too. There's nothing distinctive or memorable about his performance, though the character is presented as so two-dimensionally evil that the script and direction give him nothing to work with. Moving right along.

The real stars of this movie are Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. I'm sorry to say that their romance arc is extremely rushed, though it helps that they have some very good chemistry. For Seyfried's part, there's no denying that she does her damnedest to make the character and her relationship with Will work. Between Seyfried's talent and what help the script could provide, Sylvia is taken from "forgettable" to "passable."

As for Timberlake, it's finally time for the remaining holdouts to give in. The man has more than paid his dues by this point. His days as a Backstreet Boy wannabe are over, and he's officially a legit movie star. In the role of Will Salas, Timberlake does an admirable job of playing a sympathetic character who's more than worthy to carry this film. It also helps that Timberlake is charismatic enough to sell the movie's clunkier lines, and he proves himself to be quite a decent action star as well.

Of course, that isn't to say that the action in this film is particularly good. Aside from the running chases and the all-too-brief fistfights, the action scenes in here are extremely "meh." The gunfights are actually quite boring to watch, the car chases were nothing spectacular, and there's an "arm wrestling" scene that might have worked if we didn't already know exactly how it was going to end.

On the other hand, this movie had some very powerful individuals working behind the scenes. The unparalleled Roger Deakins served as DOP, so of course the camera work is amazing. Alex McDowell, a true master of production design, surely had a hand in all the wonderful sets and props. Zach Staenberg, previously responsible for the revolutionary editing of The Matrix, edits this picture. The sound design -- complete with an all-important sound for the passing of each vital second -- was done in part by Richard King and Ed Novick, both of whom won Oscars for their work on Inception. Last but not least, the score was composed by Craig Armstrong, who had previously composed for such acclaimed musical works as Ray and Moulin Rouge!

All told, strange as it may sound, the weak link in this crew may well be writer/producer/director Andrew Niccol. Yes, he was previously responsible for Gattaca, which proved to be an extremely ambitious film that addressed a high concept with such intelligence that it's now one of cinema's most definitive examinations of bioethics. That said, if we're being honest, that movie's screenplay had zero subtlety and there were some pretty bad lines of dialogue in there. Furthermore, the film openly condemned its class system, but did so without offering any alternatives, showing how the system could be taken down, or even how the system came to be. All of these are faults that I could just as easily lay at the feet of his latest film.

Come to think of it, wasn't Gattaca about a lower-class man who became the prime suspect in a murder investigation after he came into the upper class through illegitimate means? Suddenly, I'm getting deja vu over here.

In Time deserves a lot of credit for telling an extremely timely story about economic inequality and doing so with a brilliant system of sci-fi symbols. The cast is very well-chosen and the ample amount of talent behind the scenes is clearly visible. Alas, this movie's Achilles heel is its screenplay. Despite a tremendous amount of creativity on display, the film lags heavily in its second quarter, the dialogue is incredibly blunt, there are some painfully obvious plot holes throughout, and the ending leaves a bit to be desired.

If only this screenplay had gone through another couple of polishes, then maybe this movie would have had a story worthy of its premise.