Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In Time

Director: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Alex Pettyfr, Vincent Kartheiser, Johnny Galecki
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In Time hooked me at the first scene. Justin Timberlake's character gets up, goes into the kitchen and greets Olivia Wilde with a "Good morning, Mom." We're not hearing things. He calls her "mom" about three or four times before wishing her a happy 50th birthday and loans her an hour of "time" before heading out to work. That's great screenwriting. Within a minute we're already immersed in this world, as well as surprised, intrigued and not at all confused. No set-up necessary. We're already there. For its first hour, Andrew Niccol's In Time is in the zone. Not The Twilight Zone (though comparisons could be made), but that zone where nothing is going wrong. It's brimming with ideas and atmosphere, visually stimulating and at least for a while seems to have something deep to say. When movies deserving of a wide audience like this flop and the critics dismiss it there's an excited film geek in me that dies a little bit. Or least it did until the second hour came. It's still effective, but far less so if only because action movie commercialism intrudes into a story that doesn't need it. Those ideas that were flawlessly implied become a bit too literalized, resulting in a high-octane mash-up of Logan's Run and Bonnie and Clyde and a messy final act. It's reach definitely exceeds its grasp. I wish all mainstream sci-fi movies could have that problem.

In a dystopian future where people stop aging at 25 and must accumulate more time (displayed by a green counter on their arms) in order to remain alive, ghetto factory worker Will Salas (Timberlake) is on the run after being gifted 100 years by the wealthy Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), whom he saved in an attempted time robbery bar assault. Suddenly blessed (cursed?) with all this time, Will discovers the playing field between the "haves" and the "have nots" is more uneven than he imagined, with costs rising unreasonably as time accumulates, making the wealthy richer as the poor continue seeing their precious few minutes run out. Now a suspected murderer and time thief, Will's trailed by determined "Timekeeper" Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) as he enters the posh "time zone" of New Greenwich, where he kidnaps Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the beautiful daughter of millionaire businessman Phillipe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Having taken a more willing hostage than expected, Will must evade the Timekeeper as well as the mob of Minutemen led by elderly British crime boss Fortis (Alex Pettyfr), both of whom are after his time for very different reasons.

There are some sensational scenes dealing with the transfer of time and time running out throughout the entire film, which no one deny exploits its premise to a hilt. In a pulse-pounding one early on, a character's seconds are counting down in a literal race against time, their life depending on meeting someone fast enough to reload. In a smart, non-gory PG-13 manner, we can almost literally see life escaping the person's body as they flail helplessly to the ground after "timing out."  And take the introduction scene between Will and Sylvia, where it's cleverly pointed out that he can't be sure whether she's actually Philipe's daughter, sister or maybe even wife due to the strange situation of this world. Niccol's confident command over this world initially brings to mind something out of Blade Runner, A Brave New World, Dark City, or 1984. Unsurprisingly, Niccol wrote and directed 1997's terrific dystopian nightmare Gattaca and this looks and feels a lot like that. It's really a technical sight with stunning lens work from the great Roger Deakins and cool, futuristic production design from Alex McDowell. Craig Armstrong's score is unforgettably haunting, arguably of far greater quality than you'd usually expect attached to a film of this nature.

Being that you'd pretty much have to be under 25 to get cast in movies these days anyway, it seems to work perfectly that this film actually has a built-in, plot-related reason for stacking its cast with young actors. Justin Timberlake once again proves there's nothing he can't do by adding "action star" to his resume while Amanda Seyfried (resembling a short-haired porcelain doll) ends her recent string of fluffy flops with one of her most interesting turns yet, reminding us how she first became a star by giving an quiet, expressive performance in which see seems to only act with her saucer-sized eyes. With only a few crucial scenes White Collar's Matt Bomer makes a good case for why he was originally one of the top contenders to play the new Superman with a performance that could easily double as a Clark Kent audition reel. Based on those few minutes, I'd have hired him. Mad Men fans will be happy to know that Vincent Kartheiser gives what's probably the best big screen performance by a member of that cast so far. It's surprising how large the role is, how well he plays it, but also how natural a fit it seems for him. Primarily known for playing scary creeps, Cillian Murphy plays a character on the other side of the law this time, nobly committed to to a cause for a society with practices that are anything but noble. He's still playing a scary creep, but with some actual humanity  that he makes sure subtly seeps through.

There was some controversy this screenplay was plagiarized from legendary sci-fi author Harlan Ellison's short story, "Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman." Having read it years ago, I can't say that occurred to me once while watching this and apparently Ellison agreed since he dropped his intended lawsuit after seeing it. The entire picture is very much a tale of two movies, a victor and victim of its own brilliant premise, eventually undercut by a somewhat clumsy conclusion. The final ten minutes are particularly head scratching. If ever there's a time for a tragic ending, it's in a speculative story exactly like this. Any other direction feels like a cop-out. On the bright side, the tone remains consistent and it doesn't become a completely different movie that's untrue to its original conceit (like The Adjustment Bureau embarrassingly did), but it does point out the importance of being able to stick the landing. That In Time still comes off as an underrated achievement despite all this is a testament to the talent both behind and in front of the camera. It could have really been something special, and for a while there, it at least came very close.

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