Friday, 11 May 2012

On DVD: "In Time"

In so far as Hollywood takes science fiction at all seriously these days, the Kiwi Andrew Niccol has become the go-to guy for it: he wrote The Truman Show in between directing gigs on Gattaca and S1m0ne. Crucially, Niccol's work tends to be set in future-alternative realities on Earth rather than way up in outer space; an inheritor of the Twilight Zone tradition, he works in disquieting notes of social commentary that generally set him above his louder, noisier SF peers. His most recent offering In Time, for example, which dashed in and out of cinemas last autumn, opens on a recognisably beaten-up, worn-down American town where - in a logical extension of corporate capitalism's ability to put a price on everything - time is literally money, and a cup of coffee will set you back four minutes.

Genetic engineering has ensured human life will endure until at least the age of 25; beyond that, with the planet's resources consequently stretched to breaking point, you're living on whatever days, hours and minutes you can scrabble together - literally borrowed time, in some cases. There are obvious knock-on effects. The working-classes are obliged to scurry everywhere and wolf down their food, the better to make more time for themselves, while the rich have the privilege of idling away in separate "time zones" where they cruise in luxury cars and gamble in casinos - the kind of protective bubble Truman was confined to, and not dissimilar to the genetically perfect world set out in Gattaca. Our working-class hero Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) has strayed here, having inherited a stretch of time from a businessman he rescued during an attempted robbery; the cops, however - now known as timekeepers - suspect him of murder, forcing him on the run with a Patty Hearst-like heiress (Amanda Seyfried). The reward offered for their capture? Ten years.

The complicated, ultra-high concept allows for such playful jolts as the casting of the twentysomething Olivia Wilde as Timberlake's mother, and of three of her contemporaries as the wife, daughter and mother of another character; it also gives rise to a whole new lexicon, subtly subverting the meaning of phrases like per diem, clockwatching, cleaning your clock, wasted time and time out. Certain elements remain the same, however. Niccol has a major health-and-efficiency hang-up about the ocean as a purifying force in otherwise unhealthy universes: think of Ethan Hawke purging himself of his incriminating DNA on a moonlit beach in Gattaca, or of Jim Carrey's Truman setting sail for the ends of his world. One of the first things Timberlake and Seyfried do on the run here is go skinnydipping, a nod in the direction of the film's predecessor Logan's Run, perhaps, and also a moment of paradise before this, too, is lost.

Niccol can still craft moments of beauty (a man timing his death so as to fall into the L.A. storm drain) and weirdness (Timberlake putting Seyfried into one of his late mother's dresses). Yet the clean lines of his earlier work have here been sullied by the need to make something more appealing to the modern multiplex crowd. Though Cillian Murphy mucks in nicely, summoning up the weariness of a fiftysomething copper forced to inhabit the body of a younger man and chase the sons of the fathers he once pursued, and Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser sketches a mildly creepy portrait of this world's physically and emotionally stunted overlords, the film suffers from having to cast actors who might pass for 25. Timberlake cuts a dash, but can't summon up the emotional heft Hawke lent to Gattaca - as impressive as the former *NSYNCer was in The Social Network, it may be telling that we weren't supposed to care what happened to Sean Parker - while you just groan every time the film cuts to the reliably awful Alex Pettyfer as one of the nondescript hoods on Will's tail.

This is a jumpy film, its grand conceptual architecture towering over a nothingy kind of plot that ultimately boils down to our hero and heroine running around, stopping to redistribute the wealth, and then running around again some more, and Niccol rather overuses the device of having characters run their own personal clocks down close to zero. What could have been the first great Fox Corp-sponsored Marxist tract of the 21st century - "Is it really stealing if it's already stolen?," Seyfried asks at one point, and you realise maybe Rupert Murdoch really wasn't fit to run his own company, if this is the kind of question his company's movies had started to ask - has been reduced, whether by test-screening compromise or a rare directorial failure of nerve, to here-today-gone-tomorrow Hollywood filler with a few neat ideas rattling around inside it.

In Time is currently available on DVD.

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