Last weekend Better Half and I went to see the new JT vehicle, In Time. This is a movie about a world in which people live until they’re 25, at which point they’re genetically engineered to die after exactly one additional year. They can buy more time to extend their life, or they can lose it and die sooner. The tally is kept on their forearms, in glowing green digital numbers that everyone can see. Rich people have endless amounts of time credit, and can live a hundred years in their pretty, glossy, twenty-five-year-old bodies. Poor people stay young too, but they live day to day in the ghettos, working crappy jobs to earn enough to live another day. So, not a bad idea for a movie, right? Too bad it went so wrong.
We saw this movie for a number of reasons. First: JT. He’s a former flame of Better Half, so when he makes a movie, we go. Second: Vincent Kartheiser and his red red lips. Third: Cillian Murphy and his crazy cat face. Fourth: Stylish futuristic genre movie. Cf. Aeon Flux, Gattaca, Blade Runner, etc. They’re a niche product, and they don’t come along every day. All good reasons to drop twenty bucks (!! my Scottish heart fails!) on the experience.
However. As I watched this movie, there were lots of moments when I found myself wondering what time it was and thinking about snacks. This is never good. It’s a sign that the movie isn’t working. So no, In Time is not a working movie–but I’m interested in why movies work, or don’t work. Let’s discuss.
On the way home, Better Half and I compared In Time to Blade Runner, which may not be fair because…Blade Runner. There’s no winning against that. But it’s interesting, because I think we can agree that Blade Runner is a good movie. Objectively good, if there is such a thing. (There’s not.) It’s widely praised, acclaimed, referenced, and assimilated as part of our popular culture. If those things equal at least some value of “good,” then we can use Blade Runner as a kind of yardstick against which to measure In Time‘s not-goodness, and try to figure out what went wrong.
Also, both In Time and Blade Runner are science fiction movies with big-name stars and lots of financial backing, heavy on style and even concerned with some of the same issues. In both movies, protagonists are racing against time, pursued or in pursuit, enmeshed in a flawed and dehumanizing system in an alternate Los Angeles. So why is Blade Runner so much better?
The simple answer is, I guess: better director. Better actors, maybe. Better script. Just better. But what does that really meeeeaaan?
Both movies have a strong visual style. But Blade Runner‘s is huge, iconic, groundbreaking. When you think of Blade Runner you think of dark, rainy, impossible crowded streets billowing with steam and streaked with neon light; huge geisha faces on enormous electronic billboards; battered hovercars soaring through gargantuan office buildings. You think of strange, kinky costuming like Zhora’s snakeskin-seqined stripper outfit and her transparent stiff plastic raincoat, or Pris’s wacky black-stripe eye makeup and electrocuted hair, or even Roy Batty’s Spandex bike shorts. You think of noir, of curling cigarette smoke, dim lights, shadows, chiaroscuro. Blade Runner is a movie in love with the look of things, and its look is unlike anything that came before.
In Time makes an effort at a strong visual style, but it doesn’t adore its settings or costumes, and it doesn’t take risks. The ghetto is a ghetto, recognizable but not new. The city of the rich is clean and white and glassy, but nothing special.
In between and around the fringes are some brief forays into originality: the grinding concrete toll barriers that separate the districts, the tunnels and cracked, desolate boulevards of no-man’s-land. And one of the best visual effects in the film comes when Will (JT) and Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) swim in the ocean at night, and their glowing green time counters light them from beneath the water.
Other than that, there’s not much to say. The mansions and casinos of the ultra-rich are…fine. We recognize them. We’ve seen that same flattering golden casino light before, in every Ocean‘s movie made. The mansion is fine. It’s not that mind-blowing; someone probably lives there right now. Maybe the executive producer’s son-in-law, which is a sad comment on the Up With People message of the movie. But whatever, look at this shot as a for-instance. Look how messy, how unstructured, how Architectural Digest. Would Ridley Scott have ever flubbed his setting like this?
I think not.
The costuming is fine, too. Tuxes, shabby ghetto wear, some very cute dresses on Seyfried. (Better Half leaned over more than once and hissed, “I want that dressssss.”) But they never put Seyfried in anything remotely as avant-garde as what Sean Young wore in Blade Runner, with her huge retro-fifties shoulder pads and nipped waists, and collars up to her temples. Seyfried looked luxe, and props to her for running even a step in those heels*, but she wasn’t wearing anything Important. The costuming in Blade Runner had a point and it was part of a larger story: the worn-down detective, the femme fatale, the reclusive, urbane evildoer. The costuming in In Time is, you know. There.
The Greatest Effort Invested at Being Originally Stylish Award in In Time goes to Cillian Catface Murphy, for his look as Timekeeper Raymond Leon. It feels like the filmmakers spent a little more time sketching ideas for what Timekeepers (essentially time detective/cops) should look like, wear, drive, etc. It also doesn’t hurt that they cast Murphy, who looks about as foreign and futuristic as anyone on the market these days, and who could wear hip boots and a dickey and look fantastic. So, while the Timekeeper cars seemed sort of sad, like chop-shopped Metallicars crossed with KITT, I had the sense that there was some greater effort happening behind the scenes here.
Yes, they do.
But visual style isn’t the only important thing about movies, right? Story matters, too. Things like plot and character development and theme? I’ve heard about those things.
In Time‘s plot is pretty simple: a disillusioned rich guy donates all his time to poor-guy JT (named Will Salas, pronounced “Solace.”) JT then goes on a crusade to dismantle the system that’s keeping the people down. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a rich girl, and she becomes Bonnie to his Clyde. They ultimately confront her despotic father, destabilize the economic system, free the people, and go on to greater (unspecified) adventures.
Blade Runner‘s plot is maybe a little more involved. Four organic robots escape from indentured interstellar servitude and come to Earth, at least in part to discover how much time they have before they automatically expire. A retired Blade Runner named Deckard is strong-armed back into the profession to find and kill them. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a robot. Over the course of the movie, Deckard questions morality, compassion, justice, and the nature of his own humanity. After all the escaped robots die, he flees with the woman he loves–possibly heading for his own expiration date.
Maybe I’m too biased to recount plots like that. Or maybe it really is that clear. The plot points in In Time are pretty basic, right? If we’re a little kinder, we could talk a bit about Will Salas’s motivation springing from the tragic death of his mother, seconds from a time transfer that would save her–or the revelation that the Timekeeper chasing him is a product of the ghettos himself. But really, those aren’t game-changing complexities. In Time just has a pretty simplistic, reductive plot. It’s a simpler story–and while simple isn’t always bad, in this case I think it calls for so much willing suspension of disbelief that the story becomes a fantasy.
The most fantastic element of the movie isn’t the glowing digital numbers on people’s arms–it’s the notion that two people can change the system. Two pretty, unprepared young people who can shoot guns (kind of–Sylvia amusingly lets a couple of rounds off without meaning to) and run very fast. That, apparently, is what it takes to change a global system of injustice. By shooting guns and running fast, two people can empty bank vaults and redistribute wealth and transform the downtrodden masses into empowered activists.
Now, I don’t want to discount the power of a few committed people, because that shit is real–for good or for bad. Charismatic individuals can start world-changing movements. But to do so they tend to be connected to other people, other groups–they mobilize the masses, and it’s usually a long, arduous process. I’m not aware of anyone who’s overthrown a government in a few days by running in heels and driving bank trucks into storefronts. Please enlighten me if I’m missing out. But what I’m saying is, the movie is making a choice here. This is not Pray the Devil Back to Hell. This is not Che. This is a movie that is short-handing the revolutionary process to a few scenes that tie up the arc and are fun to watch. Which is to say, this is a fantasy.
Compare to Blade Runner, in which the embittered, fatigued Deckard has no real impact on the system. He’s pushed around by his old supervisor, overshadowed by the Mayan wealth of the Tyrell Corporation, beaten to a pulp by Roy Batty. The only thing Deckard can do is take a beating and help Rachel escape–and he only gets to do that because Gaff lets him. Deckard’s the classic hardboiled hero, a threadbare cynic at the end of his rope, forced into an unwinnable scenario by powers beyond his control. There’s not even a question that he’ll change the bigger picture. The satisfaction in his story comes not from solving the world’s problems, but in watching someone go up against impossible odds, and making the smallest, most personal difference possible.
So, Blade Runner is a more completely integrated movie. By which I mean, its plot, themes, character arcs, visual design–everything from its costumes to its soundtrack–are all of a piece. Everything serves the whole, which is basically futuristic noir. It’s complex, and true to what we know of human nature.
Is Blade Runner better because it’s more realistic–at least in terms of what we know about human nature and political and economic systems? Maybe. I think it’s better because it’s a more complete package. Its characters are realistic and recognizable, its themes are major, and it’s hella fun to watch.
Also, it’s apparently still in the red (according to Hollywood accounting), while In Time has now made $12.1 million.** There’s some kind of moral there, about what kind of world we live in. I’m pretty sure it’s depressing.
* I recently watched some of Torchwood S4, and enjoyed Gwen Cooper’s comment after going undercover as a Chic Business-Type Lady. “Women who wear heels to work are heroic, Jack! Why do women wear these things?” Indeed.