Greenwich Mean Time

Reel Time
Dale Hill

            Since the advent of computer-generated imagery, followed by the surge in 3D technology, movie directors and their art directors have been falling all over themselves to dazzle our eye-bones with the biggest, flashiest, glitziest, sparkliest, jumpiest, explodingest images ever seen on the screen. Since James Cameron set the visuals bar impossibly high with “Avatar,” the scramble has taken on overtones of a deadly tribal turf war, resulting in extravagant overkill.

            Nowadays, when on-screen images have gone beyond astounding into the territory of preposterous, just when we weren’t expecting it, Andrew Niccol slips under our radar with a science fiction movie that has no explosions and only one special effect. What it does have is a fascinating premise, terse and sometimes funny dialogue, characters you root for, and breath-holding suspense. It also has, for a movie whose theme is time, a driving tempo that’s varied by subtle rhythmic changes, like a well-designed roller-coaster. In fact, “InTime,” in spite of some trivial plot holes, goes beyond being the best SF movie of the year to become something close to the best movie of the year, though it hasn’t, admittedly, been a very good year.

            “In Time” is playing locally right now; don’t goof around and miss it.

            In a not-too-distant future, when the architecture and clothes are still recognizable, and most of the cars are re-tooled luxury models from the 1960s, humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. Problem is, they’re also programmed to die at 26, unless they work to buy extra time, so the old saw “time is money” has become ominously true. (The film’s one special effect: every person has a glowing digital countdown strip on his or her forearm that gets time added as pay or gifts (or thefts), and subtracted as real time passes, and for purchases or debts (or thefts).

            “That’s 59 years, plus tax,” says the salesman of a ’62 Jaguar XKE. Rich people are careful not to do anything risky, because they have thousands of years on their biological clocks, while poor people live literally from day to day, as the literal cost of living keeps rising.

            Will Salas, a 28-year-old day-laborer (Justin Timberlake), has his life extended dramatically when he rescues a wealthy old man who is, paradoxically, tired of living. (An eerie side-effect: no matter how old anybody is, everybody looks 25.) The donor hints that the wealthy are planning to live forever, on the time they take from the poor by selling goods and services and charging exorbitant interest rates on time loans.

            When Will is seconds too late to give his mother the time-transfusion she needs, he vows to use his new wealth to ruin the One Percent who control all the extra time, and has any of this started sounding familiar yet? Actually the movie was in the can before the Occupy Anywhere movement began, so you can chalk up the similarities to a growing awareness on the part of the Zeitgeist to What’s Really Going On In High Finance.

            Will buys a snazzy new suit and crosses several Time Zones to the affluent area called New Greenwich, which is where this review’s title comes from, because the Time Swindle is “mean” as in time, “mean” as in median (the numerical value separating the higher half of a sample from the lower half), “mean” as in cruel, and “mean” as in avaricious.                                                                                                       In his quest for revenge Will encounters a sultry young heiress (Amanda Seyfried) who has a thing for slumming and Bad Boys, and who is soon doing a credible Patty Hearst impersonation as they rob her dad’s banks of their time cartridges and distribute them to the poor.

            The Robin Hood analogy is in fact more apt than the SLA, as her father can easily represent Prince John, who keeps his first million years in a tower vault, safe from the peasants. Robin and Marion elude the Sheriff of Nottingham, known as The Timekeeper, and combat the nefarious Guy of Guisbourne, a sleazy time thief and his gang of Minutemen. The old stories are still the best stories – how very satisfactory.

            It’s unclear how much of the story actually belongs to Andrew Nicoll, who is credited as screenwriter as well as producer and director. Before the movie opened it was hit by a lawsuit from the well-known science fiction author Harlan Ellison, claiming that the movie’s premise was stolen from a short story of his that won the Hugo Award in 1966. It’s called “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” and it’s one of the most-reprinted stories in fandom.

            The suit claims that both the film and Ellison's story concern a dystopian future in which people have a set amount of time to live which can be revoked by an authority known as a Timekeeper. The suit ultimately settled for the addition of Harlan Ellison’s name to the film's credits. It sounds pretty close-run to me (I haven’t read the story), but I do know that Ellison has a reputation as one of the most prickly and litigious authors in SF, so a line of screen credit may have been the easiest way out.

            Still, what Nicoll has done with the story on screen is a rare treat, which could just as easily have been inspired by “Logan’s Run,” “The Island,” or Terry Pratchett’s 1981 novel “Strata.” but makes its own enjoyably brash statement.