Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

In Time and the broken ticking clock

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Ah, the ticking clock. In many ways, it’s both the hoariest and most effective of all suspense tropes: the protagonist has something difficult and dangerous to accomplish, but a limited amount of time, and by the way, the countdown starts now. This convention was mined most brilliantly by the first five seasons of 24, but countless thrillers have made use of it in various ways, to the point where Dean Koontz lists it as one of the three central devices for generating suspense, along with the chase and the anticipation of a violent event. And for all its familiarity, it still works, despite being frequently parodied. (My favorite subversion comes courtesy of Fat Tony on The Simpsons: “You have twenty-four hours to give us our money. And to show you we’re serious…you have twelve hours.”)

You would think, then, that a movie like Andrew Niccol’s In Time would be deliciously suspenseful, with the ticking clock built into the fabric of the story itself. The film takes place in a world in which all humans have been genetically engineered to stop aging after they turn twenty-five, but after that, they only have one year left. Time thus becomes the only form of currency: you can earn, borrow, or steal more, with your remaining time constantly displayed in a glowing readout on your left arm, and once the clock runs out, you die. No exceptions. Clearly, this is a great tool for suspense, since at any given moment, we know that our hero, appealingly played by Justin Timberlake, has only a fixed amount of time to live—and it’s especially tense when the countdown can be measured in minutes or seconds, so it coincides with the real time of the movie itself.

It’s astonishing, then, how little suspense In Time manages to milk from its underlying premise, as if Niccol didn’t understand the promise of his own story. The film’s logic isn’t that hard to understand, but it still has trouble explaining the rules, especially the fact that one’s time is worth more or less in different zones of the city—an omission that makes nonsense of an early scene in which Olivia Wilde’s character, with only a few minutes left, races desperately home for reasons that aren’t made clear. Worse, the movie lets its hero’s remaining time fluctuate enormously: it goes up and down with gifts and gambling and double-crosses, until any sense of momentum is lost. Far better, from a storytelling perspective, to take everything away except an hour and a half, keep the countdown fixed, and let us sweat it out with him in real time. (In fact, there’s a scene where the movie does exactly this, only to drop the issue almost at once, giving up its most promising narrative device in the process.)

Of course, using a fixed countdown to drive the plot would result in a different movie altogether, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. In Time has a great concept and a lot of style, with some nifty art direction by Alex McDowell, but it never quite figures out how to exploit its own premise. Instead of getting caught up in the story, we spend half the movie noticing holes in the plot. And while many of these lapses can be explained away, the point is that it shouldn’t matter. A movie like Children of Men, or even the ludicrous Equilibrium, may or may not have a wholly consistent set of rules, but while we’re watching the movie, we’re too excited to care. Meanwhile, In Time, which has devoted a fair amount of attention to its world’s internal logic, has so little drive that we can’t believe in it at all. The result is superficially smart, but viscerally adrift. It has a ticking clock at its heart, but it’s broken.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2011 at 9:10 am

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