In Time / Chronicle – Movies on a Plane!

It’s time for another international flight and you know what that means…

Movies on a plane!

There are no official rules, but generally speaking I tend to gravitate toward movies that I’m curious about but that are not too emotionally or intellectually demanding, but that I still want to see, but that I’m not all that hopeful about and therefore would rather not spend any money on. And of course, something that I haven’t seen recently, or ever.

The perfect example of all this for me?

GI Joe : Retaliation!

Unfortunately that wasn’t one of the options. So instead, I opted for In Time and Chronicle

In Time (2011) stars Justin Timberlake, who I know is very famous and all but whom I actually know almost nothing about, and did not recognize until the credits at the end. The film is basically a Twilight Zone episode that was experimented upon by immoral scientists and then escaped from its specially designed paddock to terrorize our movie and TV screens. The premise of the film is that somehow (of course this is never explained) the world has become a place where people are born and age normally until they are 25. At that point they stop aging, which has the convenient side effect of nearly the entire cast of the film being good looking young adults.

However, when they turn 25, they are given only a year to live. A digital clock implanted into their arms counts down to the second how much more time thy have. And so in this world time has literally become currency. People spend minutes or hours from their life in order to buy food or bus tickets or whatever, and they work to gain more time. Time can be conveniently added or debited by little scanning devices, or even transferred from person to person just by holding hands.

And not surprisingly, because of the kind of move we’re in, the world is divided into “time zones” where people live according to different economic realities. The rich have years or centuries stocked up in banks, while the poor just try to survive day to day. And the poor area, where Justin Timberlake’s character, Will Salas, lives, is full of lots of violent crime and gang activity.

Two events prompt Salas’ out of his class-driven survival mode.   First, he helps a disenchanted rich guy with a death wish and gets granted a century of life as a result. Second, his mother dies because bus prices go up and she isn’t able to catch up to her son before she “times out”. The rich guy’s dying words wakes Salas up to the reality that the system is actually unjust: rich people simply periodically raise the cost of services and food to help cause poor people to die off. Somehow, this results in their being more time for the rich people. How this works exactly is never explained—we must satisfy ourselves with the pithy comment that for a few to be immortal, many others must die.

It’s implied that the rich guy has some sort of odd secret that’s led him to strange actions, and that as the movie goes on we’ll uncover more about the secret workings of the society, but none of this actually happens. Maybe it’s not implied and I was just hoping that the movie was going to be more intelligent and interesting than it proved to be. As it is, everything can be taken at face value – the rich guy was depressed because he’d been alive so long, and the system is unjust because, well, the rich people are a bunch of stinkers and somehow control everything.

I spend all this time describing the premise of the movie because that’s really the most interesting part of it. But not interesting in a good way – more interesting in a “Really, they made a movie out of the game Battleship? What could that possible be about?” sort of way. The movie spends tons of time “developing” its premise but never making any sense of it. But that didn’t have to matter–if the movie is well made, then it should be able to hold up against some inconsistencies in its speculative premise.

Unfortunately, it’s not good. It’s a confused mish-mash of routine and familiar plots that are badly edited together with inconsistent pacing and pedestrian characterization. In the end, after all its efforts to establish an intriguing world different and yet so similar to our own, the movie turns out to have a routine and familiar plot: low-class Timberlake hooks up with a disenchanted upper crust Amanda Seyfried, and together they start stealing time, which is conveniently kept on little machines locked inside bank safes, and giving it to the poor, Robin Hood style. They get chased by a canny police officer (Cillian Murphy) who is potentially interesting before he turns out to be a knowing patsy of the system determined to preserve a system that he knows is unjust before he dies of stupidity.

Just like my hope of enjoying the movie.

(Incidentally, doesn’t it seem a little absurd that time is kept locked in bank safes on little machines? Wouldn’t that be like, in our real world, if we kept virtual currency on a whole bunch of external hard drives and locked them in a safe in a bank? Why would you do that?)

Along the way, they deal with the girl’s father and some punks in the poor area who challenge Timberlake to a duel to the death where they try to steal each other’s time, which Timberlake wins thanks to a clever move that his father taught him before he died of who-knows-what but it’s made to seem relevant and interesting because the police officer recognizes him because he was killed for just giving time away to people, or something…

Honestly, the whole movie feels like a run-on sentence, and I was relieved when it was over.

Chronicle (2012) faired a lot better, and as a result I don’t have as much to say about it. The premise of this film is that three high school guys start developing telekinetic powers after being exposed to an unexplained phenomenon (presumably a meteor, but we’re not sure because it really was unexplained).

The gimmick of Chronicle, which is directed by Josh Trank, who we’re all hoping has also directed the best Fantastic Four movie ever made, is that it is a “found footage” film. That’s the conceit of pretending that everything you are watching was recorded on a video camera or something that was meant to be “really running” at the time of the event. This is one of these cinematic tricks that generally speaking I think we’ve seen enough of, but which keeps turning up, and rarely ever really makes any sense. Invariably found footage movies are thrillers of some sort (actually, I’d like to see someone make a found footage romantic comedy, just for the novelty), which means that invariably there comes a point where you are wondering why someone was filming during the scary events you are watching (including getting some pretty good reaction shots, cut aways, etc.)

Chronicle attempts to explain this by saying that the main character, Andrew, has started filming everything in his life as an attempt to deal with all the trauma he is experiencing – his mother is dying of cancer, his father is an abusive alcoholic, and Andrew himself is a bit of an anti-social loser. His cousin Matt eventually meets a girl who is also filming everything (because she is making a documentary), and the balance of the footage is supposedly drawn from cell phones, security camera, police car cameras, and news footage. Actually, I guess the idea is a lot more plausible now than it was even ten years ago, with the amount of pictures and sound being captured all the time by everyone with a good phone.

In any case, there are moments when the idea does work for Chronicle, especially when Andrew goes on a rampage that winds him up in the hospital. Security camera footage that is eerily (though understandably) silent is edited in in an abrupt but effective manner. And other times it allows for surprising reveals as unusual things suddenly enter frame from unexpected directions. But mostly it seems to be just a way to edit out any boring bits or other things that the film maker didn’t want to bother to explain.

But still, Chronicle worked for me, effectively building suspense as we watch three well-played but ordinary guys (another feature of the found footage movie) have their lives turned upside down by a random event. My friend has commented that it’s really a small superhero epic in many ways, and it occurred to me that Andrew’s story has a lot in common with Superboy Prime’s arc in the miniseries Infinite Crisis a decade ago (a powerful guy who is trying to do good but is immature accidentally does something really bad that pushes him over the edge and turns him into a monster), except that it was generally more satisfying.

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