Thursday, February 09, 2012

When post-apocalyptic movies aren't fun

Hi there. Back from Australia/New Zealand. Pictures on the weekend and travelogue next week.

Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of post apocalyptic movies. Grim storylines all shot in and around the nearly deserted Los Angeles River. There are abandoned freeway bridges, streets from THE SHIELD, people in the future all seem to drive black 1967 Lincoln Continentals (gas prices must be $10 a gallon in the future), and these films are forever shot through blue filters to help create a starker, bleaker, feel. It’s important that everyone look they spent their entire lives working at the Pep Boys.

Most of these pictures center around the poor downtrodden who seem to have two key problems – they live in man-made squalor and there’s some created all-powerful authority figure keeping them in their place. The baddies are always in black, always brutal, and it would take a collection of thinkers the caliber of the Manhattan Project to decipher the backstory of how these new police goons replaced Westinghouse Security.

Oh.. and throw in some robots, a love story set against the ashes, and what you have in 2012 for $70,000,000 is what Roger Corman used to make in 1965 for $700, although Corman did them better.

Everything must be metaphorical – a cautionary commentary. Sure, go ahead. Use that aerosol can of Aqua-Net. But in two years your life will become THE BLADE RUNNER.

Many of these stories come from the late Philip K. Dick, who wrote imaginative pulp tales of futuristic doomsdays. He wasn’t highly regarded in his time (although he should have been), but now his laundry lists are being adapted for big budget starring vehicles for Clive Owens once Daniel Craig passes.

I tend to skip them. Don’t want to see people in Jetsons’ time dressed like Flintstones’ time battling plagues, Big Brother, and forced to huddle together en masse in a burned out shell that once was the Disney Center.

However, yesterday on my endless flight from Sydney on my VOD pod I sat through IN TIME. I had seen most everything else that was available. I watched THE ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN first, and had exited ANNONYMOUS about a half an hour in. What the fuck was that?!

IN TIME starred Justin Timberlake, who I quite like, and the love interest in these films must always be a waif red head with pale skin almost as blue as her eyes. Amanda Seyfried was fine.

Here’s the premise: When humans turn 25 the rest of the lives are determined by a preset timer that appears on your inner arm. Time becomes currency. You can add time by working, stealing it from others, and…. I dunno. You just can.

And you siphon it out with every purchase. A coffee is 4 minutes, entrance to a nicer neighborhood is a month, watching a Nancy Meyers movie – two years for every showing (okay, that’s true in real life too).

But the good news is you will forever look the way you do at 25 (good news if you’re Amanda Seyfried; bad news if you’re Rosie O’Donnell) and if you’re rich you can seemingly live forever.

So it’s sort of an intriguing premise. And having hot Olivia Wilde play Justin Timberlake’s mother was kind of fun. Coo coo cachoo Mrs. Robinson. The first fifteen minutes set up this world, and you still find yourself asking one or two little questions, like: How did any of this happen? How did our DNA change to accommodate this new system? And how is time stored and transferred? And since it happens to us automatically, are we saying for sure there’s a God or some higher being? And who sets the prices? And if you know you’re going to live until your 80s is it okay to now smoke? And considering how long it takes, would you ever eat a whole lobster in the shell?

But put aside those nagging questions because there are so many more pressing questions to come. What this movie quickly becomes is a rogue hero and his babe running from the authorities, challenging conventions, thwarting villains, saving the world, and crashing as many cars as the LA. River will allow.

I can’t even give you a SPOILER ALERT because I had no fucking clue what was going on most of the time. Justin is poor then meets Neil from WHITE COLLAR who’s rich who gives him his time so after his mother (13 from HOUSE) times out he goes to rich person land (Century City) and risks everything in a high stakes poker game with Pete from MAD MEN (who’s supposed to be 85). Meanwhile, evil authority figure (Cillian Murphy who takes all the sleaseball roles that Eric Roberts used to get.) is after Justin for reasons they might explain in the director’s track.

At this point the film goes completely off the rails. There are chase scenes, robberies, vendettas, story turns from Mars, and you just stop caring. I’d say this comes a half hour into the film. From then on beware because YOU are squandering precious time sitting through this utter mess.

Post-apocalyptic movies have an obligation to create their own worlds. They set rules and the characters must live within them. The premise can be clever, the rules fun, and the journey of the characters as they navigate this world exciting and satisfying. (I loved ROAD WARRIOR but now wish Mel Gibson had been killed) But the rules have to be clear. They have to make sense. The audience needs to follow them. The audience needs understand the stakes. In short, the audience has to be willing to go along for the ride.

A better premise for IN TIME is this: A world where filmmakers make all the wrong decisions. It’s a cataclysmic world of confusion and ugly cinematography. Can Pete from MAD MEN and Neil from WHITE COLLAR ever get movie roles again? How does time figure into all of this? Trust me, ten minutes in you’re looking at your watch.


emily said...

Logan's Run II ?

Jeff Clem said...

I read somewhere that writer Harlan Ellison either threatened to sue or did sue because the movie plot resembled his award-winning short story "Repent Harlequin, Said the TickTock Man!" a little too closely. Ellison's brief fable is fantasy, and it sounds like this movie was trying to be serious science fiction and it appears to have failed miserably.

Gully Foyle said...

Mr. Clem,

I think I also read (it would probably be easy to confirm with a search, but reckless rumor-mongering is more fun) that Ellison disavowed any connection to this movie once he actually read the script (or saw the movie) because it was so bad.

The sci-fi feature that I REALLY want to see competently adapted on the screen is The Stars My Destination. To Mr. Levine, I would heartily recommend this Alfred Bester book as a quick fun read, written in a fast, pulpy, cinematic style. (Love your blog, I check it every day!)

DonBoy said...

You could do worse that Rosie O'Donnell at 25:

Johnny Walker said...

You make plenty of interesting points, Ken. I have to wonder that if there was some sort of apocalypse where we lost all our technology... why wouldn't we revert to simpler times? You know, like farming and families.

Just because technology is gone doesn't mean we'd all start dressing like we were in a Duran Duran video.

I'd like to think we'd find a way to struggle on without iPads.

Trivia: In China, their sci-fi portrays a hopeful future, a Star Trek style utopia. The fact that we look into the future and see killer robots says a lot about the Western mindset.

Cap'n Bob said...

Can't agree, DonBoy.

Rick said...

Movie rolls, Ken? Sounds delicious.

gottacook said...

G. Foyle: I first read The Stars My Destination almost 40 years ago and have had a similar desire to see it made into a great movie, but I don't know how it would be done - specifically the synesthesia section near the end. How do you convey that to audiences? Then there's the matter of the face tattooing: If Foyle's antagonists know that they won't be able to recognize him without the Maori-like face tattoos that the Scientific People gave him, won't that be spoiled if we the audience can do so? (The latter was a main flaw of the late-1970s graphic novel adaptation by Byron Preiss Publications.) I love the novel but it probably should remain a novel.

Janet T said...

What I never understand about futuristic shows/movies is this: what happened to all the lights? Why are space ships always a hulk of dark metal. The first thing I would do it find a way to light things up. We have the technology to fly through space but not have lights? I’d like my future to look more Star Treky (Next Generation) but given our national penchant for really bad reality shows, I think it will look more like The Running Man.

John the Scientist said...

@Johnny Walker

I'm not sure where you got your trivia from, but it's not true. The currently hottest science fiction novel in Chinese language circles is dystopian.

I think you're mistaking differnces in political systems for differences in outlook. As the linked article mentions:

But no mainland Chinese publisher has been willing to publish it..

The future, in a good Communist country, is supposed to be boring, since the Red Supermen will have solved every problem by the time we get to the future. I spent a couple of years in the USSR, and offcial, non-Samizdat science fiction there was similar to Mainland Chinese SF today - relentlessly cheery and relentlessly dull. Samizdat SF outside the offical publishers was another story - the Russians are half Eastern after all, gloomy buggers with a lot of the East's fatalism in their make-up.

Certainly, you can see dystopian and fatalistic elements in post-war Japanese SF (e.g. Godzilla), much of which wells from a shared culture and shared zeitgeist with their Chinese parent culture.

The Chinese fatalism you see in the writings of the early Republican period into the Warlord period disappeared in 1949, and can now only be found in the presses of the Overseas Chinese and the R.O.C., but you see plenty of it there.

Slyhook said...

I heard it was originally titled, "RomneyVille."


Kirk said...

"people in the future all seem to drive black 1967 Lincoln Continentals (gas prices must be $10 a gallon in the future)"

Good joke, but I must point out that post-apocalyptic movies usually take place after much of the population has been decimated, so, according to the laws of supply and demand, gas could very well be less expensive (SOYLENT GREEN is an obvious exception to the decimated-population rule, but that movie may be more accuately called PRE-apocalyptic)

"Rosie O'Donnell at 25" Well, her face is kind of pretty, and I think I read somewhere she was a prom queen in high school. As they usually don't pick Prom Queens on personality alone, it's reasonable to think she was fairly desirable at, say, 17. By 25, I don't know, she might have had some weight gain by then. I don't think she became well-known until her 30s.

@Janet T--"Why are spaceships always a hulk of dark metal?"

Well, for one thing, movies all copy one another. In this case, the copying goes back to ALIEN and its many sequals. A monster can tear a person to shreds just as easily with the lights on as with them off, but I guess directors and set designers think it's more scary if it's the latter. (Hitchcock was one director who defied the monster-in-the-dark cliche. THE BIRDS attacked in broad daylight)

My favorite post-apocalyptic movie takes place in the country that Ken just visited. ON THE BEACH. In that one, Australia is, for the time being, perfectly intact, while the rest of the world has been decimated in a nuclear war. However, fallout looms. It's genuinely eerie to see these people go about their lives as they gradually succumb to radiation sickness.

gottacook said...

Andrew Niccol, the writer-director of In Time (as well as Gattaca), is also responsible for the script of the Peter Weir movie The Truman Show, which rips off the central idea of Dick's early (1959) novel Time Out of Joint to such an extent that a movie of it will likely never be made, a real shame. Nearly all movies that have been based on Dick novels or short stories have thrown out 50% to 95% of the original plot and characters, but that one could have been kept intact.

Button Pushing Monkey said...

You touched on one of my problems with the movie... the running. SO much running, and chasing, and dodging, and jumping, and climbing, and evading. And it's ALL just a cheap way of trying to ramp up dramatic tension without trying to make the audience actually invest in the characters at any point.

It all culminated for me in the finale (SPOILER ALERT), where in a scene that's supposed to mirror the earlier demise of Olivia Wilde, someone approved the most ridiculous pair of 6 inch stripper heels for Amanda Seyfried to wear. If the characters hadn't already lost me well before this, why would I really give a shit about a hero/heroine dumb enough to wear the least appropriate footwear in the world at yet another moment where her life will probably depend on running?!?!?

Par for the course with most action films these days I'll grant you... I just sorta expected more from Andrew Niccol.

Alan said...

"...big budget starring vehicles for Clive Owens once Daniel Craig passes"

Ken, how much better would Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace been had they starred Cilve Owen rather than Daniel Craig? (To me: a lot better. Owen is far more Bond-ish than Craig.)

deanareeno said...

While I agree with you that 'In Time' was interesting for about the first 15 minutes or so before it just became a silly movie (or, an even sillier movie?) about running and stealing, I have just one small bone to pick...

It's not a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn't take place after any apocalypse. The Mad Max films? Yes. Children of Men? Yes. The Road? Hell to the yes.

What little I remember of 'In Time', the premise was that people of the future figured out via genetic engineering how to stop ageing, but as there would then be crazy overpopulation and drain on resources, the 'haves' came up with a system that would effectively cull the 'have-nots': a 24 hour timer that kills you if it runs out, and a currency system based on adding-to/taking-from this clock.

High-concept batshit crazy idea? Sure. Post-apocalyptic? Nah.

Amanda Seyfried and Olivia Wilde sure are pretty tho.

Liggie said...

I'm in the minority, it seems: I enjoyed the movie. Not a home run, but it was entertaining and had an interesting concept Deanareeno summarized. I could buy the "buying time" theme and Justin Timberlake as an action hero; the only thing I wasn't convinced by was Amanda Seyfried's wig.

BTW, this wasn't the first time I saw the idea of buying time. I remember a bank commercial saying something like, "What if banks gave out time like money?"

Customer 1: "Can you spare me a few moments?"
Teller 1: "Yes, at 7% interest."
Customer 2: "I've been waiting here for an hour!"
Teller 2: "I'm sorry, how long have you been waiting?"

Lou H. said...

Two of my favorite movies are post-apocalyptic: Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys. As it turns out, David Peoples wrote both of them, and they were driven by outstanding directors. Maybe those are the key ingredients.

Jack said...

I never understood Harlan Ellison's contention that this resembled his "Repent Harlequin". At least Harlan's story had depth to it.

But then, how often is Harlan ever "understood"?