Last month I had the curious and inspiring experience of mingling at the Austin Film Festival screenwriter's conference as one of a very few non-writers attending. The Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin was fairly overflowing with scruffy-haired paper-clutching dreamers of the finest kind—I think writers are the most sincere of all the various categories of cinematic hopefuls—many of whom, I am convinced, were tremendously talented and only unemployed because of Hollywood's overwhelming lack of giving a shit about writers at the moment.
It's not that writers aren't still being hired, traded, ghosted, paid boatloads, and occasionally celebrated. (Aaron Sorkin and Charlie Kaufman are kind of the SRK and Amitabh of US screenwriters; nobody else comes close.) But after seeing one of my most-anticipated films of the year, the train wreck called In Time, it seems clear their contributions are no longer an integral part of the decision-making process. That is, whereas once you needed every one of six things for a film to be greenlit and sold — name talent, a great script, a surefooted director, a visionary cinematographer, studio backing, and a giant marketing budget — now you need all but one of those.
I write this with heavy heart, because In Time had absolutely everything going for it. It's being distributed by 20th Century Fox with a marketing campaign that made its imagery ubiquitous over the last several weeks. It stars the still-rising Justin Timberlake. Its director is Andrew Niccol, who created Gattaca and The Truman Show, both brilliant. Its cinematographer is Roger Deakins, who filmed most of the most beautiful films of the last 20 years, including all of the Coens' work and The Shawshank Redemption. It even has fucking Colleen Atwood, muse of Tim Burton and one of the few name-brand costume designers in Hollywood today.
Even more potent than any of those ingredients, here is a film with the single most eye-poppingly original, utterly compelling science fiction premise since Children of Men: In Time imagines a quasi-future world in which the aging gene has been switched off, and time itself is tendered as currency. Humans earn the hours and days of their lives through work, and spend them on coffee, bus rides, hotels, and cars. Factory workers wake up with only 24 hours to live, and must work their shifts to live through the next morning; while the wealthy carry on for centuries, stockpiling their years in vaults, and worry about nothing. This is a fantastic premise.
There is only one thing, really, that could possibly go wrong. If the film were to happen to be released at a time when the Powers That Be, through a mulish agenda of constant remakes and comic book adaptations, had forgotten why spending time to craft a great script mattered, and indeed had forgotten how to recognize a great script at all, and so failed to realize the power of the story they carried, and, amid jockeying for the perfect star, poster, and release date, neglected to pause at any point along the rushing river of production to ask whether they truly had the best possible story this this hugely pregnant premise could offer, and instead figured that whatever script Niccol had turned in, so long as it allowed for some cleavage, some car chases, and some glowering from their star would suffice — well, if by some cosmic confluence of bad luck all of those things were to happen, In Time would be the film that would result.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that In Time is a particularly painful film to watch, because absolutely everything in it is terrific, except the script. Which is all the more bewildering given that it comes straight from Niccol, who also wrote the very fine screenplays for the aforementioned Gattaca and Truman.
It's a matter of knowing when enough is enough. In In Time, all the right pieces are in place, but then there are about a half dozen extra pieces. A subplot involving a lowlife con artist who deals in petty time-theft is wholly pointless; the element of having the city divided into distinct time zones (which display nicely in red and green on big wall charts) only muddies and simplifies the social point of the whole thing. The characters make great strides forward only to let themselves fall back, all the way back to nothing, with hardly a fight at all. They run back and forth between the same locations far, far too many times. Maybe it was the dust of finely-tuned screenplays and panels on structure that had settled on me in Austin, but I felt overwhelmingly as though I were watching a rough first draft of a story, somehow put to film.
What is perhaps most ironic of all is that by the solidity of its premise and the gross misstep of its execution, In Time is probably the film of the new millennium that will be most ripe for a fantastic remake in another decade or two...