Movies made on the concept of Time have been selling points simply becausealternative ways of looking at Time ticks.
Time matters, whether we are anxiously watching it slip past or whether we are slicing and juggling our daily quota of 24 hours in increasingly creative ways, using words such as time management and multitasking. Many of us have gone long past discovering the 25th hour and, last checked, are searching desperately for the 27th.
Time is money, we say, a sign of our capitalistic times — and a statement whose literal implications are explored in Andrew Niccol's latest film, “In Time”. It offers — in a timespan of less than two hours — a deeply disconcerting view on how far we could take our obsession with time. In Niccol's future world, time is the currency, where people “pay” four minutes for a cup of coffee, or a couple of hours for a taxi ride, or two months for a night in an expensive hotel. Humans are genetically engineered to stop ageing at age 25, but die a year later unless they earn time to keep the clock built into their system ticking.
It's a fabulous premise — and too bad the film itself didn't match up to the promise, but it certainly got us thinking, talking, wondering the what-ifs of Time. It felt like a genuinely original idea, a tough feat to pull off since many filmmakers have engaged with notions of time, especially in sci-fi movies.
In the celluloid world, the most “conventional” ways of playing with time have involved time travel, offering the possibility of backward-looking nostalgia and imaginative future-gazing. Plus some humankind saving. It's rather handy to be able to use a spot of time travel to prevent the upcoming annihilation of the human race whether by viruses (“12 Monkeys”) or machines (“Terminator”).
Or even from aliens — in a rather indifferently-received, but entertaining Japanese film called “Returner”, starring the dishy Takeshi Kaneshiro. In it, a little girl time-travels to the past and enlists the help of a Tokyo gunman to try prevent aliens from wiping out mankind in her time. “The future is history” announced the movie's tagline.
Science tends to be sketchily harnessed in such movies, but if the story is good, hey, I'm happy to accept that a “flux capacitor” is what makes time travel possible (“Back to the Future”). The time travel paradox — that is “if I went back in time and killed my grandmother, how could I have been born at all, to go back in time to kill her?” — is even trickier to tackle, as seen in movies such as “The Butterfly Effect” (2004) or “The Sound of Thunder” (2005).
However, “The Time Traveller's Wife” — based on a debut novel by Audrey Niffenegger — offered a different take on the subject. A man is born with a gene that makes him spontaneously move backwards and forwards in time, without any conscious volition on his part. In other words, time travelling is part of how he has always experienced his life and he can't go back and change anything: A sort of closed time loop, that doesn't destabilise reality.
Life's tragedy is that we can't change anything, that we have no way of putting into retroactive practice the wisdom that we learn with the passing of time. As Milan Kundera once wrote: “We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”
“Groundhog Day” (1993), a genuinely funny film, was so powerful I think because it explores an alternate scenario to the messiness of real life described by Kundera: That is Bill Murray's character is given the unasked for — and initially unappreciated — opportunity to play out the same day over and over, till he actually learns something from it.
That was my problem with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, feted as another movie that looked at Time in a very original way. Button, born looking old, grows visually younger as he ages chronologically — but seems to learn nothing new from this unusual experience, and neither do we. For a film that distorts time so extensively, it was a curious case of the story being too linear.
What's so scary about the way time works in the real world is that a split second can make all the difference between life unfolding in one way or another. Tom Tykwer's “Run Lola Run” — which recalls Krzysztof Kieslowski's earlier film “Blind Chance” — was a nonstop, kinetic look at this philosophical idea, showing three completely different outcomes that could arise from a single starting point, based on tiny changes that have ripple effects that adjust everything that follows.
But filmmakers don't always need to distort Time to make people think about it in altered ways. This year's film “One Day” — based on the successful novel of the same name by David Nicholls — visits its two protagonists on the same day every year for 20 years to see how their lives have shaped up over the passing of time, and how things have changed from youthful expectation. Incidentally, critics — as with “The Time Traveller's Wife” — have been more enthusiastic about the book than its filmic adaptation.
Time is the ever-real ever-present fourth dimension of our existence, a clock that starts ticking from the moment we are born, with the surety that it will wind down to a stop at some unknown future point. Scientific discoveries suggest that Time isn't quite the unchanging linear force that we experience on a day-to-day basis. Movies offer an arena where alternative ways of looking at time can be explored whether it is looped time or time travel — or, as “In Time” submits for our consideration, the scary implications of Time's fungible nature.