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Right In Time: Are Some Concepts Just Too Silly For Movies?

I think it’s happened to all of us at some point. We see a poster for a film, or the start of a trailer that looks fascinating – all the right talent is involved to grab our attention, the technical stuff looks well-executed, it’s stylish and smart… and then we catch the plot of the film. It’s a plot that kind of makes us pause, drawing an almost unconscious, “huh?” from our collective lips. Maybe we read it twice to try to make some sense out of it, but there’s no joy. It still sounds as absolutely and impossibly silly as it did when we first read of the plot. It has happened to me quite a few times over the years, as I’ve found myself wondering how the hell such a concept could work on the big screen. I’ll confess, it happened when I read the plot summary for In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol, which drew this appropriate response

More at The Shiznit...

Now, I should be honest. I’m actually looking forward to seeing In Time. I like Andrew Niccol as a writer and director, even if I’m aware of his faults. I think he’s one of the more ambitious science-fiction writers working for the big screen, and I actually enjoy a little bit of craziness with my films. I know the reviews haven’t been great, and my expectations were never exceptionally high, but I do plan to catch it at some point – whether on television or DVD.

However, there’s no denying that the plot synopsis for the film is a little… out there as far as major motion pictures go:

When Will Salas is falsely accused of murder, he must figure out a way to bring down a system where time is money – literally – enabling the wealthy to live forever while the poor, like Will, have to beg, borrow, and steal enough minutes to make it through another day.

So, everybody’s biological clock stops at twenty-five, but each person is only given an extra year to live. So they have to trade their remaining seconds as currency. The trailer features people paying for coffee with minutes, for example.

Hat's off to them?

Think about that concept for a minute. It’s absolutely insane. I remember once reading a comment from an author I can’t remember, who made the argument that he only really buys into a conceptual future if he can think about if for five minutes without the entire system imploding. That was the author’s benchmark for a well-constructed science-fiction world, and it’s a reasonable one. He wasn’t advocating dismissing any technology or gimmicks, but the basic form of society presented. Assuming the plot elements necessary to set up the story existed, could you imagine a political system developing like we see in the above film?

Of course, suspension of disbelief is a notoriously fragile thing. I had a colleague tell me that she couldn’t take The Adjustment Bureau seriously because of the hats. God and his choir of angels operating on Earth through mysterious doorways that only open if you turn the handle the right way, unable to see through something as simple as water? That was fine for her, as were any number of big-screen superheroes or aliens or monsters in other films. Her biggest problem was that this network of connections through Manhattan was managed by the fact the person in question was wearing a hat. She couldn’t explain why it felt any more ridiculous than Terrence Stamp moving the world with the power of his mind, but it did.

Around the world in -80 days...

Of course, that’s one example from one film, and I’m sure there were plenty more viewers who accepted it. I know I did. Still, I use it to illustrate how strange and sometimes illogical our own suspension of disbelief can be, and how random and arbitrary our rejection of certain fiction be. For example, Richard Donner’s Superman gave the character the power to turn back time. I don’t know why that’s any more ridiculous than managing to ride a train over is back or catching Lois without snapping her, but it just seems silly – and not just because it’s lazy writing. (Indeed, Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II uses the same ending… begging the question of why Superman doesn’t use that “do-over” to just pre-empt crime?)

We all have elements that we’ll agree and disagree on, but it seems that there are norms – there are certain ideas that audiences will accept or reject en masse as being “too silly.” The notion of any animation aimed at an age above children is something that most mainstream audiences seem to scoff at, for example. The relatively major changes we see being made to any number of films at the behest of producers perhaps reflect these norms – the feeling that mainstream viewers will reject a particular ending as “too dark” or “too bleak.” Hell, the choices the studios make in what films to develop suggest that they’re aware of how far they can push their audience.

Taken liberties with suspension of disbelief?

There are some concepts which seem inherently stupid – that sound like disasters waiting to happen. In fact, quite a few seem to be in upcoming films. Why does The Lone Ranger need werewolves, for example? Or how does it make sense for the sequel of Taken to see Liam Neeson’s daughter rescuing him? These are ideas that sound quite strange, and almost surreal – and they’re hardly what most people would imagine when picturing these productions.

However, more than that – those strange additions to established and proven formulas – there’s also the odd entire plotline that seems to make no sense, and which seems decidedly “out there.” For my parents, it was Being John Malkovich to pushed the limits of their suspension of disbelief. When I first read Day of the Triffids, I balked at the idea of killer plants. I mean, really? Killer walking plants? Like the killer talking plants in The Ruins? That’s a bit much, isn’t it? Those seem like radical and far out concepts, right?

I suspect some plants were used during the plotting of this film...

I’ve found, in my own very limited experience, that it’s not so much the idea that stands or falls, but the execution of it. Day of the Triffids proved that you could construct a fascinating and terrifying story around waddling and killer plants, something I was honestly skeptical about. Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation sounds like an overly-complex meta-fictional disaster just waiting to happen, but it works – because the execution of premise is so deft and skilful. Truth be told, I’m not sure that there is an idea out there that is so outlandish that it couldn’t work with the right talent involved.

However, there’s something more fundamental than that. I kinda like those plot summaries that make me go “huh?”, because it indicates that it’s something outside the norm, something unexpected, something different. There was a time when all the standard movies and plots and characters all would have drawn that response. Sure, it would have been a century and a bit ago, but imagine reading Frankenstein and going, “huh?” Or watching the Universal adaptation, spotting the strange-looking bolts on his neck or the fact he’s brought to life by lightning and going, “huh?”

Would you write off a movie based on a premise?

There was a time when the ideas and plot threads we’ve come to consider “old and standard” were new and radical, and they probably drew the same response from people, an incredulity and skepticism. However, some of those ideas worked, and they stuck around because – despite their novelty – there was something appealing about them. I’m not suggesting that every idea that draws a similar response from us will go on to become a standard of its particular genre, but my own optimism hopes that some of them might. Based on the response to In Time, I doubt that it will be that sort of film, but I’m actually kinda glad it tried.

It’s only by crossing the boundaries of what we consider to be “standard” plotting that those boundaries can ever expand. That’s why I always find it more insightful to look at the people involved with a film to determine if it’s worth my time, rather than a plot summary or synopsis.

31 Responses

  1. In Time has a great sci-fi premise. It’s just a matter of poor directing and poor casting. Put this in the hands of a Steven Spielberg or Alfonso Cuaron and have a classier cast of stars (read not MTV level) and that movie would probably have been excellent.

  2. Great article and once you think of explaining things that don’t make sense in movies you could keep going! Only the concept of Cars is probably enough to fill a whole day 🙂

  3. Strange how I totally bought in to In Time’s idea of time being our lifeline/credit etc, but couldn’t handle seeing guys with hats teleport through doors and be allergic to rain (Adjustment Bureau).

    I guess either is better than people just re-making The Matrix 5 times a year….

  4. Premise is important, sure, but execution is everything. I imagine that referenced author must not be fond of Harlan Ellison, then, or most speculative science fiction since so much of it relies on selling mumbo jumbo to its various audiences. World-building is about making something out-there completely palatable to the point where we don’t even need to suspend our notion of disbelief because good world-building penetrates that wall so easily we never have to ask ourselves the question of whether X exists or not.

    In the case of In Time, a great idea gets shut down by horrible directing and scripting. It’s bloated; Andrew Niccol doesn’t understand when enough is enough and goes overboard on extraneous plot threads that go nowhere and puts two too many straight-up antagonists into his narrative. It’s a jumbled mess, and the reason that premise might feel silly is precisely because Niccol engages in minimal world-building and instead relies on bad dialogue to emphasize his basic conceit (stop wasting my time, you’re out of time, blah blah blah).

    Answering the broader question, my gut says “no” but my brain disagrees. In theory no premise is too out-there to be made into something special, but at the most extreme ends of this theory it disproves itself. And given how execution matters so much, it’s naive to believe that any premise could be made into a successful film– no matter how much I want to believe that any story could work on celluloid.

    • Yep, it’s the kinda thesis you can’t prove one way or another, because concept and execution are so closely linked. The only way to truly divorce one from another in the medium of film would be to resurrect a single director and writer to handle every film – you can argue that any flaw with a film lies with “execution”, even if the execution is that of the writer, who didn’t find something as basic as a workable angle for his concept.

  5. Though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m assuming Niccol came up with a reason why people couldn’t just suck all the life out of a newborn, right? Because baby farming was the first “solution” that occurred to me when I heard the concept.

  6. congrats on the IMDb love, Darren, good job.
    sorry, but In Time looks terrible, high concept or no.

  7. I think the premise matters not, the trouble (or triumph) is in the execution. ANYTHING is a great premise if you have the skill to pull it off. But I loved The Adjustment Bureau so maybe I should stop talking now.

  8. Congrats on making IMDb again, Darren. Of course some concepts are too silly for movies, alas a lot of Hollywood producers only think in terms of bottom line.

    • Thanks Ruth! I’m not sure I’d go that far. I think a good writer and a solid director can salvage almost anything.

  9. As a wanna be writer, i spend a lot of time pondering this. Writing drama or character studies is much more natural to me. I feel most comfortable in that realm. Other genres, however, is where I have the most difficulty, especially concerning Sci-Fi and Supernatural stories. As an exercise I will occasionally try to flesh out a story about time travel or ghosts but I always debunk any of those stories with counter questions. My rules or suspension of disbelief are strict, and that in a way makes for a fragile bubble of acceptance. Sometimes the entire plot can pop it, such as Taken. It’s a simple single drive motive but the whole thing unfolds entirely too easy and it’s pretty heavy handed. The movie is way too point A to point B for me. In the Star Wars prequels it’s the Jedi’s ability to jump/fly/glide falling many feet from one flying car to the next…oh and midichlorians.

    I think a lot of sci-fi films make the mistake of explaining too much, they ruin the suspension of disbelief by trying to be TOO clever with their technology/world/weapons/powers. Many horror films make the mistake of giving ghosts, demons, evil spirits a sympathetic back story. If I lived in a haunted house, I am not too concerned about WHY some ghost is wreaking havoc, but that it is. No explanation needed. I feel that when you try to answer too many things that are not plot or character concerns then you lose focus. There is a fine line between laying down too many rules about your world and leaving too many things unexplained.

    Then of course there are silly things like bad representations of technology that just shatter a movie for me… granted I work as a developer. But I guess that can’t be helped. However a great film about programming or hacking or technology was “The Social Network”. They focused more on the drama than the technology, most writers don’t know that kind of technology. It is wise to not write in detail about things you don’t know intimately, or worse, make up fantastical things to “WOW” the audience.

    • I work as a tester! My analytical mind at work. I agree with a lot of what you say, particularly about explaining too much. You don’t need to explain the nitty-gritty details. Give me the basics and make it interesting!

  10. Why do people write second-rate articles on second-rate sites without doing research? Clearly you don’t have much else to do, so why can’t you research a bit beforehand? Jesus Christ, you fucking idiot.

  11. Many years ago I read a short sci-fi story about people who “saved time,” literally, in a bank. They deposited the minutes they pared off their chores in their daily lives. One person wasn’t saving enough, so he was killed and all the time he would have had left was deposited. I don’t remember who was behind this or why anyone would buy into it. It wan’t a game; they were sincere and proud of being thrifty with their time.

  12. If you really think that the Donner cut of Superman two “uses the same ending” you aren’t qualified to write on the subject. And please stop using spell check and start reading your own articles. Better yet, get an editor…

    • Hi John. Um, the Donner Cut of Superman II literally “uses the same ending.” As in, it uses the same footage that was used at the end of the first film. I didn’t think it it necessary to waste too much time going into the detail of it, but I do know that Donner wanted to save the going back in time ending for the second film, and it was moved forward to the end of the first film – so he is doing what he originally intended, but it doesn’t mean that he isn’t using the same ending that we originally saw in the first film, released decades early. And it does raise a perfectly valid question: why doesn’t Superman just use the power to pre-empt crime and natural disasters?

  13. I’ve got a pretty stringent rule “You can’t hold a story’s premise against it.” I try very hard to take the premise as gospel and then let the story stand or fall based on how it supports or uses it. I don’t believe in woo, but I like a good story about it.

    But you’re right, it could be hard sometimes. I can’t recall any particular examples of my straying from the path, but I’m sure a really incompetent story could give me a good shove.

    • Yep. I think that – every once in a while – you find something that justifies such trust, which makes it easier the next time… until you see another one that lets you down. For example, I thought the idea of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a bit silly, but the execution sold me.

  14. Rubber

  15. Complaining about, or even pondering, the “silliness” in any given movie seems like a daft exercise to me in a movie market currently ruled by sparkly Calvin Klein Vampires and Boy Wizards! I thought that the Adjustment Bureau was a grand homage to a bygone era of storytelling, and I thought it to be pretty cool. You can EASILY destroy ANY storytelling idea by scrutinizing it heartlessly: “Paths of Glory,” is considered one of the GREATEST antiwar films of all times, yet the cast in this visually stunning classic portray French soldiers with the flatest of midwestern accents. Kubrick felt that the emotions would translate to the audience more directly if the roles were all played by American actors… such as Kirk Douglas, Richard Anderson, Ralph Meeker and George McReady… speaking in their own accents. History bore him out:but a critic whose sole concern is accents will be driven crazy. You can plotz on Citizen Kane if you’re feeling ornery enough… and people have…

  16. I didn’t see ‘time’, but I couldn’t understand what the premise actually was. Yes, it’s like money and resources, of which the super rich have (and they can keep a lot of that stuff I don’t want to deal with that goes with it), but how do they suspend or deal-out time like it was credit?
    I wonder how the film explains it. Is it ‘time’ or something other that has to do with physical aging.

  17. Wow, you take escapist films way too seriously. These films were made to sit back and have fun, something apparently you are unable to do. Judge the films on that merit. You probably like explaining to little kids why Santa Claus can’t possibly travel around the world in one night. I don’t know your life story (and don’t want to) but I would seriously seek some counseling because you must have been traumatized as a child. Either that are you must be from New York. In either case, you need to have a more positive outlook because like the guy spending seconds off his life you’re doing the same exact thing.

    • Ah yes, but if I enjoy writing it, is time truly wasted? I like pondering things like that – it’s good to try and reason out your own ideas, at least for me. Each’s own. Although I would protest – I think my conclusion is actually quite the opposite of what you seem to suggest it is. As much as it might seem I am “unable” to have fun, I conclude that nothing is too ridiculous if handled correctly. Which seems both fair an optimistic.

  18. Haven’t seen In Time, but I’m generally in favor of Niccol: “Simone” lacked energy… and I don’t like Pacino in comedy, but “Gattica” was an anemic yet amusing pleasure. Again, I’ll just say that the market, and our movie culture right now, is in a normalization phase after ceding the development of truly sophisticated characters to Cable TV-mini-series and limited series. If you don’t believe me, ask a working actor what they’d rather be cast in these days, movies or TV. It won’t be the slam-dunk response that it was in the Sixties. When movies have officially abandoned deep thought, which they did several years ago when all studios shit-canned their art-house divisions, movie-goers seeking depth were pretty much thrown to the wolves. The current plots we’re seeing aren’t the fault of producers, writers, and directors who are just trying to seek work; they’re the fault of Gutless jBeancounter Studio Heads, who favor the safe over potentially market-changing risks!

  19. Of course there is always the example of the first premise I thought was too ridiculous to make sense. That was the premise of Edward Scissorhands. I must say that in my opinion. Burton pulled it off and made a quite enjoyable film.

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