Friday, 2 December 2011

In Time

"For a few to be immortal, many must die."

Before the Occupy movement made the news, a movie made the same point. That the 1% of people in the world have more than the 99% put together; and that just doesn't make sense.

In Time does what a lot of science fiction does. It takes a topic that the world is dealing with and finds a way of making a point in a way that entertains. What Star Trek made a career of doing, this movie recreated.

And it did so with a premise that is simplicity itself: What if we used Time as money?

In a few ways, this movie has a better premise than a plot, but that's true of a lot of sci-fi movies. We spend time enough exploring the world that we're being presented with that we forget that the characters living in them don't see it as anything special.

What if we used Time instead of Money?

In Time paints the picture of a world where nobody is over twenty five. You do not age, you do not die of old age. Instead, you are given a clock. Everyone has a thirteen digit clock on their arm, always there. And that clock counts down, second by second. When your clock hits zero, you simply... stop. In the poverty stricken parts of town, you find bodies of people who ran out of time, and nobody stops to dwell on it, because they can't spare the seconds.

This clock, is your currency. You can add time to your clock, or eliminate some of it. And this is the currency of the world. A cup of coffee can cost you four minutes of your life, your power bill a few hours. If you are willing to part with a day of your life, you can have a nice bottle of wine, if you beg for help you might get a few minutes here and there. When you get paid at the end of the day, you get another 24 hours, win a lucky poker hand and you can get more. Lose too many hands, and you leave the poker table feet first.

People in real life have tied their whole living to their money; this movie just eliminates the need for an ATM.

But what absolutely floors me about this movie, is that this world is not at all different from our own. The majority of people are still dirt poor; living, (literally) from day to day, hoping they can scrape together enough to make it to tomorrow, as the cost of living rises on them, and there's nothing they can do. Meanwhile the proverbial 1% at the top of the chain can have centuries to live, not caring how long anything takes, or how desperate others are; because they have all the time they could ever need.

Naturally, the premise is so much fun to explore, and you will do so long after you leave the cinema. The movie itself follows a poor working class man named Will Salas, played pretty well by Justin Timberlake, as he goes about his life. Early in the movie he meets a rather wealthy man who has more than a century to live, and is disgusted by it. Naturally, when your actual lifespan can be stolen from you the way your wallet can be stolen in the real world, flashing a century around to a bunch of people who count their future in hours is a dangerous prospect.

Our hero rescues this wealthy man from his own 'suicide-by-crime', and is rewarded, with a gift of the whole century. Suddenly free of his 24 hour death sentence, Salas starts moving up in the world, suddenly one of the 1%.

Naturally, this idyllic 'ending-to-eternity' story cannot last, and he draws the attention of the Timekeeper, a cop that monitors the give-and-take of this currency in the world; who begins hunting him. He is helped by the inevitable love-interest of the story, Sylvia Weis, played by Amanda Seyfried.

The character of Sylvia is an interesting one, as a bored socialite that literally is born with eternal life ahead of her, and is uninterested in spending all eternity terrified of dying by accident, as all her circle are. The two of them go on a Robin Hood style crime spree, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, who embrace the fact that somebody is literally giving them longer to live.

Its an interesting exploration of old questions. If you never had to lose anything, how far would you go to play it safe? If you suddenly had an extra year to live, would you spend that year living any differently? If you suddenly got given everything you could ever want, would you be willing to share it? Is it wrong for a few people to have everything, if it means many people have nothing. These are questions that people have to face in real life, and they are retold in this movie, as all the best sci-fi movies do.

But what makes this movie good are how the little touches make it so realistic. Poor people always run everywhere, because seconds count. Rich people go everywhere surrounded by security, and play everything ultra-safe, refusing to so much as go for a swim, or take a long jump, paranoid about the notion of death since they never have to face it themselves.

And thus the world of this movie, background from the main movie plot, is disturbingly like ours. The struggling people in poverty can't so much as leave their home for a holiday because they cannot afford to waste the time, and when costs go up, it can be fatal to them; while the Uber-Rich have more than they or their children or their grandchildren could ever hope to use; and are totally paranoid about losing it.

You can view it as a typical action flick, and in a way it is, but take a look at their world and ask yourself how it applies to ours. In Time does what a lot of science fiction does. It takes a topic that the world is dealing with and finds a way of making a point in a way that entertains.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

In Defence of 'Signs'...

When Signs came out, the majority of the reviews were negative. In the years that followed, the average in reviews has improved. (At least on IMDB). But one thing that keeps coming back, again and again is the criticism that...

SPOILER ALERT's an Alien Invasion story where the Invaders get killed by water. If you want a good straight up Invasion movie, go to Battle: LA. This movie is something else entirely. This movie is a story about faith. The Alien Invasion is just the backdrop.

As a sci-fi geek who has seen/read enough Alien stories to be judgmental about them, I was really pleased with this movie. The narrative as a whole is a brilliant piece of storytelling.

This movie, is about faith. If you pay attention to what the characters say between the chills and 'Ack!' moments, then you'd get a better feel for the brilliance of the script. Here it is:

The Characters:
The father, Graham Hess: a former clergyman, who lost faith after the death of his wife to a car accident and thus left the church.

His brother, Merril Hess: A baseball player, who moved in with his Brother and his kids after his sister in law died.

The son, Morgan: Crushed by the loss of his mother, and heavily asthmatic.

The daughter, Bo: The youngest of the household, and holds an interesting quirk of pathologically never finishing a drink of water.

Be advised, there are MAJOR spoilers from this moment on. Very last warning.

The Plot:

There's a moment in the movie, when Graham the former Reverend and his brother Merrill are watching news coverage of fourteen UFO's in the middle of the night, and Merrill makes a comment about it being the end of the world. Graham says it's possible. What follows is a monologue that I love, and have memorized, and quoted on a number of occasions. Read it carefully, because it so neatly defines the movie:

"People break down into two groups when the experience something lucky. Group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I'm sure the people in Group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation isn't fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there's a whole lot of people in the Group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences? "

The house this family lives in is at the center of the action. The Aliens come in stages. First they form crop circles everywhere, to mark their landing zones. One of these crop circles is formed less than eighty meters from their home.

Next come single members of their invasion force, probing and such. Some of them sniff around their town. Anyway, I'm not going to get into the big worldwide signs of impeding attack. This is meant to explain the point of the storytelling:

During these early stages, the backstory is told.

First is the car accident that took Graham's wife. The town Vet fell asleep at the wheel, and hit her as she was walking. The car pinned her to a tree and gave Graham long enough to say goodbye to his wife. Her last words were: "Tell Merril to swing away". Her brain was shutting down and she was delirious.

Next, Merril's story: He's a baseball player, and holds the record for the most strikeouts, because he always swung as hard as he could, no matter what anybody said, also giving him the longest home run record. The Bat is still mounted on the family room wall.

And finally, comes the Invasion. The Aliens want the humans themselves, and use ground attacks. it seems they spray poison in small doses at close range, and people die.

The Aliens land their troops, putting their home right in the middle of the march. They flee to the basement, but the boy is injured. His Asthma kicks in big-time, leaving him nearly dead. They wait out the War going on outside.

The biggest and most hated point from most reviewers, is the way the Aliens were defeated. It seems that water is like acid to them. This makes the invasion quick, but disastrous for them, and humans stand triumphant as the family comes up out of the basement, only to find that one alien was left behind in the retreat, and hiding in their house, where he quickly takes the boy hostage, spraying him with the poison, as they fight him down.

As the alien is defeated, the boy seems to miraculously escape the Alien's spray, as the Asthma is treated, ensuring his survival.

The Point Of The Film:

Now, what we have here are a staggering series of coincidences:

1) We have, the death of his wife. Her last words would be burned into his memory, and they are "Tell Merrill to swing away."

2) We have, the brother, who was fantastic enough to have a baseball bat conveniently mounted on the wall, ready to use to fight the alien, but because he had no subtlety, he was here at home instead of on tour with the big leagues.

3) We have, the little girl, with a pathological refusal to finish a glass of water, making every room in the house full of half-full glasses of water when the alien strikes.

4) We have, the aliens themselves, who are horrifyingly weakened, to the point of death, by water, and who spray poison on their victims.

5) And we have, the boy, the former Priest's only son, who spent the night in the basement gasping impossibly for air through an asthma attack, so that when the Alien sprayed him, his lungs were closed, so no poison got in, and he was easily revived with asthma medication, while Merrill beat the alien into the water glasses with the baseball bat.

"See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?"

This is not a scifi movie in the strictest sense. This is not an invasion story in the strictest sense. This is a movie about faith. About losing it, about finding it, and in the end simply wondering if the reason things sometimes work out is mere chance, or something more.

This movie feeds us these clues in bits and pieces, and I've had to explain the ending to almost everybody else I know who's seen it. But it makes sense to me, and I am constantly blown away by the skill with the writing.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

"What Did You Do This Week?"

Why do we enjoy for ourselves what we never say out loud?

I remember back in kindergarten, the class would file in on Monday morning, the teacher would say good morning and we would all drone back a 'Good Morning Mrs Phillips' in a unified monotone, somehow all of us knowing how to say it in perfect toneless unison without ever having been taught how.

The teacher would ask us what we did over the weekend, and without exception, the answer would be "Nothing."

In reality, in the space of a weekend, I would be helping my mom in the kitchen, making a favorite meal while she taught me how to chop and measure and stir. I stood alone against hordes of enemies, saving the masses of cuddly animals from soulless robotic overlords. I visited friends and shared tales of conquest and victory afterward, competed in two-player and spent an hour crowing and dancing around in triumph as I thoroughly smashed my friend's record, which had stood unbroken for a whole two months. The day away from home was round out as we went about plotting the downfall of the adult kingdom so that kids could rule the world and outlaw vegetables and homework.

But when asked, at school, "What did you do this weekend? The answer was always "Nothing."

And hey, if I told them that I helped cook dinner and played videogames with my friends, who would care?

Now I'm all grown up, 25 going on 70.

What did I do last weekend?

I built myself a new bird-net frame over my veggie patch. Lettuce and garlic and tomatoes and herbs always taste better when they’re fresh grown, and I like growing them myself rather than having to go to a supermarket.

I made lasagna. One of my favorites, but still an art to perfect. The key to a good lasagna for me, is the Bolognese sauce, so I made that in a slow cooker they day before. Homemade garlic bread is a good side, with a sort of icy-crush fruit and ice-cream cocktail for dessert.

I followed up on several threads of discussion thanks to the wonders of the internet, discussing with people all over the world topics like music, books, food, climate change, politics, entertainment and religion. People I never met, and do not know coming together to express strong viewpoints on things as simple as what was enjoyed most about a particular movie, and as complicated as how bookstores and music stores are now in the same boat thanks to the expansion of emergent technologies, and how these things may be a problem to individuals, but a great progression to the world.

I watched and tried to follow along with several online videos about how to play a guitar, lasting a full twenty minutes this time before my own acoustic guitar strings made my fingers hurt too much to keep going. Still can’t pull a chord change to save my life.

We do things, but we never think of it as doing things.

We make plans for the future, but never seem to get around to actually carrying any of them out. So when we actually start a project or invest out time and effort in something new, something that we have never done before, we rarely bring it up that often, because it's just for us. Something that we spend our time on, just a day in our lives. Ours and nobody else’s, because we never really talk about it do we?

Maybe I'm alone in thinking this, but it feels like the things that we spend time on, the things that truly interest us, the things that we invest ourselves in and count as a part of our day, we hate to share, as though somehow they would mean little to any other who heard about them.

So. I put it to you.

What did you do this week?