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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 20
The Curious Case of Andrew Niccol

Harlan Ellison's Watching In the late 70s, Ridley Scott, hot off the success of Alien, and Harlan Ellison discussed the challenges inherent in making a film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, to which Scott was, at that time, attached. Ellison, as he recounts in Harlan Ellison's Watching, pointed out the insurmountable challenges, but Scott remained convinced of its feasibility, telling Ellison, "The time has come for a John Ford of science fiction movies. I intend to be that director."

John Ford Scott never directed Dune -- he left that to David Lynch, alas -- but went on to make one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, Bladerunner, and then the visually lush but substance-free fantasy Legend before seeming to turn his back on the genre, perhaps feeling that he had accomplished all he could, making a couple of masterpieces (Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down), solid entertainments (White Squall), and a lot of awful thrillers and period dramas. Prometheus appears to mark his return to the genre, though Scott's words about the current state of science fiction cinema make mine seem like effusive praise.

Despite this, the idea of a John Ford of science fiction remains compelling, but finding one presents a challenge. Good science fiction movies find their way into theaters or on Netflix Instant Watch, but depending on the makers to produce a consistent body of work often leads to disappointment. Most of the likely candidates possess a vision so singular that they either never stay for more than a picture or two (Danny Boyle, Richard Linklater) or their thematic material continually draws them to the tropes and ideas, even if they seldom care much about the importance of genre (David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam). Many might produce a genre hit, with each successive return diminishing (John Carpenter, Paul Verhoven, Jon Favreau, Alex Proyas, and way too many others), both in quality and subject matter, and some, like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, obviously love the trappings but have neither the intelligence nor the skill to make good, or even modestly entertaining, science fiction movies.

(It's too early to tell what will happen to Gareth Edwards, Neill Blomkamp, or Duncan Jones. They've made solid pictures, with Jones helming one of the best genre movies of the year, but they haven't shown the necessary staying power. Yet. But they have potential.)

So where does that leave us? Last year, I thought Christopher Nolan might indeed be that person, but as I said in Installment Three, he wasn't my first choice, and with his personal obsessions he may fall more in the Cronenberg/Gilliam camp (though his movies command far larger audiences).

But in eyeing Nolan, I completely neglected Andrew Niccol.

Gattaca S1m0ne

Given the hype surrounding Inception, to say nothing of its visual grandeur, and given that, at that point, Niccol only had three directorial credits under his belt, this shouldn't be surprising. But, at the time, it also was something of a cheat, because two of the three movies Niccol directed -- Gattaca and S1m0ne -- were true quill science fiction, as was The Truman Show, directed by Peter Wier but written from Niccol's screenplay. And with In Time, his newest film, he returns again to the genre, this time in a Robin Hood tale where time is literally money, and Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried hop through time zones (all looking like Los Angeles) redistributing chronocurrency to the 99 percent living day-to-day existences. (Sound familiar? Yeah, to me, too, and we'll address that in a moment.)

The Truman Show In Time

Unlike most screenwriters and directors who use science fiction props as a crutch (or perhaps a Segway) on which to support ridiculous action sequences (Alex Proyas's I, Robot or Jonathan Mostow's The Surrogates), Niccol actually appears to understand the mechanisms by which a good science fiction movie should work. He seldom bothers with the genre's high-tech furniture -- the design of Gattaca, for example, looks back to art deco and the Jazz Age for both set and costume design, a kind of proto-atemporality -- but instead, like H.G. Wells, concentrates on one central idea and builds characters and the worlds they inhabit. What if genetic engineering could separate the superior and inferior, thus stratifying society? How would one cross those barriers in order to pursue one's dreams? What if a society so saturated by media and reality television suddenly decided to record the life of one human being... as an entire television program? What if a director's lead actress walks out on your major film project, and the director replaces her with a digital reproduction?

Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman Moreover, the design of his movies give few nods to futurity. Ethan Hawke stops at an electricity station to refuel his car in Gattaca, and in In Time, individuals have chronometers configured in the DNA, with the amount of time (and by extension wealth) they have left to live ticking away in green alphanumeric on their forearms. These movies take place in the future, but Niccol wisely takes a page out of shows like the original The Outer Limits by ignoring trends in fashion or technology to concentrate on the characters themselves. (One has to admire Niccol, too, for keeping his movie free of product placement.) These give his particular flavor of science fiction cinema a specific feel: indeed, one can watch In Time as a companion piece to Gattaca, for both cover similar themes of class stratification and social justice.

And, unfortunately, that proves to be his undoing.

Both movies possess compelling ideas, yes, but Niccol seldom knows exactly what to do with them, tacking on thriller elements in order to make them sell. Instead of following Justin Timberlake's Will Salas after being gifted more than a hundred years by a centenarian (Matt Bomer) in a manner akin to say, John Steinbeck's The Pearl or B. Travern's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In Time's narrative barrenness reveals itself by tacking on chases with a crime boss (Alex Pettyfer) and a ham-fisted political allegory. Rather than exploring a world in which everybody ceases aging upon their twenty-fifth year (chronomagnate Philippe Weis, played by Vincent Kartheiser, when he meets Salas, describes the difficulty in determining if a woman is old enough to be one's mother or daughter) and must buy time, Niccol resorts to a rather silly retelling of Bonnie and Clyde. In this, he falls into the trap of most science fiction movies, and far too many writers, by tacking on a thriller plot where none is necessary. It's a fatal flaw.

And then there is In Time's idea itself. For many filmgoers, Niccol's new movie will possess a fresh, original idea, but most science fiction fans will recognize the influence of Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," though Niccol does a noble job of trying to file off the serial numbers. (Ellison filed suit.) It never quite works; Cillian Murphy's Timekeeper never erases the poetic images (or nom de plume) of the Ticktockman, and instead only makes the knowledgeable viewer recall them. (Then again, astute viewers also recognized more than the seed of Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint in The Truman Show.)

And that may be the real tragedy, for Niccol, despite his best efforts, could have held the John Ford mantle. He has the right idea (however borrowed it may be), but he doesn't quite have the vision to follow through... which means that it's still open.

Here's hoping that someone else can seize it.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, will be published by Rebel Ink Press this December. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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