Timely Cinema: ‘In Time’ and the Varied Role of Time in Movies

by on May 30th, 2014
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The concept of time is always very important to filmmakers, who constantly edit their work on the basis that “it runs too long” or “the action needs to be sped up.” Andrew Niccol’s latest science fiction film “In Time” takes a literal approach to the importance of time, postulating a future where humans only have 25 years to live and trade in portions of this time for goods and services. This unique utilization of time sets the film apart from many other time-centric plots that are familiar to moviegoers.

Time Travel

The most typical use of time in film is to have characters travel through time to achieve a goal. Marty McFly accidentally travels through time and then must undo the damage he causes in “Back to the Future,” while John Connor sends a soldier into the past to protect his mother from a cyborg in “The Terminator.”

“Time Bandits” is a bizarre variation on this concept in which a group of pirate dwarfs steal artifacts from various points in history using a time machine. Another film with a unique approach to time travel is 1979’s “Time After Time,” which has British author H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper to the 20th century in the time machine he’s invented.

The Countdown

Countdown films are harder to characterize than time travel features. As such, they are substantially less popular. The most famous example is easily the classic 1952 western “High Noon.” The film takes place in real time as Gary Cooper awaits the arrival of his old rivals at — you guessed it — noon. “3:10 to Yuma,” another western, uses time to advance its plot but doesn’t quite countdown in the same way. The cheesy 1995 Johnny Depp thriller “Nick of Time” also takes place in real time.

Time Less Ordinary

Then there are some films that use time in ways that are hard to classify. In the German techno-thriller “Run Lola Run,” the film’s title character has 20 minutes to return a lost bag of money to a crime boss. Then, in what can best be described as a video game scenario, Lola has three chances to complete the run in the allotted time while avoiding similar obstacles during each attempt.

Another “time repeats” flick is the Bill Murray romantic comedy “Groundhog Day,” which makes time the villain as it refuses to advance past 24 hours for a prickly weatherman. Other films make time a physical obstacle that characters must overcome. Films such as “Shanghai Knights” and “The 39 Steps” have our heroes clinging to the hands of a giant clock during the climax. Doc Brown also does this briefly in “Back to the Future,” but this technique is most famously found in the 1923 silent film “Safety Last!” starring Harold Lloyd.

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