Friday, July 29, 2011

The Trap of Being Too Clever

Finger Wag Alert Level: 6

I just saw a trailer for a new Justin Timberlake movie (he's not annoying enough in music and on SNL, now he thinks he's an actor?) that has my head spinning. It's called "In Time" and it also stars Amanda Seyfried. From what I can gather, it's a near-future dystopian film where everyone has a cap put on
their lives of 25 years of age. After that, they kick it. So that people can gauge where they are in their life, each human has a digital-hologram-like countdown clock implanted on their wrist, and the numbers are ever descending. Once you hit 25, you can buy more time if you have the money, or you're dead meat.

Ok, mildly interesting. But here's where it gets dumb real fast.

In the interminable trailer I watched (note to trailer-makers: please keep trailers under 2 minutes; this one lasted a whopping 4 minutes!!), Timberlake (ugh) is a poor man who can't extend his life, and he's on the eve of his death birthday. So he runs away. Then he somehow meets a guy who has bought himself a century of more time, but some other bad guy wants that time, and Timberlake finds himself helping the century guy escape. *Pauses to take a breath* Ok, then the random century guy uploads his time to J.T. and then throws himself off a bridge.

Why? I guess because he doesn't want to be hounded by the bad guy. I don't know; the audio was bad.

Now J.T. has a century to live, but not really, because all these bad guys want to steal his time, including Cillian Murphy (who I happen to like). Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, J. to the T. ends up kidnapping some rich guy's daughter (Mamma Mia Seyfried) for some reason and holding her hostage so that people don't steal his life or whatever.

Ok, timeout. This has already gotten out of hand, and we're just talking about a trailer. Can you imagine sitting through a whole movie of this, trying to keep track of what the hell is going on? To me, this movie seems to have all the makings of the next "Inception", a movie I'm not afraid to say I hated from minute one. I know it makes you sound like you're not smart if you didn't enjoy it, if you didn't just love love love it, but I found Inception incredibly talky and, yes, totally impossible to follow. I felt like I was doing homework the whole time, and it wasn't fun.

As I said in an earlier post, don't be an imagination dictator. There's so much explaining in the "In Time" trailer that I almost fell asleep. "I'm kidnapping you because you'll help me to stay alive," J.T. intones at one point, trying really hard to seem deep and troubled (dude, you were in N'Sync--get over yourself). And there are a bunch of other expository lines like this that made me cringe.

Bottom line: it's too clever for its own good.

Remember "Blade Runner"? Sure there were some talky lines in there, but by-and-large, Ridley Scott trusted enough in the intelligence of his audience that they'd figure out what he was doing. He didn't feel the need to explain every little thing. And the movie is brilliant because of that.

This is a lesson us writers can take away from a pre-tragedy like "In Time": trust your audience. You don't have to explain every little thing. If you do, your reader will hate your guts. Because you're implicitly saying, "You're too dumb to get what my world is all about, so I'm going to run you through all of the bullet points."

Instead, let the drama speak for itself. Instead of Timberlake saying in his narration "I just want to wake up and not have to worry about my life winding down" or whatever dumb line he says, just show the clock on his arm. Show people--young people--dropping dead when their clock expires. Bang! You've just communicated to your audience that once people reach a certain young age, they die. And you didn't tell them. Show, don't tell--remember your third grade teacher telling you that?

Anyway, now I'm getting overly talky, so I'll leave you to the rest of your day. Good luck!


  1. I get what you're saying here. A few weeks back, author Janice Hardy wrote a blog post comparing query letters to movie trailers. And this trailer gave me the impression of being a 2 page long, convoluted query letter.

    If any of us submitted a query letter like this for critique, it'd be ripped to shreds for being too long, too telling, too plotty, etc. :)

  2. Thanks for your comment! I totally agree with your statement. If, as a producer or director or whatever, you feel that you have to give this many details away in a trailer, it tells me that you likely haven't done your job as a storyteller. Anyway, I have no interest at all in seeing this movie, but I'm sure it'll make a billion dollars. :) Thanks again!

  3. Upon reading more of your post, yes, this is the entire premise for Logan's Run. I recommend watching Logan's Run (a cult sci-fi classic) and probably just skipping this Timberlake nonsense completely.

  4. Wait, isn't that more or less the premise of Logan's Run? "Run, runner, run!"

  5. Yeah, I'm skipping it. I'm sure Logan's Run is a thousand times better.

  6. I don't know because I haven't seen Logan's Run. But I wouldn't doubt it. Everything is so derivative in Hollywood these days.