[Disclaimer: When I use the word "time" (or any variation thereof) figuratively, I'm not trying to make a pun. It's just a common and useful word for our vernacular.]
Andrew Niccol‘s In Time has the opportunity to take its solid sci-fi concept and thoughtfully explore social and existential issues. Unfortunately, the movie skips along the surface, making its obvious points repeatedly and with decreasing clarity. While the need to make a smart sci-fi concept palatable to the masses is understandable, Niccol takes his appropriate action coating and runs it into the ground. In Time has so many things it wants to be and to say, but it ends up tripping over the words after the first few sentences.
In Time takes the saying “Time is money,” and runs with it. In the future, humans have been genetically engineered to never age beyond 25, but the catch is that beyond 25 they need to acquire more time to stay alive. However, they need to keep acquiring more time in order to live. This scarcity has made time the currency and it can be added or deducted for goods and services. Like almost all economic systems, the wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, and the poor like Will Solas (Justin Timberlake) live minute-to-minute.
One night, Will saves a rich man Henry Hamilton (Matthew Bomer) from some time bandits (not the cool kind; the kind led by Alex Pettyfer) and they hole up in a warehouse. When Will wakes up, he sees that Hamilton transferred all his time to Will and before he can give it back, Hamilton willingly clocks out. Will’s mother dies before he can share the wealth and he angrily makes his way to New Greenwich, home of the wealthy, to “make them pay.” It’s never clear how Will intended to do that, but he’s hunted down by the Timekeepers, a fine-dressed police force tasked with keeping the status quo, under suspicion that he killed the rich guy. The Timekeepers, led by tired veteran Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), take all but two hours of his time, and Will retaliates by kidnapping Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the wealthy daughter of heartless corporate titan Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). The two go on the run and Niccol’s thoughtful sci-fi fizzles out as characters betray their motivations and stumble around plot points.
In terms of current events, In Time could not have come at a better time. It speaks directly to the income disparity that has brought about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the subtext is so glaringly obvious that anyone would be able to pick it up. That’s fine for satire, but Niccol wants to build an action movie around a strong sci-fi core and good sci-fi doesn’t offer a single, simple message. There’s never anything more thoughtful or less obvious than “Rich get richer, poor get poorer.” We all know that the rich profit off the labor and strife of the less fortunate and that the lower class rarely gets their fare share of the wealth. Some will cry that the film is socialist and they would be right. I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing, but as a film critic, I think the movie should be more than just a blatant political statement.
In Time also wants to explore the complexities of mortality, but again Niccol comes to a facile conclusion: “Live like there’s no tomorrow.” That’s a fine maxim for the world he’s created for the movie, but in real life, we can’t live life to the fullest every day because unlike the characters, we don’t know when we’re going to die because we weren’t born with digital clocks embedded in our forearms. Furthermore, we’re not in a race for survival. Survival drives most of the characters and the commentary that “money is life”, is an insight worthy of only a pompous college student.
These problems could have been solved if Niccol had mastered the details of his world and the characters that inhabit it. His smart concept raises too many questions that Niccol can’t or won’t answer. “Everyone gets a year after they turn 25, but how do some people hit 25 and have more than that?” “Does exercise make people live longer? If not, wouldn’t people just eat junk food?” “Are there any illnesses and does that decrease the clock?” “Can people only fight each other for time through arm wrestling?” But more depressing is how Niccol takes such a rich premise and then tries to build a derivative movie around it. Building a chase-movie around the sci-fi is appropriate because a chase easily fits into a race against time. However, Niccol’s original idea is consumed by feeding it to other movies. It’s Bonnie & Clyde without the danger, Never Let Me Go without the pathos, and Over the Top without the backwards trucker hat.
The only element of In Time that really works is the leads, but only when Niccol doesn’t betray the characters. Timberlake proves he’s a worthy action star, and he has wonderful chemistry with the enchanting Seyfried. The two know how to play off each other, have plenty of cute moments, and they bring life to their simplistic and predictable relationship arc. As the story progresses, Will and Sylvia decide that it’s time to bring time to the masses, and robbing time banks seems like a reasonable way to do so. But at one point, Will and Sylvia are almost out of time and Will robs a wealthy woman of almost all her time, effectively killing her. We can no longer side with Will because his actions have gone from noble to petty. The movie doesn’t even bother adding depth to Leon (which may be why Murphy gives such an apathetic performance) or Philippe (Kartheiser is asked to provide his patented “I’m disgusted with you”-face and nothing more).
I stuck with In Time to the end because I wanted it to work so badly. Small, intimate sci-fi like Moon and Primer are fantastic, but some ideas need a larger canvas. Duncan Jones did a fine job earlier this year with Source Code, but that was built around a scenario and Niccol wanted to build an entire world. In Time never left me with anything deeper than its shallow commentary and ill-defined world, and eventually all I could think about was this scene from South Park: