In my opinion, Andrew Niccol is one of the finest science fiction directors in Hollywood today. He cut his teeth as a filmmaker with Gattaca, which remains one of the most underrated cinematic masterpieces of my lifetime, and almost single-handedly sounded the alarm bell about the darker possibilities of genetic engineering. He would then make The Truman Show, a dark comedy about how one man’s day to day life formed the basis for a popular TV show without him even knowing it – something that proved eerily prophetic looking at a world filled with Twitter and reality television, where even a self-absorbed snot like Snooki can earn the attention of millions. Even S1m0ne, while not quite up to the standards of Gattaca or The Truman Show was a solid sci-fi film about an computer created celebrity – no small thing when we’re seeing the advent of computer-generated actors and musicians already. As a whole, when I see his name attached to a film, I expect it to be a high quality, hard science-fiction based film that has a unique world, superb acting and characterization, and in time, proves prophetic.
So when I heard about In Time, my interest was piqued. Like Niccol’s prior science fiction films, it certainly boasted a unique and intriguing premise, a world where aging has ceased and time has literally become money, where you spend the minutes and days of your life for things like a cup of coffee or apartment rent. While I was already contemplating the directions and possibilities of the first premise, they sweetened the deal by adding some of the best young actors in Hollywood, including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphey, Olivia Wilde and Matt Bomer. The previews look solid, and so to the movies I went.
So has Niccol given us yet another one of his classic science fiction morality tales, or is In Time the first time he has failed to deliver? Read on and find out my dear readers.
The movie opens with us witnessing our protagonist, 28 year old Will Salas, going about his day-to-day routine, struggling to earn enough time to keep his mother’s timeclock and his own from striking zero. After saving a time-wealthy man from a group of would-be time bandits, he is gifted a century of life, as well as knowledge of a nasty secret concerning the elite who run this world. With these gifts, he decides to do all he can to upset the established order, becoming a futuristic Robin Hood in the process.
The first half of the film provides a superb introduction to this world, establishing almost all sides without resorting to exposition or giving too much detail. In the first fifteen minutes, we are introduced to the Timekeepers, cops who enforce the time economy, Minutemen, bandits who exploit it, the time rich, who can live for eons by exploiting the poor, who are literally struggling to survive day by day. The lexicon and workings of the world are handled just as well, with phrases and concepts like ‘zeroed out’ and ” remaining both easy-to-grasp and exotic. It really is a shame that the second half of the movie descends into an entirely too predictable romance-slash-chase film mixed with the latest rehashing of the corrupted Robin Hood legend. In addition to all but broadcasting the ending, the second half of the film is further derailed by various plot holes and less-than-subtle metaphors – but more on that later.
One strong point of the film is the acting, no surprise when the cast list reads like a watch-list for actors and actresses of the rising generation. The best performance comes from Cillian Murphy, who manages to turn the Timekeeper Leon into a complex villain, who does what he does out of a sense of duty to the system that he, as he put nicely, put in fifty years of his life defending. Another pair of strong, but all too brief performances come from Matt Bomer and Olivia Wilde, with Bomer playing Henry Hamilton, the man worth a century who sets the story in motion, and Wilde playing the protagonist’s mother. The biggest surprise however comes from Amanda Seyfried, who’s turn as Sylvia Weis, who at any given moment plays Salas’ lover/hostage/accomplice, manages to remain spunky and endearing even after the plot starts careening off the rails.
On the flip side of the coin, Vincent Kartheiser, as the other villain time banker Phillipe Weis, only needs to add a ‘soon I shall rule the world’ into his other lines extoling his support of the current regime and social Darwinism and he could just as well been a Bond villain in the Moore-era. Oddly enough, the films weakest performance came from lead Justin Timberlake, who plays the hero Will Salas. Timberlake, who has come off a string of strong performances, really suffers as his usual subtleties are far more subdued as he tries to play the stoic hero, and sadly, the film suffers slightly for it.
As I mentioned before, one of the best aspects of the film was it’s world building, which was detailed, well set up and really draws you in. Aspects of the world, such as the seperation of the classes into seperate ‘time zones’ are facinating, and really help to darw the viewer into the film. However, it also raises some questions that pull you right back out, and introduce some plotholes along the way. Chief among them, is why would anyone have implemented this system in the first place? If you can stop aging, why put a quota on how long you can live at a certain point? And why use age 25 as the limit? Considering a good portion of the cast is already pushing thirty or past it, and yet few would argue they are not in the prime of thier health, why not make the limit a higher and more reasonible number? Logan’s Run, which used a smiliar concept, established that an tyranical government, population limits and limitated resourses were the reasons behind it’s own system. In Time never does that, and I have a hard enough time accepting people agreeing to have a system where most people die around age twenty five implemented without knowing why.
The retro-future art style of the film, while visually pleasing, also introduces some issues into the film that demand even further suspense of disbelief. For one example, several scenes use pay phones as a plot device, and several key moments of the film could have gone entirely differently if some one had thought to use a cell phone. Maybe I’m just nitpicking, but I have a hard time believing a world that can genetically engineer people to cease aging and die the instant their time runs out would just decide to toss out half a centuries advances in automobile and portable electronics technology.
The film’s biggest weakness however, is it’s message, and it pervades nearly every other aspect of the movie. This is somewhat paradoxal, as message was one of both Gattaca and The Truman Show‘s strength, and something that should come easy to the film considering the premise – maybe something on the lines of ‘treasure every moment’ or ‘make every second count’. Instead, the films main message is the same anti-capitalist dogma Hollywood has been hocking for the better part of a generation. I really wouldn’t mind so much if they were more subtle with it, but they never even bother trying that approach, choosing instead to beat the audience over the head with its message of wealth redistribution to the point I had friends walk out of the theater. I’ve never been a fan of films that do this, regardless of which kind of ideological slant, and the socialistic one used for In Time is what, more than anything else, wrecks the film. Plus, when the movie itself is made and distributed by the multi-billion dollar 20th Century Fox film studio and lead man Justin Timberlake alone is worth $70 million, like most other Hollywood attempts at class warfare, the attempt at bashing the evils of the corporate rich just reeks of hypocrisy.
Overall, I hate to say it, but the film really let me down. Despite some good acting and world building, it squandered one of the best science fiction premises in years to rehash the same ‘Capitalism is Bad’ bit that Hollywood has tread six dozen times before, and worse yet, fails to even do anything interesting with that. It’s not a bad movie per se, but considering it’s director and potential, it should have been far better than what it was. This could have, and should have been 2011’s Inception or Children of Men, and instead we are treated to Logan’s Run meets Bonnie and Clyde meets Wall Street. The result of that unholy combination is barely above average at best, and depending on your political slant, mildly infuriating at times.
If you’re looking for an OK science fiction film and don’t mind beaing beaten over the head with a leftist ideological hammer for 115 minutes, you might like the film. However, if you’re like me, and you expect a more sophisticated sci-fi film that deals with something more original than the same tired corperate greed tirade in a new wrapper, you’d be better off renting Gattaca, or at the very least, not wasting your time on In Time.