Thursday, November 3, 2011

In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011)

It almost pains me to dismiss an Andrew Niccol film, as I think he should be encouraged. He takes the notion of "high concept" to heart, even if those concepts lead to inconsistent and oversimplifying conclusions. In Time may be his simplest yet, a film that takes its social commentary to such a ludicrous endpoint that even this liberal was howling at some of its conclusions about the rich.

You see, in the future, babies are genetically engineered not to physically age past age 25 but to die a year later unless more time is bought. As such, time is literally money in this society, where the rich can live for centuries while the poor give a whole new meaning to "living from paycheck to paycheck." (I apologize, but the time puns are endless.) The problem with In Time is not that it unfairly posits extreme wealth as soaked in the blood of the poor—that's been true forever. It's that the metaphor barely extends to the hour mark, and the film subsequently falls into a muddied action thriller that prevents Niccol from playing to his strengths.

In Time follows ghetto rat Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), who lives with his 50-year-old mother (Olivia Wilde) struggling to pay the bills with never more than a few hours to spare. One night while drinking with friends, Will comes across a man named Henry Hamilton, a man in the wrong zone with more than a century on his clock. Weary of having lived too long and too meaninglessly, Hamilton decides to give the remainder of his time to Will, leaving only a message telling him not to waste it.

And then, In Time promptly goes nowhere fast. As someone who has always had to make every second count, Will runs everywhere even after he scores enough time to get into the wealthiest zones. Niccol does not match that sense of urgency, even when Will finds himself hunted by authorities. Instead, the film abruptly grinds to a halt, Will heading to ultra-rich area New Greenwich and lolly-gagging around gambling and exchanging Significant Looks with Sylvia Wies (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of one of the richest, most powerful men in the world (Vincent Kartheiser, delightfully insufferable as always). Even the authorities, with the exception of head Timekeeper Raymond Léon (Cillian Murphy), move lethargically.

This pacing would work if Niccol built the entire film around an immersion into this society, as he did with his flawed but marvelous Gattaca. But even when In Time suspends its plot, it merely stops for some sickly pretty shots of industrial yellow glows of the ghetto. Well-composed as they are, these shots don't generate the same atmosphere and visual storytelling as Gattaca's overwhelming, suffocating feeling of being watched. We know that Will and, when she joins up with him, Sylvia are being monitored, but they escape so easily one wonders whether half the CCTV cameras are even working.

Furthermore, Niccol speaks too many of his ideas rather than merely showing them. Shots of timed-out corpses on the street as desensitized poor shuffle past speak volumes more than the mood-spoiling, Big Theme dialogue that they elicit. Likewise, seeing every rich person flanked by a body guard and living in safe little shells to ensure an accident or a violent act doesn't spoil their chance at immortality humanizes their own plight in this system more than Sylvia's dejected ruminations. By stiffly voicing his themes, Niccol robs In Time of the undercurrent of sadness and anger that never successfully rises to the surface.

And these are the film's best moments. Elsewhere, it turns into a disjointed Bonnie and Clyde, Sylvia disgusted and galvanized by the effects of the class system when confronted with the poor. She elects to take down her father's empire with Will, and the two eventually flood the ghetto with so much time that society itself might collapse from sudden shifts in stratification. Not once does anyone at one of these banks even try to stop them, despite the fact that no two other people on the A-list right now look less imposing than Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. Even a rent-a-cop at small-town bank would break their teeth with a nightstick if they tried to start something. Of course, it would help if the guns they wield weren't so huge that our stars resemble children having dangerously stumbled across dad's .45.

Appropriately for a film about the importance of each second, Niccol's film could not have come out at a better time. With economic tensions in the United States higher than they have perhaps ever been, In Time could appeal to those who recognize that extreme, unchecked wealth truly does effect the lives of the poor. But Niccol's film is so clumsy, so awkward, and so easily sidetracked that what might have been a suggestive, chilling view of how massive wealth requires the suffering and even death of others finally emerges as a lifeless thriller. Watching people's lives literally tick away should be compelling. Instead, I spent most of the time looking at my own clock.


  1. Gattaca is a film that I always love to watch whenever it's on and I also enjoyed The Truman Show. And then, things started to go downhill. S1mOne was silly while Lords of War was just terrible. And I hear Cillian Murphy was just wasted in this film.

  2. Sucks that this one fell on its face. I had been excited about it since Comic-Con, but I'm not even sure I'll bother now. Good review though!