Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2011

In Time


'In Time' is a waste of a perfectly good (and, yes, timely) concept

In Time
20th Century Fox
Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Olivia Wilde, Johnny Galecki and Alex Pettyfer
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 49 minutes
Opened October 28, 2011
(out of four)

Here is a rough sketch of an idea where a movie should be. There's a message to it, but it comes off more like the drunken Spark Notes version of an actual point of view - the kind of situation where you might wake up the next morning and think, "Wait, I said that?! I sound like such an idiot!"

Indeed you did, and In Time certainly does. Here's where I'd like to say that its failures are "not for a lack of effort," only I'm afraid a lack of effort - at least on an intellectual level - is exactly the problem. The film is a sort of counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged, the Sheriff of Nottingham to In Time's Robin Hood. It's true, I find the objectivist viewpoint of the former to be abhorrent, but that doesn't mean I can forgive its opposite number for being similarly ham-fisted.

The idea of an exclusive, wealthy elite controlling and exploiting the poor and working classes while rigging the game in their favor so they may keep controlling and exploiting is not far-fetched. It is simply a matter of fact. That remains the case in the film, although to an even more extreme degree (it's meant to be a near-ish future) and with time as the currency rather than money.

This is a theoretically interesting sci-fi concept that turns out to be not very interesting at all. It feels like someone was rolling the phrase "Time is money" around in his brain over and over again when suddenly an "idea" came over him - Time is money, time is money . . . wait, time IS money. I mean like what if it really was. TIME = MONEY! And off he went to make a movie about it, never getting any further than that simple, face-value interpretation of an old saying. I'm reminded of a great moment from Annie Hall: "Right now it's only a notion. But I think I can get the money to make it into a concept, and later, turn it into an idea."

That about says it all. In Time is, right now, only a notion.

The man behind it, I'm disappointed to report, is Andrew Niccol, who has done much, much better work in the past - as the writer of The Truman Show and writer/director of Gattaca and Lord of War. He's always been an intriguing and thoughtful filmmaker whose ideas - most of which concern the various ways science, technology, media and culture are progressing - went beyond their face value. Not only were they insightful, but they had tentacles. Like the best of satire and dystopia, his films re-contextualized their subject matter with intelligence and precision.

Even the critical and box-office failure S1m0ne was, at least on a basic level, bitterly observant. But this time around, I don't know what happened. For a science-fiction film from someone with a proven imagination, In Time is astoundingly literal-minded.

The fatal flaw is making the parallels so obvious - so obvious, in fact, they almost can't be called parallels at all. Replace the word "time" in the script with the word "money" and you have a virtually identical central conflicts and a virtually identical film. (People ask each other if they come "from time" rather than "from money." The "99 Cents" store is now the "99 Seconds" store. Et cetera.)

The interchangeability of the two is intentional, but in making them so, Niccol has written himself into a corner. What, ultimately, is the point? To show us what we already know to be true about our economic system? As a method of commentary, time-as-currency is worth exploring, but Niccol never figures out what makes it relevant. He never asks the most pertinent question: "And?"

It is a waste of not only the central premise, but a glut of talent as well. This is Justin Timberlake's first leading-man part after proving his chops in The Social Network, Alpha Dog and Saturday Night Live, but the role (and the film) is a shallow one. He plays Will Salas, a poor factory worker who lives day to day, his continued existence dependent entirely on how much time he can earn. (In this future, people are genetically engineered to live only one year past the age of 25. From there, they have to work, beg, borrow, steal or inherit.)

On one decidedly bittersweet day, his mother (Olivia Wilde) dies as her time finally expires, and Will is given 116 years on his own clock, courtesy of a wealthy gentleman who'd finally had enough of living. And so Will decides to see how the other half lives, crossing over into New Greenwich, home of the wealthy. He gets involved with the all-powerful Weis family - first while gambling (with his life!) with time-loan mogul Phillipe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) and then by kidnaping Phillipe's daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) after being falsely accused of murder.

Will and Sylvia form something of a bond while on the run from the Timekeeper (Cillian Murphy), and the two eventually decide to bring the oligarchy to its knees by robbing the time banks and distributing it to the poor free of charge.

You might assume that, even with the superficial examination of its message, In Time at least has some fun with its more basic plot details. The chase, the action, the sex. But no. What we get instead is humorless, and absent any hint of curiosity. Instead of digging into its own ideas, this is a film content merely to have an idea in the first place.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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