We’ve had the trailer for In Time on the Jaded Eye podcast several times* over the last few months and each time, it’s been one of the films that we’ve chosen as “film we’d go to see”. Well, in a break from tradition, I’ve actually been to see such a film. And perhaps it was the high expectations but I just couldn’t help being disappointed with In Time. There’s an interesting premise in the film that made for a strong trailer, but sadly doesn’t really amount to much in the finished film.
At some unspecified point in the future, science has reached the point where ageing can be controlled. People grow as normal until they reach their 25th birthday, then they stop ageing completely. At the same point, a luminescent green clock imbedded under the skin of one arm starts counting down (don’t you hate when that happens?). Everyone begins at 1 year. You earn more time by working and you spend time as a commodity to buy goods and services. Money is totally obsolete: time is the only currency. Once the clock reaches zero, the person “times-out” – i.e. dies. So the rich can live for centuries, whilst the poorest live day to day – quiet literally for the very bottom rung.
Apparently; ugliness has also been cured, since everyone looks like a supermodel. We’re asked to believe that Justin Timberlake is struggling factory worker Will Salas who lives with barely 24 hours on his clock. No matter how hard he works, he and his mother (played by Olivia Wilde) never seem to earn enough, especially as prices regularly seem to rise. One night, while out drinking, he meets a high flier with over a century to spend; that’s out drinking in the ghetto. Will saves the man from the attentions of a local group of gangsters who steal other people’s time and they hide out overnight. The man introduces himself as Henry Hamilton and says that he has lived for over 100 years. Henry explains to Will the facts of life. No, not that! The fact that the system is designed so that the poor always stay poor and die off in large numbers so that the rich can continue to rake in the years and effectively live forever (it’s almost as if there’s a hidden message here somewhere). When Will finally falls asleep, Henry takes the opportunity to pass his remaining 100 years onto Will, leaving just enough time for Henry to dash over to a nearby bridge, watch a sun rise then die in suitably cinematic fashion. Suddenly flush with money and (due to a slightly contrived set of events that causes his mother to time-out) newly bereaved, Will decides to spend his new found wealth to climb the social ladder. But the rich population of “New Greenwich” do not take kindly to this interloper and the local law enforcement, known as timekeepers, refuse to believe anyone would give away such a large amount of time willingly.
There are some beautifully thought out extensions of the core theme in both the world and the language of the characters – people can tell Will came from a poor background because he walks fast and eats quickly. Will is introduced to a mother, wife and daughter of the same family who look almost identical – all locked at 25 years of physical aging. People with lots of time on their clocks wear long gloves or coats at all times to hide their wealth. The film makers have built a cohesive, believable universe, which is no small feat and should be commended. At least they have almost done so. One fatal flaw undermines all the hard work: in order to steal someone else’s time, you hold hands, with yours on top. That’s it. From a plot stand point, it adds dramatic tension as anyone can “mug you” for your time. From a world-building stand point, it simply makes no sense. Why would the inventers of this system allow such a thing? What’s the benefit? It’s an entirely contrived convenience, inserted purely to add danger & risk and against such a well thought out backdrop, it creates a jarring hole. Especially as it’s placed front and centre in all the events of the story.
I’m usually able to overlook such things in films – all the bizarrely complex rules introduced in the first third of Inception but then quickly dropped as the plot required never bothered me because they were in service of great story. The problem with In Time is that it’s an idea in search of a story. Sure, lots of running around happens – Will kidnaps Sylvia Weis, the daughter of a bank owner which leads to chases and gun fights, but not a lot of interest. A Robin Hood-esque tale starts to unfold in the later stages but there’s never any momentum behind it, save for the ticking clocks on everyone’s arm. A sub plot about Will’s father is introduced but never properly followed through. One character says to Will that “nothing you do will change anything”, and unfortunately it’s not long before I’m agreeing with him. Justin Timberlake, who so impressed as a fly by night troublemaker in “The Social Network”, is less successful here, trying to portray the poor man biting back at society. There’s nothing specifically wrong with the performance, but it lacks interest or surprise. Will is a simple character with unclear personal goals (apart from “sticking it to the man!”) and perhaps Timberlake struggled to find the right level to play him. Amanda Seyfried is solid as Will’s kidnap victim Sylvia but her character arc is predictable and rushed.
The “baddies” Will has to face are an assortment of lightweight caricatures that never feel like a threat to him. Lead amongst them is Vincent Kartheiser, who’s most significant act was to make me feel very old when I discovered he played Connor – Angel’s son in the Buffy spin off TV show. The always excellent Cillian Murphy stands out as the timekeeper charged with hunting down Salas. Convincing as a veteran law enforcer, just one look from Murphy tells you everything you need to know about his character. I think I would have greatly preferred a story about his authority figure questioning his calling (a la Equilibrium perhaps) than the rebel fighting the system tale that we get. Although that might just be my personal preference for Cillian Murphy coming through.
Writer & Director Andrew Niccol has succeeded in creating a companion piece to his lauded film Gattaca. Like that and his later effort S1m0ne, Niccol has taken an interesting idea and built a film around it, but never quite managed to mould it into a warm and engaging tale – something he succeeded in doing with his masterpiece: 2005’s Lord of War. In Time is a great concept, but it never really gets beyond that.
* You think I’m actually going to listen to that rubbish just to count how many? I don’t have time for that