In Time is a rare instance of an original science fiction movie. Rather than having a basis in pre-existing material, this flick’s ambitious concepts and ideas came directly from the mind of writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War). Unfortunately, however, ambition is not the same as achievement. In Time could’ve been the Total Recall of this decade and one of the most thoughtful sci-fi films of 2011. Instead, whereas Total Recall was a smart, satisfying actioner unafraid to play thought-provoking mind games, 2011’s In Time is an insult to the intelligence, and it squanders its marvellous premise on a silly chase movie which runs out of steam by the halfway mark.
In the year 2161, humans are now genetically engineered to live until the age of 25. Any extra time they gain in their lives is the world’s new form of currency; everyone has a digital clock on their forearm which displays how much time they have left, and it fluctuates depending on how much they gain or lose through working at a job, paying for various things, or generally living. 28 years old and residing in the ghetto, Will Salas (Timberlake) is a typical blue-collar worker struggling to make ends meet. However, Will is given the opportunity to escape his mundane existence when he meets the rich but depressed Henry Hamilton (Bomer), who gives Will the 116 years on his clock before committing suicide. After Will’s mother (Wilde) “times out”, Will leaves his restricted time zone for a more luxurious area where he rubs elbows with the rich. However, Will’s newfound time raises suspicion with law enforcement. To escape wrongful incarceration, Will runs off with Sylvia Weis (Seyfried), the daughter of supremely wealthy businessman Philippe Weis (Kartheiser). As a romantic connection slowly develops, Will and Sylvia set out to topple the status quo.
To the credit of writer-director Niccol, In Time does show evidence of having smarts underneath its Hollywood exterior. A conversation between Will and Henry introduces a fascinating allegory pertaining to today’s society, where the world is becoming overpopulated and the cost of living is perpetually rising. What a shame this brain fodder is jettisoned immediately afterwards, paving the way for Niccol to adopt a bland routine of chases and false tension. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, do humans still get diseases in their genetically engineered form? Do overweight people still exist? Is there any form of government? Do people still presume there’s an afterlife, or is a dying person the equivalent of a machine shutting down? Since the film takes place in Los Angeles, what’s the rest of the planet like? What would happen if someone’s forearm containing their clock was chopped off? Not to mention, time transactions are ridiculously flawed – it’s way too easy to steal someone else’s time and there’s no form of security. Credit card transactions require pin codes and signatures, yet in this world it’s as easy as overpowering someone at an arm wrestle to steal time. It seems Niccol came up with a few ideas but failed to sufficiently think them through.
Another huge downfall of In Time is its reliance on the worst Hollywood action stereotypes. For instance, Will and Sylvia pass out after surviving a (ridiculously-executed) car accident, and regain consciousness a few seconds after their time has been stolen. Meanwhile, an early scene in which Will’s mother dies (for ineffective forced emotion) is painfully predictable, and its split-second precision is facepalm-inducing. And why is it that a sheltered rich girl like Sylvia can fire guns with such precision and confidence that veteran gunslingers would be envious?
To Niccol’s credit, production values are admittedly impressive – the forearm clocks look fantastic, and set design is magnificent. However, that’s where the praise ends. Despite the polished visuals, there’s absolutely no tension throughout the flick. Will and Sylvia come this close to death several times, yet we always know that they’ll survive simply because the actors have their name above the title. One could argue that any action film has this fault, but great action filmmakers overcome this by keeping us wondering whether or not the hero/s will actually be safe. Niccol’s characters, on the other hand, never seem to be in genuine danger. The climax, too, is an utter dud – it introduces a cheap twist which only reinforces that Will’s reason for being hunted in the first place is flimsy and lazy.
Speaking of Will, his character is all over the shop. One minute he’s a nice clean mother’s boy who risks his life to save a stranger, and the next he’s an insufferable prick skilled with firearms who arrogantly pushes Sylvia around. And why is it that Will – who sternly tells Henry that he wouldn’t waste a century of time if he had it – strolls straight into a casino when he arrives in Richville? It doesn’t help that Justin Timberlake is so devoid of personality. Timberlake has shown that he can act, but he’s uninteresting as an action hero. It’s also odd that characters in the film are meant to be physically frozen at the age of 25, yet the 30-year-old Timberlake and the 35-year-old Cillian Murphy look their true age. It doesn’t stop there, as several other side characters look easily older than 25. Is an “under 25s” casting call really that complicated? Amanda Seyfried was exactly 25 years old during filming, and she isn’ttoo bad, but she shares no chemistry with Timberlake, and it’s clear that the actors were chosen for their good looks rather than their talent. Furthermore, the relationship which emerges between Will and Sylvia feels obligatory and forced.
Perhaps the worst crime perpetrated by In Time is that it takes itself too seriously. There is not a modicum of humour to unearth here, rendering the film incredibly boring. In Time shows promise in its conceptual framework, but motion pictures are a medium to tell stories, and Andrew Niccol was unable to construct a worthy story around his half-baked ideas. It’s not worth wasting two hours of your life you can never earn back to watch In Time.