In Time seems to have snuck under the radar amid a number of new and big ticket releases in the last few weeks (Tintin, Contagion, Real Steel, Ides Of March, Midnight in Paris, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Paranormal Activity 3 etc). However when you give it a moment it may have the most brain-sparking premise of all. Starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, Andrew Niccol’s new concept involves a near future where “time” is actually money, as people stop ageing at 25 then get just one extra year and any more time they want must be earned, and balanced against the time they need to spend on food, rent, commuting etc. They can live forever, but only if they can earn it.
Most fail to last a few more years and to remind them of their situation, on their arm is their luminescent “clock” under their skin, permanently counting down.
And if it ever reaches zero, they drop down dead.
Niccol has a history of thoughtful sleeper science fiction hits, such as 1997’s Gattaca and 1998 script for The Truman Show, and key to these films has been a thoughtful story and world that held up against its out-there premise.
Unfortunately, In Time doesn’t deliver on the same level.
The world of In Time is split into several zones, although only two really make a presence – the slums of “Datum” and the rich elite of “New Greenwich”. Passing between the zones is a costly business (in terms of time – it can cost “years”) and time prices are artificially raised in the ghettos so that people in “Datum” generally only have a few hours left on their clocks, and are forced to borrow time on extortionate rates in order to avoid hitting the fatal zero and buy food. Cup of coffee? Four minutes. Bus home? Two hours. This is the world of Will Salas, played by Justin Timberlake (Friends with Benefits, The Social Network) – who has worked day to day most of his life with just hours on the clock, and lives with his 50 year old mother (25 for 25 years) played by the beautiful Olivia Wilde (Tron).
After another oppressive day in the time-capsule factory (they’re like time top up cards stamped onto the wrist), Will rescues a man flashing a century of time in a bar from apparently notorious Datum thieves who are looking to steal it. Hiding in a warehouse, the man reveals he has had enough of living and gives his remaining years to Will while he sleeps, before slipping out of the warehouse they are hiding in, and to his death.
Returning home – now with a century on his clock – Will discovers his mother is not on the bus she is supposed to be as prices have risen during the day and she can no longer afford it. Down to her last 90 minutes, she is forced to run home but doesn’t quite make it back in time (even though running a “two hour walk” shouldn’t be hard for a fit 25 year old) and dies in Will’s arms a split second before he can share his new time with her.
With little to stay for, Will decides to leave Datum and go to New Greenwich to see how the other half lives. Once there, he gambles his new lifespan (very recklessly…. and by my estimation the numbers again don’t add up at the poker table – Will staking 250 years when he only had a century in the first place) and goes on the run with Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia, Letters to Juliet), a girl who has never really lived and whose father is a “millionaire” time banker who helped set up the system. At the same time, however, the centurion’s death has caused TimeKeepers (led by Cillian Murphy) to investigate the anomaly, and CCTV footage suggests Will may have been involved in his demise.
The idea is that that In Time is a chase story in a world where some people live forever in a bubble, but many others must die early for them to do so. Consequently In Time plays on many big ideas – be it immortality, the concept of why we work, the morality of wealth divides and themes of *living* versus *existing*.
However, as rich and wonderful the concept undoubtedly is, In Time never really clicks. It is never quite predictable – and has several moments where it threatens to excel - but at the same time it is never truly meaty and engaging.
One problem with In Time is the lack of texture and … thinness to the characters, world and story. Yes time = money is a great idea, as is the idea of the poor struggling with hours on the clock while the rich have decades, but each ingredient isn’t quite right. On top of that the story moves from station to station too quickly for it to gain traction. There are many plot conveniences (like locating the fugitives) - and Timberlake’s Will Salas is unbelievably blasé about gaining and losing time. Okay – we understand he’s used to living day to day, but gambling 50 years and losing 1000 years should be a big deal for anyone, and even the hardiest day-to-dayer should at least a moment of pause and consider his new fortune / misfortune will change him. Yet Will barely changes facial expression.
He is almost always cliché calm.
Other characters also seem to yoyo between comfort and jeopardy without any real tangible emotional drag. Sure they get afraid and elated at the right moments, but emotions feel delivered on cue, and not as an organic part of the story. Be it Will’s underused alcoholic friend (played by Johnny Galecki from The Big Bang Theory), Datum’s (strangely posh and unrealistic) gangsters, new Greenwich’s mega-rich (led by time banker Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men) or even the lead cast, everyone feels 2D movie-convenient, and unreal.
Another issue is that the concept raises many interesting ideas, but doesn’t have the …. well time… or inclination to deal with them all. Time is shared by linking hands/wrists, and can be gifted or stolen in the same manner, creating a black market of time-theft and “fights” where people gamble their time against each other. However neither of these ideas is fleshed out and part of the world – (wouldn’t people protect their arms to prevent theft, and the overconfident expose them to demonstrate their ego) and the whole concept feels thrown in to satisfy the predictable “necessary moment of fight tension”.
Finally, the economics of the whole world – and the ending resolution – also leaves an awkward unrealised sensation. Yes New Greenwich is rich and Datum is poor, but how do New Greenwich people earn their money to stay rich? And when people can live for thousands of years aged 25, how does it affect them and their marriages? Do people change? Also how does it work that people in Datum must die so that New Greenwich people can keep on living – surely New Greenwich will suffer a population boom that will be unsustainable? What’s the big idea?
Also if it’s the “not-too distant future”, what happened to the regular old people? And how come the system works so well, where are the glitches that make it feel real?
None of these issues are addressed unless it suits the plot, and we never discover the real genesis behind the society’s time system. Furthermore other ideas are raised that are never closed off – such as Cillian Murphy’s timekeeper knowing Will’s deceased father, mentioned several times but dropped half way through.
Despite the above, In Time is an enjoyable film and wonderful concept. The performances are solid, with Cillian Murphy’s timekeeper being both the richest character and acting performance – despite being law enforcement he too works day-to-day on a low clock – but even he is not without his clichéd conveniences.
So come the end it’s hard to escape the feeling of disappointment. In Time has an idea that Phillip K would be proud of, however its lack of refinement makes it intriguing but thin, rushed and messy. While all the ingredients are there, the little touches aren’t and something about the construction means a greater experience is lost and, ultimately execution doesn’t match its huge potential.
A definite rental or cheap DVD purchase, and perhaps someone else will take the idea and really drill into it one day.
A beautiful concept but ultimate near miss.
Review by Jonathan Guyett