Time leaves you nothing,
nothing at all
—Cat Stevens, “Time”
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
In 1987, one of the episodes of the pbs short-film anthology series American Playhouse was a sci-fi story called “The Price of Life.” The plot of the 40-minute episode—which starred a young Dustin Diamond—is relatively simple: in the near future, notes and coins are no longer legal currency; instead, goods and services are paid for in time. Everyone has these little calculator-like devices in holsters on their belts that perform transactions and keep a record of your ‘account balance,’ as it were. You’re born with a set amount; you can swap time with other people, and when your time’s up, you die.
The new film by writer-director Andrew Niccol—as much a star vehicle for Justin Timberlake (here dialling down the natural charisma that made his appearance in The Social Network so memorable) as it is another of the director’s attempts at melding thought-provoking sci-fi to a plausible concrete reality—is a silly, laughably poorly written piece of work that owes a huge debt to stories like “The Price of Life,” as well as to a swathe of sf-movie history. (It may even be directly appropriating the content of a Harlan Ellison novel.) As in the American Playhouse episode, Niccol’s characters in the simplistically named In Time die when their clocks run out, and can trade time (or steal it) from others. From the gaudy 1976 movie Logan’s Run, Niccol borrows the conceit of dying at a certain age: in that population-control Michael-York-starring eco-sci-fi myth, everyone died on their 30th birthday when a flashing jewel embedded in their palm indicated their time was up. In In Time, no one ages past 25; they can still die of natural causes, but as long as they have enough time on their clocks—a nice bit of wetware, and one of the film’s cg highlights: bioluminescent monochrome-green digital timers emblazoned across their forearms which give new meaning to the phrase “body clock”—they can live for eons. (The forearm-countdown-timers double as an oblique, ultimately dumb holocaust reference.) Banks also store time in laser-scanning devices that half-resemble silver bricks.
Timberlake’s protagonist, Will Salas, has been twenty-five for three years. He lives in the ghetto in Dayton—though, for whatever reason, apparently not in Ohio—and wakes up each day wishing that he had more than 24 hours on his clock. His mother, played by a robotic Olivia Wilde, is in a fairly massive amount of debt, so he’s working double shifts to try and pay that off for her as well as trying to keep himself alive. With his shaved head, Will is reminiscent of the characters in THX-1138,and in giving the character a repetitive, conveyor-belt job (particularly in a couple of the shots of him and his fellow factory drones at work), you can see Niccol struggling to inset what is arguably a reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. After a scuffle in a bar with a probable mobster, Will meets a man (Matt Bomer, tv’s Chuck) with more than a century on his clock. He’s 105, and he’s had enough life. While Will is asleep, this man transfers more than a century to him, and walks, in his final minutes, to an over-bridge from which his corpse falls after suffering the fatal heart attack that ultimately attends all the denizens of this unpleasant alternate future. Will is suspected of being a thief not only of time, but also of this man’s life.
He goes on the run, using the time he’s recently come into to travel across precinct borders known as time zones, each having a marked ‘time difference’—these are among the first in a long, eventually tiring line of time-related puns. Will goes through a dozen or so of these checkpoints, each one depleting more of his currency than the last, and eventually arrives at New Greenwich, an affluent suburb on the right side of the tracks. In the ghetto, people do everything fast; a popular pastime is arm-wrestling for spare change. (This sometimes ends fatally.) There’s a city mission that gives out time to those most desperately in need, something like a soup kitchen that doles out minutes. In New Greenwich, people have more money than sense, and therefore do everything at an almost ridiculously leisurely pace. So when Will eats too fast and walks a little too quickly, he sticks out like a sore thumb. One of the first people to notice him is Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried, Chloe, Mamma Mia!), heiress to an enormous banking fortune. Will meets and, in one of the film’s better scenes, plays a tense game of poker with, her father (Vincent Kartheiser, tv’s Mad Men), a man who has been 25 for 85 years. Kartheiser introduces his poor-little-rich-girl daughter, his mother, and his sister; this occasions one of the film’s only good jokes (and one which necessarily echoes Chinatown). Following another round of lame puns (“You must come from time!”), Will absconds with his newfound love and sets out on a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style Robin-Hood-esque mission to redistribute the wealth from her father’s banking empire, all the while trying to outmanœuvre a Timekeeper (a brilliant Cillian Murphy) who, with his fellow hired goons, is in charge of policing and reclaiming lost and stolen time.
New-Zealand born Andrew Niccol’s previous work as writer and director includes, chronologically and in descending order of entertainment value, the superb script for The Truman Show, a film he also produced; the entertainingly pulpy thriller Gattaca; the ridiculously dumb S1m0ne (2002); the just-as-dumb script for the unendurable Tom Hanks vehicle The Terminal; and, second-most recently, the Nic Cage crapfest Lord of War (2005). He put together the screenplay for In Time—which was first named Im.mortal (geddit?), then Now, before settling on its final title—only a few short months before shooting, so perhaps it’s no wonder that it’s engorged with laughably silly time-filling puns which quickly become annoying. (Another example: when Murphy’s Timekeeper, who looks like he fell straight out of The Matrix, has lined up a group of possible informants, he tells one of his minions to “clean their clocks.”) Roger Deakins’ gorgeous widescreen compositions save the production visually; without his expertise behind the camera, the film would have been far more difficult to get through. He and Niccol occasionally throw in some interesting flourishes in the third act; one shot—an oblique angle with a washed-out tone intended to have the look of closed-circuit security-camera footage—is particularly notable. The film’s inappropriately syrupy, glossy score comes courtesy of Craig Armstrong, whose previous credits include some of Oliver Stone’s most recent and most poorly received films, along with the insipid rom-coms Love, Actually, and Must Love Dogs.
All this aside, it is the script that is the film’s biggest failing; not only does Niccol’s dialogue sound terrible coming out of the mouths of a bunch of young tv actors—perhaps his biggest error was not incorporating into the film’s central conceit an arena in which experienced actors could take part—but the world of the film is not adequately fleshed-out. Would that the script were overwritten, or bloated with exciting ideas, but we aren’t, for example, told why people in less affluent areas aren’t kept alive on a sustenance wage in order to work in the factories, or if Niccol even had Karl Marx in mind when he conceived of the film. (He almost certainly didn’t know when he was putting it together that this work, with its zeitgeisty premise, would have landed smack-bang in the middle of a nascent global anti-1% revolution.) It’s disheartening to see a filmmaker who, little more than a decade ago, showed so much promise deliver such a poorly-thought-out film. Although I’m not holding out too much hope for his next project (coming in 2013), an adaptation of Twilight scribe Stephenie Meyer’s ya novel The Host.
In Time is in cinemas today.