Review: ‘In Time’ Chooses Sleek Action Over Provocative Metaphor

By  · Published on October 28th, 2011

In Time squanders a promising metaphor on an abundance of sleek action scenes that seem to have wandered into the movie from a car commercial. Writer-director Andrew Niccol will always have a beloved, if underrated, place in the realm of modern day sci-fi crafters for his terrific eugenics drama Gattaca and his Truman Show script. But his career has floundered since then, and his latest flick fails to find the structural, atmospheric or plot-driven ingenuity to match its provocative premise.

Set in the proverbial not-so-distant future, the film depicts a human race genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. At that point, essentially, one is on the clock. “Time is the new currency,” intones hero Will Salas (Justin Timberlake). Costs are paid out in hours and minutes, days and years.

More than that, though, time is the lifeblood, the engine that keeps the heart beating. Each person is equipped with a green digital readout on an arm, a countdown to death. Acquire a lot of time, by working hard, or gambling, and you can live for centuries. Spend it unwisely, find yourself stuck in a minimum wage job, lose time to a mugger, or go into debt and 0:00:00 hits with blinding speed.

There are some logical flaws in this conceit and some details that are left unexplained. Chief among them: How is extra time created? Is it “printed,” like money? But Niccol offers a pretty tightly-wound portrait of this new society and the metaphor is a powerful one. We are all, of course, on an inexorable march toward death, forever bartering our remaining time above ground.

The film is undone by how little Niccol does with the concept. It’s surrounded by a painstakingly pedestrian narrative that finds Timberlake’s inner-city dwelling Salas taking revenge on the landed aristocracy that runs things in its luxurious fantasyland home of New Greenwich, after he’s given an extra century of time by a suicidal “one-percenter.” Salas, charged with the one-percenter’s murder, kidnaps heiress Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried). Yet she buys his “down with the rich” rhetoric, and soon enough the futuristic Bonnie and Clyde are after a big time time heist for the poor, with Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) giving chase.

The picture is almost comically flashy, from its gorgeous, impeccably dressed leads to the impossibly slick chase scenes, the glossy digital surveillance board that looms over Timekeepers HQ and the nouveau riche pleasures experienced by Salas. The “slum” scenes, set in abandoned lofts and on empty lamp-lit streets, offer a sort of stylized grit, while the noirish overtones are rendered obsolete by the absence of the muddled morality that sets apart such enterprises at their best.

There’s a clear division between good and bad, right and wrong in Niccol’s Robin Hood dichotomy. Timberlake and Seyfried are the pretty, empty headed heroes, their every action justified. Standing in their way are the wasteful New Greenwich elite, conspiring to kill off the poor for lebensraum, and the workman Leon, who will get his foe whatever the cost. The contemporary allusions – JT as Occupy Wall Street avenger – are no less obvious.

It’s all way too cut-and-dry, an enterprise in which a pedestrian plot and a straightforward aesthetic have been applied to a grand idea. The great speculative sci-fi writers and filmmakers could have made much more of it than Niccol. And one of them might have already. Hugo-award winning novelist Harlan Ellison has launched a copyright suit against the picture, claiming it rips off his 1965 short story “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman.”

Without having read Ellison’s work, with no opinion on the merits of his case, I think it’s safe to assume that you’d be better served seeking it out for you “time is money” dystopian fix.

The Upside: The “time as currency” conceit is a powerful one and the movie has a an appealing sleekness about it.

The Downside: The plot is extraordinarily dull and painstakingly one-note.

On the Side: If you haven’t seen Gattaca, rent it instead.