Andrew Niccol wrote and directed this 2011 film, which stars Justin Timberlake as a man living in the ghetto of Dayton in the future. Exactly how far in the future is unclear, though in most respects the time closely resembles the present day. In this future, people no longer age post-maturity; at age 25, they simply stop growing older and continue to look 25 no matter how many more years they live. But, ostensibly to avoid overpopulation, everybody has an internal timer, visible through the skin of their arm, which reads out how much time they have — and everyone is given one year on their 25th birthday. When that time runs out, they simply die. Surviving past one’s 26th birthday means that one has to earn additional time, and time has become the main currency in the world. People spend time on goods and services, earn time for their work, and steal time from each other on the streets. The rich have eons and live in luxury; the poor quite literally live from day to day.
It’s a concept with a lot of ramifications, with many different aspects that could be explored. I have no qualms in saying that it’s perhaps one of the best and most creative science-fiction concepts to hit the cinema in years. But my praise for this film largely ends with the concept; the rest of the film just doesn’t live up it.
There are three generations of women in this picture, all aged 25.
The premise leads to an unusual requirement in the casting; none of the actors can be very old, as their characters all top out at 25 physical years of age. Although most of the cast is actually a little bit older than that (Amanda Seyfried being apparently the only one to truly be 25, while Alex Pettyfer hasn’t actually reached 25 even now), it’s usually only by a few years, though Cillian Murphy and Johnny Galecki stretch it by being nearly 10 years over the age limit. This leads to a little bit of strangeness for a viewer when one realizes just how much we rely on age to give an impression of a person’s role in a situation. Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, aged 28 (“25 for 3″), and his mother — really 50 years old — is played by Olivia Wilde, who is actually a little younger than Timberlake. Parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents if one accumulates enough time, all look the same age as their grown children. Factory foremen are as youthful as their workers, the veteran cop, or “Timekeeper”, shows no more experience on his face than the freshest rookie.
It’s a society of the eternally beautiful (at least, assuming one is beautiful when young in the first place.) It is, of course, a dystopia. While the rich idle around, the poor are kept in a situation that forces them to wonder every day if they have enough time left to keep living for another day. It’s this which kicks the plot in motion; a rich man (Matt Bomer) who has already lived a century and has another century accumulated realizes he cannot live with the moral cost of what he’s done. For some to be immortal, many others must die, as he says. He donates his entire century to Will and runs out his own time, committing suicide. Will is now a fairly rich man… and the sudden accumulation of wealth plus the unusual circumstances of a wealthy man’s death puts Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Murphy) on Will’s trail. There’s a bit of heavy-handedness in the film’s attempt to make a point about economic unfairness, but it’s a sledgehammer that misses its target; while it appears to be reaching vaguely for a point about unbridled capitalism, the society actually shown in the poorer quarters is a very controlled economy with production quotas and market prices and taxes raised by government fiat, with only one apparent provider for most of the goods and services. This isn’t rampant capitalism as much as it’s the Soviet take on communism. The movie is, in it’s half-hearted way, trying to challenge the audience’s position on economics (always a bit disingenuous with a mass-market product anyway), and it gets muddled thoroughly by taking so many liberties with how it works that it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
I know, I know; stop over-analyzing and just enjoy the movie. But the movie’s kind of dull.
There are a lot of questions raised with the high concept here, plenty of interesting things to explore. How did this society come about, how does it continue to work? Are there ways to earn time that don’t come directly from somebody else’s time? Time can be stored in electronic capsules, and even a young child in the film is able to get her hands on one; are there hackers who jury-rig capsules to give themselves as much time as they need? The lead Timekeeper seems to think his role is necessary for this society, and that the way it works is how it has to be, and seems as though he has at least thought about the issue; where does he conclude this from? All of these questions and more are ignored, or at least left unanswered. The opening narration, given by Will, even states that he doesn’t have time to worry about how it came about, effectively telling the audience “don’t think about this too closely”. I’d be polite and go along with that if the movie itself gave me something to be interested in, but for all of its high concept, it’s basically a straightforward action film, and not a particularly good one at that.
It’s unimaginative. Virtually everything looks the same as it does today, suggesting a seriously stagnated society. Or possibly regressed; nobody seems to have a cell phone, and there are a couple scenes where characters could certainly have used them. I can excuse that with the poorer people, since they may not be able to afford one, but nobody seems to have any form of electronic technology other than the time capsules. It’s downright bizarre.
The film is also kind of boring. It’s not hard to predict where things are going to go, and it does everything with very little flair. The action mostly consists of running, and these chase scenes aren’t filled with exciting maneuvers or clever tricks, they’re just running. The characters don’t leave much to latch onto either. Amanda Seyfried’s character has a bit of depth to her, and Seyfried is a decent actress, but she’s the supporting lead, and her character isn’t explored as deeply as it might be. Will Salas is a fairly basic “hero from a rough upbringing” character, and Timberlake does not infuse him with any more personality than that. He doesn’t even crack wise very much, and that’s kind of a minimum quality for a protagonist. This is the second film I’ve seen Timberlake act in (well, third if you count the voice acting in Shrek the Third); the other was Edison Force, where he also played the lead. So far I’m very unimpressed with Timberlake’s acting. I haven’t cared about either of his characters, they don’t come across as having much personality, and when he’s called on to emote something other than wry stoicism, he is not very believable.
There are a couple characters that are somewhat interesting. Cillian Murphy’s role as the lead Timekeeper, Leon, appears to have more depth than perhaps any other character in the film. I wouldn’t have minded some more exploration there, and of course Murphy could easily have carried it. Collins Pennie has a smaller role as one of the other Timekeepers, but manages to get in a few good lines that indicate a bit of sympathy for the heroes and for the poor; had this film perhaps taken a page from The Fugitive and given the Timekeepers a sympathetic perspective and ample time, that interplay could have made for a much more entertaining film. Also of note is Alex Pettyfer, who gives one of the better performances as the hoodlum Fortis, and makes him a much more interesting villain than the main one, played by Vincent Kartheiser. This isn’t really Kartheiser’s fault, it’s just that he’s playing a stock character that wasn’t written with anything more. To be honest, though, after Timekeeper Leon the next-most interesting character is Matt Bomer’s Henry Hamilton, the guy who starts the whole thing off by dying in the beginning. It’s generally not a good thing when the throw-away character is more engaging than the lead.
The smartest guy in the film: He gets out of it early.
If I seem like I’m coming down hard on this film, it’s because I’m disappointed by it. It has a good concept. But it doesn’t seem to want to do anything with that concept except running around, wasting time. It’s an idea that makes a sharp audience want to think… but it opens with narration telling the audience not to. Where Blade Runner strove to have the audience think about the implications of artificial life and The Matrix encouraged people to wonder about the ramifications of a simulated reality, In Time instead says “don’t ask questions, just watch the pretty pictures.” And then it doesn’t even have the courtesy to provide much in the way of pretty pictures. The budget for special effects and explosions appears to have been used entirely on the digital arm clocks and one flipped car — and even the car flip looked kind of sketchy.
What I’m left with as a viewer is a film that could have been so much more than what it was, if only some more time had been spent on the script for In Time.