The first twenty five years of your life are free. Beyond that, you have one year, and every day you must earn more time to keep the clock topped up. If you are fortunate, you can stay ahead of the game, buy, beg or steal more time. If your clock runs out, so does your life. Andrew Niccol, writer/director of Gattaca, S1m0ne and Lord of War has returned with a new film addressing his familiar themes of identity and social responsibility, and it’s about time.
Justin Timberlake is Will Salas, born into the ghetto of Dayton, a timezone where poverty is endemic, the cost of living goes up as wages go down, and the streets are prowled by gangs of Minutemen who will rob you of whatever time you have. An encounter with Matthew Bomer’s Henry Hamilton changes everything for Will. Tired of living, Henry has given away all the centuries he has accumulated, granting the last one to Will, but in the process, making him a wanted man, both by the Minutemen and the Timekeepers, the police force who ensure the flow of commerce is strictly one way.
It has been said that in science fiction there are no new ideas, that the art of the storyteller is in finding new ways to tell them, and Niccol has done well before, examining free will in his scripts for The Truman Show and his directorial debut, Gattaca. Indeed, the styling and mood are pulled directly from that classic, but few people who viewed that film would have believed it could have been improved with a car chase, save perhaps a studio executive. Much of what is implied in the background here – that government has ceased and the world is controlled by corporations – would have been more interesting if brought to the foreground and challenged, but the greatest sin of a film concerned with the importance of not wasting time is how little happens in two hours.
Unlike the segregated utopia of Gattaca, the world of In Time is never as convincing as anything more than a thought experiment; in a short story or an abstract fantasy the ideas might work, but filmed in a realist manner, the pieces fall short. Considering the state of the global economy, it is astonishing that a film that should be a barbed call to arms for the exploited masses should be such a disappointing curiosity, but this will not inspire debate in the same way genetic discrimination did. While unmistakably the work of Andrew Niccol, even down to the main titles reflecting the preoccupation with numbers in the same way Gattaca reflected the DNA code, it does not match the achievement of that film.
By assuming the “borrowed ladder” Jerome, Vincent represented his entire “degenerate” class, but never having seen the background or childhood of Will Salas, we never come to know him in the same way, and with no motivation or insight into his character, his conversion to sharp dressed Robin Hood fails to convince. Similarly, the rebellion of Amanda Seyfried’s Sylvia Weis against her father, timelender Phillipe Weis, lacks authenticity; she becomes Bonnie to his Clyde on a whim, and her indifference undermines the actions they undertake to change the system.
The best performance comes from Vincent Kartheiser as Weis, in his constant restrained disapproval at his daughter’s behaviour, his expressions and mannerisms those of an old man of dogged determination that nothing should ever change. The rest of the characters are as superficial as their pretty faces imply; they utter lines intended to convey depth, but the words are on their lips, not in their hearts. Salas asks Timekeeper Raymond León, an uncharacteristic monochrome performance from Cillian Murphy, why he is investigating the suicide of Henry Hamilton when there is murder in the ghetto every day, but no answer is forthcoming, nor is the challenge followed up.
The chance of an extended lifespan has long been dreamed of and explored, and the social implications of longevity were the central theme of John Wyndham’s Trouble With Lichen, published over fifty years ago, and ten years after that Harlan Ellison published “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, a satire on a dystopia in which time is a commodity and abuse of punctuality a crime punishable by death by the Master Timekeeper, similarities that prompted Ellison to sue for credit on In Time. Both of those authors have a body of work encompassing major classics and less well regarded minor works; it is unfortunate that, like the prescient concept of S1m0ne that covered a soulless interior, In Time is destined to be a footnote rather than a defining moment for Andrew Niccol.