October 28, 2011



IN TIMEWatch It At HomeThe Clock Never Really Starts Ticking


Andrew Niccol wants to be a populist moviemaker of ideas, but he just doesn’t have the knack.  Niccol’s ideas are genuinely impressive:  he’s the man who wrote The Truman Show and Gattaca, and less successfully, S1mOne and Lord of War.  Niccol’s flair for high-concept originality bought him a seat at the directors’ table, and he was behind the camera on the latter 2 films, but there’s a reason Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, remains his most successful project–Niccol is far from his own best director.


IN TIME, his new film, confirms that.  As before, Niccol’s premise is ingenious.  In a parallel more-or-less present (the wardrobe is a bit stylized and there are no cell phones, but cars and furniture are still recognizable), humanity has been genetically altered so that no one visibly ages beyond the way they look at 25.  However, at 25 each person’s clock starts running with 1 year remaining, and anyone who doesn’t earn more units of time beyond their 26th birthday, or who runs out of earned time after that, has an instantly fatal heart attack.  (People do still die before their time if they’re murdered or suffer accidents, however.) Time thus takes the place of money–people are paid in hours or (if they’re lucky) days, and the rich are 80, 90, over 100 years old (but still look 25) while the poor scrabble to live literally day-to-day or drop dead in the street.  The rich live in luxurious communities of skyscrapers and mansions, while the poor are confined to ghettos, unable to afford the time-tolls into the other districts.


Our hero in all this is Will (Justin Timberlake).  He’s an ordinary workingman (although his deceased father was apparently some kind of revolutionary) and on one night, he both suffers a tragic loss and receives a remarkable gift:  a suicidal rich man (Matt Bomer) gives him 100 years of time.  Will uses his unexpected capital to visit the rich side of town, where he plays poker with a time-hungry tycoon (Vincent Kartheiser, oozing with his best Pete Campbell arrogance) and makes the acquaintance of the tycoon’s daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).  Will’s sudden wealth hasn’t gone unnoticed by the “Timekeeper” police, though, represented by the Javert-like Raymond (Cillian Murphy), and Will is forced to go on the run, taking Sylvia as captive.  In the way of movies, she’s only briefly an unwilling prisoner, and before long they’re playing strip poker together and robbing her daddy’s time-banks in order to give years to the poor, an alternate-universe combination of Bonnie & Clyde and Robin Hood.

The trouble with In Time is that all this sounds like more fun than it actually is.  Even though the central conceit is worked out elegantly (a phone call costs 1 minute; a luxury car costs years), Niccol’s dialogue is distressingly flat and, in its Occupy Wall Street-ish politics, repetitively obvious.  Despite a few decent action sequences, the movie as a whole–ironically for a story about the preciousness of time–feels languid and dreary, with too long spent on a (Cockney!) ghetto hood pursuing Will, and Will’s talent for some kind of arm-wrestling challenge that serves for combat in the ghetto.  Timberlake and Seyfried are a very attractive couple, and their performances aren’t bad, but neither has the ability to elevate their material (Timberlake is particularly lightweight), and they don’t strike dangerous or romantic sparks off one another.  There’s also an almost total lack of humor to the script.

Gattaca was also a cold fantasy of genetic manipulation and intrigue, but Niccol was smart enough to make detachment part of that movie’s style (although with a $12M gross, that decision paid off with critics more than audiences).  In Time means to be more of a conventional Hollywood action-romance–watching it, you can see the story beats that were supposed to draw you in–and it succeeds neither as popcorn entertainment nor as a stimulating philosophical argument about aging, vanity or disproportionate wealth.

Fox knew what it had with In Time:  it’s not an accident that the opening is on Halloween weekend, traditionally weak for the 18-34 audience the movie is aimed to attract, and just a week before Tower Heist arrives for the same crowd.  It’s sad, really, because Niccol has more interesting concepts in his little finger than Heist director Brett Ratner has in his whole body.  As a filmmaker, though, Niccol lacks the down-and-dirty instincts of a popular storyteller; he doesn’t seem to know the value of his every last minute in the spotlight.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."