Thursday, February 2, 2012

Taking Measure of "In Time"

"In Time" was marketed as a dystopian action movie starring Justin Timberlake, but science fiction fans might be more interested to know that it was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who also brought us "Gattaca" and "The Truman Show." So it's no surprise to learn that the movie is chock full of interesting ideas. Sadly, few of them are put to good use.

The central conceit is that we have a universe where everyone stops aging at twenty-five, but only gets a year left to live unless they work to earn more time. As a result, the whole society revolves around time. Minutes and hours are used like currency, and the rich have amassed so many excess years, that they can practically live forever. Timberlake plays our hero, Will Salas, who literally lives day to day in the ghetto, always watching the ticking countdown clock embedded in his arm, hoping to scrape by and keep from "timing out" permanently.

There are all sorts of fun details in the movie that suggest a lot of effort went into conceiving how the world should work, from the different behaviors of the rich and poor who live in separate "time zones," to the economic system that unfairly favors those who are already wealthy. The trouble is that some of the most basic execution leaves a lot to be desired. It is obvious that "In Time" didn't have a very high budget, with ghetto sets that look suspiciously like a studio backlot, to the villainous law enforcement agents known as "Timekeepers" driving around in what appear to be station wagons with a few LED lights pasted on. Clothing and technology that were meant to look like they came from no specific era, instead seem to be cobbled together from whatever was available on short notice.

This wouldn't have been so much of a problem if the plot were stronger, but Will Salas does what every hero character does in these dystopian future scenarios, which is to try and instigate a revolution and overthrow the system. At least, that's the plan. Mostly, he gets into a lot of car chases, foot chases, and fights with the Timekeepers. The action is constant in the second half of the film, and the plot feels thin and perfunctory, pretty much just coming up with more reasons for Will to find himself in another life-or-death situation. There are at least a dozen scenes of someone's clock literally counting down to zero, or almost. There are a few clever moments, but Niccol just didn't do a very good job of constructing the story, which is oddly paced, too heavy on the exposition, often anticlimactic, and doesn't do right by any of the characters.

Now Timberlake isn't bad as Will Salas, and neither is Amanda Seyfried as Sylvia, a poor little rich girl who gets dragged into the action, and somehow manages to keep up with Will on a pair of teetering stilettos. Yet neither are strong enough actors to make up for the weaknesses of the script, unable to lend enough charisma and personality to keep the heroes from feeling like blanks. There is a love story between the pair that is never very convincing, and various rivalries and grudges keep coming up where the participants just don't seem very invested. It's not that the film is too cerebral, but that it lacks emotional resonance. The actors who come off the best are Cillian Murphy, playing the chief antagonist Timekeeper, and Vincent Kartheiser as Sylvia's cold-hearted father. Both do a great job of appearing much older and world-weary than they look physically, but have absolutely nothing interesting to do that might allow them to show any greater inner depth.

And yet, in spite of all these flaws, I still appreciate that "In Time" got made. It was an attempt to do something more thoughtful and high concept than your usual action thriller, and it introduced so many interesting concepts that I wanted to see more fully explored. Cillian Murphy's character having a wife, daughter, and mother-in-law that are almost physically identical, for instance, is a sinister little moment that is over too quick. I like that Andrew Niccol was ambitious and that he tried to deal with current social issues in a novel way, even if the results were lackluster. I hope to see similar films from him in the future.

I think I'd let the next one stew for a little longer in development though. Oh, and refrain from so many groan-worthy puns.

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