A future where no-one ages beyond 25 and where time is literally money: it’s Hollywood’s idea of heaven.
2011 has seen the welcome return of a handful of ideas-led science-fiction films, following in the (quite large) footsteps of last year’s Inception. We’ve had The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code already, and next in this line of respectable thinking man’s thrillers is In Time, from writer-director Andrew Niccol. It’s a return to similar territory covered in his breakout piece Gattaca: that of a future where genetic technology has enforced a stark division between the rich and poor. In Gattaca it was the class divisions between those who were born naturally and those who were ‘engineered’; with In Time, Niccol imagines a future where everyone is engineered to live for 25 years. After that, if you want to live longer, you have to earn it – time has replaced money as currency. The better your job, the more time you earn; which means the poor die young and the wealthy are virtually immortal.
Justin Timberlake stars as Will Salas, a factory worker living in the working class neighbourhood of a city divided in to different ‘time zones’: crossing in to a more upmarket zone will cost you a few days, weeks or even months of whatever time you have left to live – visible on the clocks built in to everyone’s arm which silently ticks down. When Will is gifted a veritable fortune of time by a rich man tired of immortality, it’s his ticket out of the slums, but the local law enforcement ‘time-keepers’, led by cold-eyed Cillian Murphy, are suspicious of his sudden leap in to the big leagues and try to arrest him. He goes on the run with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of one the richest men in the city, as a hostage.
I’ve had high hopes for Niccol ever since his double whammy of Gattaca and The Truman Show, which he scripted, nearly 15 years ago. His work since then has been less successful – S1m0ne was a major disappointment – but In Time sees him bounce back somewhat. The intriguing set up, reworking elements of Logan’s Run (which similarly dealt with fears of overpopulation and old age) with strongly left-wing notions about financial inequality, is clearly his strong suit. The idea that no-one ages beyond 25, meaning parents and grandparents look just as young as their children, is both amusing and terrifying, and clearly takes aim at the west’s preoccupation with beauty and youth. It must surely have been an easy sell to Hollywood producers too – I wonder if they realised that they were the butt of the joke?
It’s a shame then that it sticks pretty close to the couple-on-the-run plot staple so often to be found in this genre. It looks extremely slick and glossy, which does much to obscure what appears to have been a fairly tight budget; the deprived time zones look suitably threatening and the action thankfully lacks any CGI gloss. The trouble is Niccol doesn’t really know where to go with the story once the chase is on. The big idea cards having been played, it’s left to the three leads to keep our interest going. Timberlake is still unproven as an actor; he was fine in David Fincher’s The Social Network, but as a leading man he comes across as a bit of a blank. Seyfried is cute but again two-dimensional. Murphy is certainly the most interesting character onscreen, though there are perhaps one too many scenes of him striding purposefully around police HQ.
There’s plenty to enjoy in In Time, but it’s the ideas that stick with you rather than its story or characters. But in that way it honours the tradition of dystopian future sci-fi that Niccol seeks to revive; after all, how often is Logan’s Run remembered for the quality of its acting? And one suspects on the small screen at home, its shortcomings will be much less apparent.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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