'In Time' Review: Andrew Niccol Tries To Occupy Sci-Fi

I'll say this for In Time, Andrew Niccol's story describing a society driven into extreme class segregation by an economic system in which time is literally money: Niccol drives Justin Timberlake like a taskmaster. The singer-turned-actor runs like crazy, jumps, fights, and sweats his way through a movie that all too often feels more detached than a severed limb. It's a very physical, very present performance that lends the movie some much-needed credit.

The detachment is due to the always on-the-nose, never close to subtle language used to wield the core concept as a club against economic disparity. I could never take the movie seriously because it was always so insistent about Making a Point. In Time, as written, is perhaps meaty and clever enough for a Twilight Zone episode. Stretched to feature length it is an unconvincing attempt at world-building and simply a deeply silly take on Bonnie and Clyde. Or Robin Hood. Or something. In Time wants to be a lot of things, but it never commits to any one.

This story is burdened by serious conceptual overhead. People are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. At that point you get one more free year and then have to earn, or inherit, every minute of the rest of your life. The working aspects of the time=money economy are established in detail, and I thought there might be some dialogue to explain how people's bodies don't break down after walking around for a hundred years. There isn't.

We're supposed to understand, I think, that a society in which the economy is the only driving life force would remain static. Everyone looks twenty-five — that point around when many people are at their  most fiscally unbalanced and irresponsible — as a way to illustrate that fixed society. Similarly, many of the film's cars are nearly identical, and the same sections of LA are re-dressed and shot from different angles to create a structurally solid if visually bland, homogenous society. If this is all meant to tie together into a unified portrait of a stagnant society then the point is made, if not with much force.

(I also assumed that the fact that everyone in the movie gets to look 25 was a way to increase the box-office potential of the movie by casting only young, pretty faces . This is a future where nearly everyone is drop-dead gorgeous. Even when they've dropped dead. Whether that strategy is successful as a business tactic remains to be seen.)

Even with all the overhead, I was ready to believe In Time. Will (Timberlake), who is perpetually on the go trying to earn a living, is a good lens through which to view this society. Those without a surplus of time are always working, always running. There is a clear analogy to a recognizable real life, where many people seem to work far more than they do anything else, and rarely have any big gains to show for it. Will's predicament quickly gets across the idea of living in a society where you never feel as if you'll have enough, and where the rug might be pulled from under you at any time.

Then Will runs across a rich guy (Matt Bomer) and ends up with all his time, eventually jetting away to an upper-crust 'time zone.' Will is pursued by a grizzled old 'timekeeper,' a cop. This character is played by Cillian Murphy, who is not at all grizzled, but does a fair job of projecting a deep weariness despite the script's distinct lack of interest in allowing him to blossom as a person. There is some implication of a relationship between timekeepers, who make sure time/money is where it is 'supposed to be,' and the ruling elite. That's a narrative line with little follow-through. (Some plot points occasionally feel inexpertly pruned. That's one.)

Will also meets a very wealthy old man (Vincent Kartheiser) who may be part of a shadowy cabal controlling the flow of time/money. That cabal is another stillborn subplot. The old guy's daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) is attracted to Will, and despite a couple of serious relationship roadblocks (such as that timekeeper/cop) the two end up having the time of their lives acting out some weird 'Robin Hood by way of Bonnie and Clyde' fantasy.

As the pair robs banks and tries to redistribute the wealth to ghetto residents there are strains of criticism of not only the money-hoarding wealthy elite — the 1% in current protestor jargon — but of simplistic ideas to address economic imbalance. That action and accompanying criticism boils down to: Give Money to Poor –> That Didn't Work –> What Now?

Furthermore, while on their outlaw kick, Will and Sylvia engage in one criminal act that dissolved any belief I might have had in either person. Will is rebellious but ultimately trying to be moral throughout most of the film. That is, except for this one moment, where he does something that seemed to me more damagingly criminal, and more selfish than his other actions. I saw it as being well out of character, and something that has no apparent effect on his psyche. My acceptance of the film and its characters broke at that moment.

There are some good ideas here, and it is a shame to see them die on the vine. The economic criticism withers under the glare of action-movie outlaw dreams. The chase scenes don't play well with ruminations on class. There are valid, if obvious observations about the ways in which the poor are marginalized and worked until death, but almost no developed thoughts or comments about the situation.

Niccol, who also scripted, finds no greater success in crafting a slightly futuristic thriller. The movie feels empty, hollow and false. The ghetto is populated by citizens who look like they live in an almost-trendy Brooklyn neighborhood, and the only threat in the supposedly-violent 'hood is from a wildly good-looking and unrepentantly evil gangster played by Alex Pettyfer. There is also a weird form of arm-wrestling that stands in for street fighting, and a truncated backstory about Will's father, which is evidently supposed to inform his actions.

In Time feels like two competing movies in one: the angry but thoughtful allegory about a despotic economy, and the more mainstream chase film populated with beautiful people. There is no better time to release at least one of those movies than right now. But cramming them both into one container where they might meld into a unified whole proved to be far too optimistic. You might as well hope that divided economic classes will abruptly decide to hold hands and work together./Film score: 4 out of 10