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In Time Review

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by Casimir Harlow Feb 9, 2012

    In Time Review

    I don't have time.
    I don't have time to worry about how it happened.

    It is what it is.

    We're genetically engineered to stop ageing at twenty five. The trouble is, we live only one more year, unless we can get more time. Time is now the currency. We earn it and spend it. The rich can live forever and the rest of us?... I just wanna’ wake up with more time on my hand than hours in the day.

    In Time takes a very interesting premise and runs with it.

    In the future we all earn our stay on the planet, and anything we want – from a cup of coffee to a bus ride home – costs us hours of our lives. The hard-working folk living in the factory district of Dayton struggle every minute of every day; running so as not to waste time; working two-day shifts just to afford the ‘time’ to pay the bills. And the prices just keep going up.

    Will Salas is celebrating his mother’s 50th year on the planet. Of course his mother looks exactly the same age as Will because nobody ages beyond 25, but the last two-and-a-half-decades have still been a struggle, particularly after the death of Will’s father. You see, Will’s dad used to gamble his ‘time’ in duels with others – like a futuristic arm-wrestle, only your time, and thus your life is at stake – and was rumoured to have been ‘timed out’ by an opponent. When you get timed out; when your counter hits zero, your heart stops and there’s nothing anybody can do to bring you back. You die.

    After a chance encounter Will happens upon more time than he ever expected to have, enough to help him escape the Dayton Ghetto for a fresh start in the affluent district of New Greenwich. But tragedy is around the corner and his quest to start anew soon becomes one of justice, and revenge. With gangsters (Minutemen) and police (Timekeepers) on his trail will he have enough time to put things right?

    “The truth is, for a few to be immortal many must die.”

    In Time is the latest project from writer/producer/director Andrew Niccol. In case you don’t remember the name, he’s the man who wrote and directed Gattaca, that excellent sci-fi gem about genetic engineering which starred Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law (amidst others). I know what you’re thinking: “how could we forget the man who directed Gattaca?” Well, quite easily really, since in the last decade-and-a-half he’s done little of merit. After his debut with 1997’s Gattaca and 1998’s critically well-received The Truman Show, his career history has included such flops as Al Pacino’s S1m0ne and Nicholas Cage’s Lord of War. And that’s it.

    Thankfully with In Time he at least returns to classic alternate-future-sci-fi ground and provides, if nothing else, a very strong opening concept upon which to hang the entire rest of the movie.

    It appears that the movie has had something of a polarizing effect on audiences. I don’t mean that some people love it and some people hate it; it’s nothing that black and white – no, I mean that either you accept the sci-fi premise of In Time and enjoy the movie for what it is, or you pick holes in the premise and just see the flaws in the rest of the movie. I definitely fell into the former category.

    Sure, the film is rife with massive plot holes; scenes take place almost contemporaneously when hours should have passed in-between; characters run away, then come back, then run away again without any well-defined aim to their actions; indeed the storyline frequently feels contrived just to get to those tense ‘running out of time’ sequences which populate the movie, some of which do not hold up to any kind of scrutiny. Even the very idea of using time as currency doesn’t sit right with some people.

    “Why do today what you can do in a century?”

    For me, however, I was totally absorbed by the alternate future concept. It was well-integrated into the everyday lives of these individuals, so much so that you feel like it might actually work as a viable alternative economy, and certainly feel like it works for this film. Time is introduced into the system in much the same way that money is printed; it is expended with every second, which is both a clever way of removing time out of the system and also an analogy to the inherent loss in value of cash if held onto for any length of time. If birth rates start exceeding consumption and death rates (those who die with time on their clocks, i.e. without being ‘timed out’) then this causes inflation, which attempts to bring some balance back.

    Indeed, with the current potential double-dip recession on the way this storyline feels positively timely. One could easily also argue that it’s the working-class and middle-class multitude that pay the majority of taxes – for most of us it’s taken out of our pay packets before we even see a penny – where the rich, as has recently been highlighted by some of the revelations by political candidates in the US (also noted in my Ides of March review), manage to avoid paying as much tax as they should, and often far less than the rest of us.

    In Time looks precisely at this: whilst people are struggling to live on a day-to-day basis, why are there others out there with so much to spare that they don’t know what to do with it all.

    Of course it’s not as deep and weighty as it could have been; far from it. It wears its symbolism on its sleeve, proud of any slight topical comparisons that it can provoke. Whilst its premise may be quite innovative, the ensuing events are only partly thought-out, and the clever ideas often get lost in the maelstrom of what is, essentially, a futuristic Robin Hood story. And the observations on humanity? Well they don’t scratch the surface – not even to the extent that Gattaca did.

    It doesn’t help that the performances are a bit of a mixed-bag as well.

    I actually have a lot more time for Justin Timberlake than many of his contemporaries. If you look at the likes of Channing Tatum and, before him, Orlando Bloom and Paul Walker, Timberlake has a much more natural charm and has, even as a relative newcomer to the film industry, shown a fair amount of range. From Alpha Dog to The Social Network, he’s proven himself to have some halfway decent acting chops – perhaps he’s not the new Will Smith when it comes to a singer-turned-movie star, but he’s got potential. And 2011 was a triple-shot year for him, with the release of his slightly disappointing (but not for want of trying) Cameron Diaz-led vehicle Bad Teacher, this sci-fi film, and his latest movie, Friends with Benefits, which showcases some of his best pure entertainment star power; exuding charisma, charm, chemistry and even good comic timing. Yet with his lead performance in In Time, he just doesn’t quite cut it. Some scenes are very well done – from the running-towards-each-other set-pieces which crank up the running-out-of-time quota to 11 to the time-fighting / arm-wrestling sequence where a couple of facial micro-expressions add unexpectedly nice touches to the interesting setup – but there are other moments where he just does not feel like he is fully invested in the project. It’s not a fatally flawed performance, but it isn’t his best either.

    Opposite him we have the wide-eyed Amanda Seyfried who has, with films like Jennifer’s Body and Chloe, established herself as a serious new contender in the sexy superstar rankings. I don’t think I’ve personally ever managed to fully understand what the fuss is about – but I can’t deny the fact that she is attractive, however unconventionally so. Unfortunately she has zero chemistry with Timberlake, which also does not help the production. She does still have her moments in the movie, however, but they often limited by the script which relies too heavily on time-related puns to hammer the initial concept home. Alright, we get it, it’s a play on words, but enough is enough.

    Indeed many of the actors are constrained by the words that they have to speak (even Timberlake; if you compare his dialogue here to the dialogue which he and co-star Mila Yunis worked on together, and the chemistry they shared, in Friends with Benefits, you see just how stilted some of In Time sounds). Yet there are some exceptions. Supporting actor Vincent Kartheiser might have actually found his calling. The guy who played Connor in the Buffy TV series spin-off, Angel, seems to have embraced the fact that he does ‘irritating as hell’ very well indeed, having taken a suitably weasel-like role in the excellent TV show Mad Men, and now being cast as a hundred-year-old time millionaire who exudes entitlement. I can’t think of a single other character in this drama who manages to bring to bear hundreds of years of so-called ‘experience’ beneath the veneer of a twenty-something face, nor indeed another actor who could pull it off so well. You see, his character is shallow and rich beyond belief, and has lived a protected life for all this time (or, as his daughter tells him, has never lived a single day) and Kartheiser has nailed that kind of performance down – it comes worryingly naturally to him.

    “We're not meant to live like this. We're not meant to live forever. Although I do wonder if you've ever lived a day in your life.”

    Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens) is also superb support in a glorified cameo as Justin Timberlake’s mother. Yes, his mother. It’s a great bit of casting, and she puts a fair amount into this relatively small but nonetheless vital role, really making the most of her biggest standout scene and instilling it with a decent undercurrent of tangible emotion and palpable panic. Even Cillian Murphy (Inception, Sunshine) manages to avoid looking totally out of place in this project, instilling in his lead Timekeeper (the police of the future) a genuine sense of half a Century’s experience on the job, whilst also dressing pretty cool in a Matrix-lite style. Murphy’s actually not let down by the script as much as the others, but, if anything, could have done with slightly more development (certainly this is improved on in the Deleted Scenes). Of course he does, however, have one fatal flaw – he’s far too old to be convincing as a 25 year-old. Don’t get me wrong, they do a great job, giving him Steven Seagal-style dyed/fake hair, and trying to smudge all those lines out of his face with a thick layer of makeup. But he’s still the only one in the movie who seems totally miscast as an eternal 25-year-old. It’s not the end of the world, though, and, indeed, whilst the performances are middling, they far from ruin the movie, instead just leaving it increasingly feeling like a Gattaca-lite production.

    At the end of the day, that’s really what this is. On the downside, it will leave many craving the giddy heights of Niccol’s debut masterpiece; but on the plus-side it still makes for eminently entertaining viewing. The alternate-future setting is well-realised, with a combination of sets and almost perfectly integrated CG (but for one truly awful CG car crash); the initial concept is milked for its absolute worth throughout the proceedings, to generally good effect; and the underlying Robin Hood story-arc that develops may well be tried-and-tested, but is still very engaging given the unusual setting (c.f. the Connery vehicle Outland may have been nothing more than “High Noon in space”, but it still worked quite well because of the change in setting).

    The score may be generic as hell, but it still works fairly well to give the film some momentum; the story may be hampered by a back-and-forth hole-ridden plot that sometimes feels like it has no direction, but engaging chase sequences never fail to keep you involved and time-related references to socio-economic themes give it a nice, topical edge. Even the performances, whilst not standout, largely deliver the goods and keep the film feeling fresh and unusual.

    In Time rides on its premise all the way through its near-two-hour runtime and, for the most part, succeeds. It’s not great; it’s not Gattaca, but, if you’re prepared to swallow the clever-if-contrived initial concept, then there’s plenty to enjoy here. This is good sci-fi, delivered in a flawed-but-fascinating way.

    “No one should be immortal, if even one person has to die.”