I love everything about In Time, except for the unacceptably awful movie itself. It comes from New Zealand’s Andrew Niccol who has displayed glimpses of profound talent, during his career, writing the screenplay for The Truman Show, as well as writing and directing Lord of War (a better movie than its reception suggested) and Gattaca, a thoughtful, intellectually stimulating, suspenseful and impressive sci-fi film that took years to find an audience. Niccol has had a knack coming up with prescient ideas: The Truman Show presaged out reality-show culture; Gattaca took place in a universe where genetic engineering was possible; and the appropriately maligned S1m0ne was built on the premise that a digitally created actress could act as a substitute for a real one, which is now, of course, a reality.
It’s hard to imagine that even Niccol could’ve predicted how timely In Time would be when he developed the idea of a universe where Time is currency. It’s not the conceit itself that’s so perfectly aligned with this moment in our nation’s political culture: It’s the allegory. In Time is a movie set in a universe where one percent owns 99 percent of the world’s Time while the other 99 percent live literally day-to-day, hour-to-hour, second-to-second. Citizens — who stop aging at 25, which is when their clocks begin running — are paid in Time, which is reflected in glowing numbers on their forearm. If they time-out, they die. Immediately. They pay their mortgage with Time, they purchase food with Time, and they gamble with Time. The 99 percent typically have less than a day’s worth of Time on them at any given moment, and the streets of the working-class ghetto are scattered with the dead, those who didn’t arrive to work in time to add wages on to their forearm or who ran out after paying a debt. The system, in fact, is designed for this very outcome: The world’s limited resources cannot sustain the life of the many, so most of the Time is concentrated among the super-wealthy who are for all intents and purposes immortal.
All of this is explained in the opening scenes in a very clumsily written exposition dump delivered by the super-rich Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), who has a century left on his arm and is tired of living. He sets the narrative into motion by gifting his remaining time to Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), who had just lost his mother (Olivia Wilde) when an unannounced bus fare hike left her without enough time to make it home. As one is wont to do after one loses a family member to an unjust system, Will uses his time to navigate his way into the wealthy section of the city, which is where he kidnaps Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of an obscenely wealthy business man (“Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser). Will and Sylvia ultimately join forces, which is when In Time morphs into a Bonnie and Clyde/Robin Hood hybrid: They steal from the rich and redistribute Time to the poor. Meanwhile, they are fleeing from the Time Keepers, led by Cillian Murphy’s Raymond, who need to restore order to the system before it collapses. There’s also a roving gang of thugs and an additional obstacle for Will and Sylvia: The Minute Men (led by an Alex Pettyfer character) go around stealing time from the poor.
On paper, In Time sounds like a brilliant movie containing all the elements of a brilliant Phillip K. Dick sci-fi film and an allegorical idea that loudly resonates in a nation where the Occupy Wall Street Movement is finding life. Unfortunately, it is dreadfully executed. It’s difficult to fathom how such a promising idea — and even a well-defined plot structure — could sour so quickly. There’s not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig; it’s a terrible, truly awful film and I write that as someone who really wanted to give In Time every benefit of the doubt. It’s as though Niccol came up with the concept and then quit on the project: The writing is tone deaf, klutzy, and lazier than one of Adam Sandler’s monkey-penned screenplays. Niccol’s earlier work benefited from the lack of dialogue and a cold, clinical nature. He exercise no such restraint in In Time: It’s one hackneyed exposition dump after another, and there are moments when I actually felt bad for the actors forced to deliver the lines written.
Yet the acting, oof, is also abysmal. I like and admire Justin Timberlake, but JT is a personality. A personality can do well on “Saturday Night Live” or in a romantic comedy, as he did earlier this year in Friends with Benefits. But he is a dreadful actor: wooden, inconsistent, and smirky in a role that doesn’t call for smirky. The best thing I can say for Amanda Seyfried’s performance is that she looks really good in a pair of high heels. She and JT have about as much chemistry as pine tar and KY Jelly. Vincent Kartheiser is borderline campy, while Cillian Murphy doesn’t even bring his brand of creepy to the role. It’s a badly miscast film from top to bottom, and none of the roles are suited to the strengths of the actors themselves.
It’s a shame, too, that Niccol wasted a perfectly good idea on this garbage film when a few rewrites, another director, and a different set of actors could’ve delivered a superb sci-fi film. A better executed version of this movie might’ve capitalized on OWS. It could’ve been a cinematic symbol, bolstering the 99 to 1 message. But this version is not a movie any right-minded individual would want to associate with a political movement. It’s like taking Barack Obama’s hopeful “Yes We Can!” message in 2008 and putting it into the mouth of Rick Perry: It’d be awkward, laughable, and dumb, which is an all too unfortunately appropriate description of In Time.