Gattaca and The Truman Show — two of the most powerful, most profound science fiction movies ever — have trained me to think of a new film from Andrew Niccol (writer and director on the former, writer on the latter) as something of an Event. I’ve tried to forget that his Simone was less than fully satisfying… but now that In Time disappoints, too, I’m starting to worry that Niccol has said all he has to say.
In Time diverts, if temporarily, with its so of-the-moment anger — we could call it Occupy Time. And that’s probably how it will mostly be remembered: as a marker of a shift in the culture. This is the moment when the second decade of the 21st century truly began, we may look back and realize, with a populist rage at way-out-of-whack inequality finally boiling over… and Niccol, as screenwriter and director here, happened to have had a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist just as it was changing. In capturing a potent metaphor for the state of the world, In Time couldn’t be more pertinent.
Maybe In Time came too early, however, for while it is clever in laying out the evils that are fueling the rage, it has no clever solutions. Perhaps it’s unfair to put that level of expectation on a simple entertainment, that it should fix the world… but even as simple entertainments go, In Time is frustratingly anticlimactic. Niccol drops us into his near future world through the desperation of Will Salas (Justin Timberlake: Bad Teacher, The Social Network), a working-class schmoe who lives day to day… which it literally the case here. Time is now currency — a cup of coffee costs four minutes, a bus ride two hours — and most people wake up each morning with less time on their personal clocks than there are hours in the day, and must work to extend their time. When your clock — embedded in your forearm and constantly glowing ominously — hits zero, you die.
The rich have hundreds or even thousands of years on their clocks. The poor live with the daily terror of not having enough to get by. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another movie that better captures the sick-to-your-stomach panic that not having enough money brings. The level of earnest punning — “time on your hand,” “clean your clock,” and of course the unspoken but everpresent “time is money” — gets a tad tedious, but the depiction of the economic anxiety of most people — in our world and in Will’s — is compelling.
It’s when Will leaves his world and enters that of the rich, thanks to a fortuitous windfall of time, that In Time veers into the depressingly conventional. He runs around — literally — with bored rich girl Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried: Letters to Juliet, Dear John), ticking off her uberwealthy father (Vincent Kartheiser: Rango, Mad Men) and the cop (Cillian Murphy: Tron: Legacy, Inception) who’s determined to bring Will in, believing that Will has stolen the time he now has, er, on his hands. The film spins its wheels in standard action-movie form until it reaches an end that feels, in retrospect, entirely unlike the one the story, with its early anger, was surely heading toward.
In Time is, in time, then, too timid. It doesn’t have the balls to admit that what is required to fix its world is revolution, not the Band-Aid Will slaps on it. That may be a flaw of our world, too, at this moment — no one want to admit how big a change is required — but Niccol is working in the realm of fantasy. If we can’t dream big there, where can we?