Staring at the Clock, by Scott Nye
The premise of In Time is fairly simple, though evidently too complex to be laid out any other way than voiceover at the start of the film – in “the future,” people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, but they have to buy time for every year thereafter. In fact, time literally is money now – everything is bought and sold in units of time (a cup of coffee costs four minutes, etc.). Only they start this period of their lives with a year already on the clock. So maybe they really stop aging at 26? Also isn’t that sort of like giving somebody a year’s worth of income at birth, to be inherited on their 25th birthday? And if so, who’s giving them this time? Who the hell engineered this system anyway? Maybe this is too complex to start with anything other than voiceover, if only voiceover explained it.
So yes, In Time is a very silly, and more unfortunately boring, movie. In it, Will Salas (Timerlake) is among the lower class, working at the same factory every futuristic lower class has since before Metropolis, just, as he puts it, “hoping to wake up with more time on your arm than there is in the day” (also, the amount of time you have is stored and imprinted digitally on your arm; no mention of how this affects biology). Through a freak run in and a little bit of luck, he inherits a century from a suicidal billionaire (I know he doesn’t actually have billions of dollars, just work with my shorthand here), and now the police (sorry – timekeepers) are after him because a camera saw him at the scene of the rich guy’s death, and suspect him of murder. Yes, that’s right – the cameras saw Will but not the guy kill himself, even though these two events took place at the exact same place. In a movie all about how the upper class screws the lower, you’d think some mild corruption would sand right over that plot hole, but I digress.
The timekeepers, led inexplicably by Cillian Murphy (who in real life is 35, and looking it), take their time getting to Will, so he decides to buy a sweet ride and do some high-stakes gambling (he’s an inexplicably great poker player). There he meets Philippe Weis (a very winning and well-cast Vincent Kartheiser) and his hot daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), who’s a little disillusioned with the high-class life she’s been living, and is on the hunt for exciting, unpredictable adventures. Which is convenient, because Will is just about to kidnap her in direct response to threat of arrest. That sounds exciting, yes?
Sylvia, it turns out, was only kind of interested in exciting, unpredictable adventures, because she is not at all down with this kidnapping thing. That is, until some thieves steal the decade she has on her, her survival instinct kicks in, and she and Will become Communist freedom fighters. They’ve had enough of this system that oppresses the lower class, so they concoct a plan that they believe will take the whole system down, man. And it’d be kind of righteous in an agit-prop sort of way if the film had some more get-up-and-go, but it is an unbelievably staid production. Long conversations contain no memorable lines of dialogue, and brief chase sequences give few thrills. Will and Sylvia have to be the least interesting Communists in cinematic history – they believe in their cause forcefully enough to stake their lives on it, but every conversation about it just comes down to, “Man, rich people, am I right?”
The film, of course, isn’t explicitly Communist, but it is the story of a brave member of the lower class rising up against his upper-class oppressors to, literally, redistribute the wealth, so you do the math. And far be it from me to criticize a film for an ideology that takes to task a system that benefits a few at the expense of a great many, but…c’mon, man, be a little bit more excited about it. Or create some narrative tension of some kind. Work with me here!
This is to say nothing of the ridiculous plot it tries to lay out. Will and Sylvia’s plan will apparently result in a total demolition of the system that’s been in place as far back as anyone can remember, but…is the entire world population living in this one city? The news covers the implosion with this sort of “gosh, well, what comes next?” attitude, and Philippe literally says that everything has changed for a generation or two, but…why? I mean, if the entire economic structure of Chicago collapsed, would Paris really be affected? For a film with such a “big idea” premise, it feels awfully small.
In Time has a pretty good premise in that old school, politically-driven sci-fi sort of way, but it totally wastes it on a haphazard plot and forgettable characters. After proving himself a compelling presence in The Social Network, Black Snake Moan, and Friends with Benefits, Justin Timberlake is simply reading his way through a role with a performance that assures us, “anyone can do this.” Even with the great Roger Deakins manning the camera, the film never rises above a predictable, sub-Janusz-Kaminski, Blu-ray-ready visual pattern, and the production design is a downright bore (in the future, everything will be silver). I enjoy big, wild ideas as social metaphor as much as the next guy – they’re sort of the modern version of a legend or myth, meant to impart some greater life truth. But those stories were also designed to be compelling stories as well, and In Time is just a chore. You can put the message before the content, but when the content is this dull, the message suffers as a result.