Andrew Niccol has always had a knack for presenting dystopian concepts, whether they are classes based on genetics, a fake utopia created specifically for one person, or how evil is necessarily part of a good system. Niccol has succeeded because of excellent world-building, character development and solid dialogue. It certainly helps that his casts are typically stellar. In Time lacks almost everything that makes Niccol’s films such standout presentations.
In Time presents a future where humanity is genetically engineered to never age past 25 and to no longer die by natural causes. The tradeoff is that a person only has one year left to live, according to the glowing green timer on their left forearms. Then they die artificially – unless they can get more time, which has become the new world currency. People work for it, pay with it, fight for it, kill for it and die for it. The populace is broken up into different time zones. The poor live in urban industrial areas, working blue collar jobs that barely offer a living wage, while those rich in time live in areas that charge a year just to cross the border into.
Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a factory worker in a poor time zone who is always literally a day away from dying every day. He’s typically of little consequence to anyone until he meets a world-weary rich man who gives Will a century of time before killing himself. With his new access to richer areas, Will decides to infiltrate the society that controls the system which is responsible for claiming so many lives, including his mother’s (Olivia Wilde). Unfortunately, the police force known as Time Keepers suspect Will for murder and time theft. Time Keeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) apprehends Will who escapes and goes on the lam by abducting Syliva Weis (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a wealthy time manager. Now Will must avoid capture while striking back at the oppressive system that has ruined so many lives.
In Time presents an interesting concept, but it requires specific story foundations before audiences can be totally on board. Why did society agree to this? Was this population control? Is the government involved? Unfortunately, audiences are just thrown into the world as clueless as Will, whose first narrated line states that he doesn’t know how the system started either. Yet, considering the sorry situation of Will’s time zone and the lack of military or police presence in the area, it’s a wonder why the populace doesn’t revolt.
Furthermore, the wild premise comes with some creative expectations, namely with the technology. The world of In Time has technology that places a glowing green timer on a person’s arm, but strangely has no cell phones. Police vehicles are present-day Dodge Chargers and Challengers outfitted with white lights rather than being something more advanced – or at least have better fuel mileage. Also, computers seem to be limited to basic database functions or information displays. These aspects and more don’t jell well with the concept that some people in this reality have been living for centuries, which will no doubt distract audiences when they see anachronistic elements like payphones.
The dialogue is regrettably bad and nowhere near Niccol’s previous quality. The script seems overly in love with time and characters are sure to cram in as many time puns into their speech, except as straight dialogue. “Clean his clock!” “He timed out.” “I just keep time.” “They’re Minute Men.” These are just some of the groaners uttered. Worse yet, the actors lose even more credibility when they deliver their lines with a little smirk, drawing even more attention to the bad dialogue.
The dystopian society aside, there are a few themes presented that are definitely worth exploring. The rich man who gives Will all his time talks about having lived too long and how his mind was exhausted even if his body was not. People weren’t meant to live forever. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the value of time when there’s so little of it. Finally, a question raised late in the film, who will labor when there is no pressure to do so? These themes are all worth exploring, but the film instead focuses on tepid action, a silly romance and a half-baked Robin Hood story.
In Time tries to ape Niccol’s superior work GATTACA, which featured a similar dystopian future based on genetics. They both have a similar drab, desaturated look and a similar story of a disadvantaged person infiltrating privileged society. The difference is that Niccol found his creative stride in GATTACA. In his latest work, Niccol sadly meanders and doesn’t find his discipline in time.