A thinly-veiled allegory about the eternal struggle between the rich and the poor, Andrew Niccol’s ‘In Time’ is like a beautiful yet empty-headed woman wearing a see-through nightgown: All of its charms are apparent immediately, but that’s all there is.
Set in a world where genetic engineering has been perfected, making it possible for humans to live forever, the film proposes that life spans have been capped; at 25 years of age, a clock embedded in one’s arm begins counting down the final year of life until it reaches zero, at which point the body simply stops working and the individual drops dead.
Life spans must be limited, the story goes, or else precious global resources will be used up. Ah, but the caveat is that individuals may receive more time in exchange for their labor or goods, and so time has become the new currency. The truly wealthy may live forever, while the underclass scrapes by for a precious few more hours.
With everyone’s aging process stopped at 25, and genetic engineering being what it is, that means the streets are filled with good-looking people with doom in their eyes, knowing not only that their days are numbered, but precisely how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds remain. And with everyone looking the same age, and all looking pretty good, traditional notions about aging, and judging people by their appearance, are thrown out. What would life be like in such a world? How would people react to knowing from birth that they’ve been diagnosed with a fatal disease?
After introducing a slew of interesting ideas, writer/director Niccol doesn’t know what to do with them, other than to make them look pretty.
The film does indeed look gorgeous, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, working with a restrained palette that is cool, dark and foreboding, even in broad daylight. Similarly, the production design by Alex McDowell is splendid within very narrow confines, suggesting that the wealthy have quite limited taste.
Good as they are, the cinematography and production design hint at the core of the problems that beset ‘In Time,’ namely, why? Why is this world so limited in imagination? Why are the wealthy so lazy and apathetic? Why do they all act the same? Why are they so conformist?
Turning the perspective around to the underclass, similar questions abound. Why does no one rebel? Why are they so limited in imagination? Why are the poor so timid and fearful? Why do they all act the same? Why are they so conformist?
The film would have us believe that the tyranny of time has buckled everyone into the same seat, although some get fine-grade leather and others are stuck in cheap plastic. But look around the world today! Some wealthy people are, indeed, lazy and apathetic, as are poor people. Yet among the wealthy, some people are charitable, some are not; some are industrious, some are not; some patronize the arts, some do not; and so forth and so on. Among the poor, the exact same things could be said to describe the differences among people.
Yet, somehow, in Niccol’s world, that’s all been wiped out — along with cell phones and PINs, by the way, two of the numerous idiotic plot contrivances on display. But there is no hint of what happened to cause such conformity. Was it a world disaster? Are these not human beings at all, but a race of aliens who just happen to look like us, with a completely different history and culture?
Niccol makes huge assumptions without ever exploring the implications. The main theme, the moral of the story, is that “no one should be immortal if others die.” Translated from allegory, that means “no one should be wealthy if others are poor.” A noble sentiment? Yes. But ‘In Time’ suggests that the only way to make things equitable is to steal from the rich to give to the poor, until everyone’s in the same boat.
But then what, exactly, in that scenario will prompt people to change their personality traits? The mere extension of life? ‘In Time’ doesn’t know.
Focusing on the film’s merits as an action thriller are similarly frustrating. One chase sequence is interchangeable with the next, as the stars look sleek and glamorous as they clamber out windows, across the roofs of buildings, and into speeding cars, all chopped up into such tiny visual bites that their meaning and fluidity are lost. Intellectually, we can assume that it’s because stunt doubles were required for a large percentage of the shots, but emotionally, the sequences never build tension or create suspense; we might as well be watching crash test dummies.
The rote performances are scarcely worth mentioning. Justin Timberlake plays a time-poor young man gifted with a century of time by a wealthy man who wanted to die; Amanda Seyfried is a rich, spoiled girl who inevitably becomes his love interest; Vincent Kartheiser is her father, a very wealthy industrialist; Cillian Murphy represents law and order, such as it is, as a Timekeeper; and Olivia Wilde is a warm and loving mother.
‘In Time’ lacks the imagination to create a fully-fleshed out alternative world or future Earth, and has nothing but vague assumptions to make about our lives in the present. Either way, it’s an empty-headed, if gorgeous, faux-thriller.
‘In Time’ opens wide tomorrow across the Metroplex. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.