Andrew Niccol is a rarity in cinema: someone who likes the genuinely extrapalatory and satirical side of science fiction – the only equivalents who come to mind lately are Vincenzo Natali and (in his writer-director phase) Michael Crichton, and even they tend to monster/horror with s-f trappings. With Gattaca and S1m0ne (which Niccol wrote and directed, plus The Truman Show (which he only scripted), he has been working up an oeuvre of engaged, informed speculation (even the non-sf/non-good Lord of War is well-intentioned). A problem which has only really been raised in connection with In Time is that the ideas Niccol plays with tend to seem fresh only to people who’ve not read much actual science fiction – this time, someone (inevitably, Harlan Ellison) has called him on it, and brought a lawsuit pointing out how much the concept here owes to his story ‘”Repent Harlequin,” said the Tick-Tock Man’. As it happens, the film and the story go in different directions from their premises, but it’s always been galling when movie folk hail the originality of sf films (say, The Matrix) which rely on concepts that would have been cutting edge in books a generation or more earlier. To Hollywood, the most up-to-the-moment, happening sci-fi author is Philip K. Dick (dead these thirty years). Also, this takes what Ellison used as a way of addressing the work ethic and circumscription of personal space by soulless social control and delivers yet another chase with pretty people and a happy-ish ending. If it is purely based on the notion that ‘time is money’, it at least ends radically – and we’re always happy to see 20th Century-Fox show solidarity with anticapitalist protests by advocating the overthrow of the banks.
Some time indeterminately hence, as set out in a dollop of explanation, people are genetically engineered to reach the age of 25 and stop ageing: potentially, they could live forever, but they are paid in time, and if the counter on their arms winds down to the zeroes they are struck dead by a heart attack. Niccol has thought it through – he has ideas about how transactions from buying a car to busfare work, and that the rich can live in different time zones from the poor and are identifiable because they walk rather than run … a world where everyone is pretty and seems the same age means a tycoon can introduce his wife, mother in law and daughter and they are hard to tell apart (the film is a bit smug about this, presenting concepts as if they were new to the characters as well as the audience) … where the rich are surrounded by swarms of bodyguards and are eternally overcautious because being immortal makes them averse to risk (though the low-class hero and the high-end baddie are both inveterate gamblers) … and where arm-wrestling with time-counters is the chief illicit sport. There are even a few nice, poetic touches such as lovers taking a midnight swim with the waters illuminated only by the green LEDs on their arms. Details like the sleek black cars and the vaguely 1950s fashions also chime with Niccol’s track record for matching art direction, costuming and even acting styles to the premises of his films. As in Gattaca, there’s a reason for casting Hollywood-looking beauties in every role, and the performances are mostly good even if the talk is just functional.
The plot is that everyman factory worker Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), literally living from day to day, is gifted with a century by a suicidal drop-out (Matt Bomer) who clues him in that the system is set up so that the poor will work harder and harder and die to ensure immortality for the few. This doesn’t make Will happy because his mother (Olivia Wilde) still gets timed out after a busfare hike and giving his best friend (Johnny Galecki) ten years just means the twit drinks himself to death. He relocates to an upscale time zone, attracting the Javert-like enmity of clear-eyed cop (‘timekeeper’) Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) and snatching Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of time savings and loan tycoon Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), as a hostage when he goes on the run. With cops and crooks (Alex Pettyfer as a time-mugger) on their case, the couple go Bonnie and Clyde – with Sylvia doing a Patty Hearst identification-shift) – and start robbing her father’s banks and giving away free time. At some point, however, the film stops trying to be clever and gets nervous, then it just becomes a midlist chase picture with a dystopian backdrop. The finale, especially, is a mess – with characters (especially Leon) doing really foolish things they don’t need to, hokey suspense tactics trying to ramp things up and the tension between dystopian misery and the need for an upbeat finish (which has flawed a lot of futuristic films, cf: Equilibrium, Surrogates) means an ending that just feels like a cop-out.
Of course, what I really wanted was a film of ‘”Repent Harlequin,” said the Tick-Tock Man’.