October 31, 2011
The first minutes of “In Time” conjure up thoughts of recent news headlines predominated by stories of the consolidation of wealth and “the 99 percent” protesting against the richest economic echelons of society. For the society depicted in the film, economic status is everything.
The twist is the nature of the currency itself, as time is literally money for the characters in “In Time.” Humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. With only one year left to live at that point, their remaining time is marked by a counter of green digits on each of their left forearms.
The psychological possibilities of the concept, created by writer-director Andrew Niccol (“Lord of War”), are endless and fascinating — when you change the very nature of money itself, you realize the psychological impact it already plays. The plot follows ghetto-dweller Will Salas (Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network”), who saves the life of disillusioned rich dude Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer, TV’s “White Collar”).
While the poor are left to believe their lifestyle is a necessity, Hamilton admits that time poverty is simply the wealthy citizens’ means of population control. Hiding from a gang of time-stealing thugs, Hamilton transfers his time into a sleeping Salas’s counter. Upon waking up, Salas is suddenly the richest man in the ghetto.
The concept is a meaningful variation on our own society, albeit one with more codified and defined separations and wealth. Its psychological possibilities are fruitful and endless, and the film sets itself up to be exceedingly important, establishing weighty consequences to its own outcomes, both for its characters and for us.
The film fails to live up to that magnitude, though, creating instead an off-kilter Robin Hood tale that falls too far into neutrality without really saying anything insightful. Salas quests to pilfer time from the richest (who have apparently “stolen” the time anyway) and gift it to the poor, but he and tag-along heiress Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia!”) must escape the clutches of timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy, “Inception”).
While Niccol deserves credit for the creation of the film’s central idea, he should also be blamed for its bland execution. One of the film’s biggest problems — its visual palette — creates a neutered, generic world that imagines a future bathed in fill light.
The acting, which is stilted and overdone on occasion, seems far too casual in other moments. The leads, Timberlake and Seyfried, are beyond miscast and seem sloppily directed. Any psychological complexity of the circumstances is lost on the simple faces of the characters, who never seem to know quite what they’re doing. Niccol’s general direction for his players seems to be, “Run!”
Beneath the film also rests a shaky moral purpose — Niccol presents too close a society to our own to allow for the distance of time and place, thus binding our character allegiances to our contemporary politics. Essentially, he puts Robin Hood in the place of a more modern protagonist and tricks the American filmgoer into rooting for a redistributor of wealth.
Is that so wrong? That’s up to the viewer. But the film misses a bigger, more important opportunity — to capture this moment in history by allowing its Robin Hood protagonist to fail and fall victim to his own naiveté. As a result, and in light of current events, “In Time” seems more like fantasy than any kind of meaningful social commentary. Nevertheless, it sets up a compelling world that may well become the setting for a more intelligent remake decades from now.
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