Gawker media science fiction website io9 recently called In Time “Occupy Wall Street: The Movie” and in terms of applying a favorable lens to this film, this is probably the only way to view it in a positive light. As a kind of over-simplified story wrestling with contemporary issues by putting said issues into a big “what if” type of science fiction premise, this film partially succeeds. But, in the realms of plot, characters, theme, and originality; every single minute of In Time contains some sort of mistake which culminates in a massive failure of a movie. And the majority of these failures stem from one over-arching bad decision; the failure to recognize that a film about fighting against modes of control should not then look like a movie made by “the man.”
In Time opens with a voice-over from Justin Timberlake in which he tells us everyone is genetically engineered now to physically stop aging at 25. From 25 on, everyone looks 25 and a nifty green digital clock on their arm starts counting down their remaining time, which also doubly serves as the amount of money they have. In this world, time literally is money, but it’s also regular time, too. Right away In Time is in trouble because it can’t decide what kind of science fiction movie it is. Will it meditate on the notions of a society controlled by the concept of time as a way of keeping people down? Or will it be a film about a society that essentially can live forever if they’re rich enough?
The universe in which In Time exists is a sloppy mash-up of Logan’s Run and “’Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” It’s sloppy because there’s a reason why those concepts are in separate stories, both of them are big enough to run an entire narrative and this film certainly doesn’t need both. It’s as though the screenwriter dreamt up the time-as-currency concept first and then said, “What else can we do with ’time’ in a science fiction movie?” And so, the eternal youth thing entered the picture. This allows for a creepy oedipal relationship to play out in the early scenes of the film between Timberlake and his mother (Olivia Wilde). Further, the no-aging thing also means everyone in the movie is super-hot, which is annoying. In a movie which pretends to “fight the system” having your characters look like Justin Timberlake doesn’t really create any sort of believability, because most regular people don’t look like him or his accomplice, Amanda Seyfried. (This film is so poorly written, it’s not even worth it to know the names of the characters, they should have just kept the names of the actors.)
Because In Time wants you to like the lower economic classes (people without much time) and dislike the people with a lot of time (the one percent!) it simply gives the poor people simpler haircuts. Timberlake’s is close cropped, while Vincent Kartheiser’s is longer and more foppish. This is all the work the filmmakers felt was necessary to get across the point that Timberlake was more representative of “the people” — which is bullshit because he looks like Justin Timberlake.
Add to this the image of Amanda Seyfried running around shooting guns while wearing huge high heels. Even after she is “liberated” from the richy-rich world Timberlake kidnaps her from, she still walks around in a cocktail dress instead of switching to a hoodie and some sneakers. This seems like a minor point, but because of a small decision like this, In Time isn’t really a science fiction film or a film for your brain at all. It’s just Bonnie and Clyde featuring two sexy young people robbing banks in ridiculously sexy outfits. Which, no matter how cool or timely the premise might be, the movie steps on that stuff by subtly making the true audience investment directly related to Timberlake’s abs and Seyfried’s breasts. If writer/director Andrew Niccol really wanted to make a resonate movie about a science fiction world where people’s lives were turned into currency, then he should have ditched the eternal youth thing and made the main character Judi Dench or Michael Caine. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, Niccol instead opts to “fuck it up with sex and guns.”
In Time betrays its own premise in another way, too: it confuses the concept of currency and credit, and refuses to explore the actual way in which these ideas function in this particular future world. Throughout most of the film we’re given a fairly basic premise: time is money, which means that those who have more time than they should, must have earned, won, borrowed, or stolen said time from another person. However, in the last third of the film, Timberlake and Seyfried start robbing time banks, which seems to indicate some sort of credit system exists. This also asserts the idea that time is minted in one way or another, which totally detracts from the idea of it being extracted from a person. If the film really spelled out that the only place people got time was from other people, then all the hand-wringing about the rich people standing on the shoulders of the poor would make a little more sense. Instead, because these concepts aren’t explored, the actual concept which drives the movie plays out in a boring, predictable manner. If the complex problems of a dystopian science fiction world can simply be solved because Timberlake and Seyfried decide to rob some banks, then I’d assert this movie was written in a world in which the screenwriter had a clock on his arm that read: you have 30 minutes to write this script.
Prior to the film’s release, there was some hubbub regarding the origins of this film in relation to the famous Harlan Ellison short story “’Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” And while this film does feature characters called “Timekeepers” the plot isn’t remotely similar to the Ellison short story. This is good news for fans of that story, but bad news for the movie. Because had it attempted to really adapt that story, there might have been something this film was lacking: sense.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.