When Andrew Niccol's debut theatrical feature Gattaca was released in 1997, it was hailed by many critics—in both mainstream and genre media—as a brainy alternative to Hollywood's usual special effects-heavy sci-fi blockbuster output. Looking back at it today, Niccol's film was much, much more. For a brief period, it seemed like the forerunner of a new wave of original genre films that bore the mark of gifted Hollywood creators: films such as Alex Proyas's Dark City (1998), Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998, written by Niccol), and Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest (1999), alongside low-budget affairs such as Vincenzo Natali's Cube (1997) and Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998). These films had very little in common in terms of content or theme, but they all hinted that something exciting was happening in American genre cinema at the end of the twentieth century—and that the success of the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix (which several genre critics—myself included—dismissed for many years as a mere poor-man's Dark City) in 1999 was a sign that it was about to become a mainstream phenomenon.
The fact that this didn't happen, and that twenty-first-century genre cinema came to be dominated by mostly uninspired literary and comic-book adaptations isn't the saddest thing that comes up when one examines that brief period in retrospect; rather, it's seeing where the careers of all these talented directors went afterwards. The luckiest of the bunch—Aronofsky—found acclaim and success outside genre cinema (the same could be said for Weir, however, he was a veteran and successful director of non-genre films long before The Truman Show). The less said about the post-'90s career of pretty much everyone else on the list, the better. Even setting aside the quality of their work in the past decade (which was often downright dreadful), they all seemed to have lost that unique voice that set them apart from the majority of genre filmmakers.
But Niccol does deserve a certain credit for his work over the last ten years, because even if none of these films, whether within genre (the 2002 virtual actress satire S1m0ne) or outside it (the script for Steven Spielberg's 2004 comedy Terminal and the 2005 drama Lord of War) featured the unique voice of Gattaca and the script for The Truman Show, at the very least they aimed high, were ambitious in their attempts to explore social and political concepts of our changing world. The same is true for his latest film, In Time—a visually slick futuristic tale with an interesting premise and disappointing execution.
In Time is set in a future where time is the new currency. Scientific advancements have made death from illness and old age obsolete, and everyone stops aging at 25. To combat the threat of population explosion, every person is given a limited life expectancy (shown counting down in digital numerals on their forearm), which he or she can expand through literally earning a living. The more fortunate members of society live in luxury areas, enjoying their good long life, while the less fortunate live in ghettos, struggling to make it another day.
The film's protagonist, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is one of the less fortunate. As the film opens, he works a back-breaking job in a factory, barely making enough to keep himself and his mother (Olivia Wilde) alive. A random encounter with time millionaire Harry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) changes his life. Before committing suicide, Hamilton leaves Salas with a generous time inheritance, a dark secret, and plenty of trouble.
What happens next can be fairly accurately described as a mess. Up to the point of Hamilton's suicide, Niccol's film presents what could be an intriguing setting for a dystopian story. After it happens, it becomes clear that Niccol had no clue what kind of story he wants to tell. Doomed romance? Political Drama? Family Drama? Police procedural? Crime thriller? In Time has it all—it frantically jumps from one genre to another, and it never manages to successfully merge them into something coherent. The film's constant alternating between fast-moving action sequences and slow dialogue and monologues makes watching it an overlong, tiresome experience.
This messed-up structure, coupled with writing that ranges from stiff to terrible, effectively kills any emotional impact that In Time could have on its audience. It's no wonder that the film goes downhill about the same time that Hamilton's character dies: he is nearly the only character in the film who successfully hints at some kind of emotional depth (somewhat reminiscent of Jerome Morrow, the character wonderfully portrayed by Jude Law in Gattaca). Almost all the other characters in the film are mere tools in service of Niccol's metaphor for social inequality: I couldn't believe for a second that there is a real person behind the character of Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), the determined police officer sent to put an end to Salas's troublemaking, or Borel (Johnny Galecki), Salas's unfortunate co-worker, or Fortis (Alex Pettyfer), a ruthless gang leader. They all feel like characters in a morality play, representing social roles instead of people. And these characters are at least handled by accomplished actors; others are victims of plain idiotic casting. Amanda Seyfried does a terrible job as Salas's love interest, uncaringly muttering her lines as though she attempts to get things over with quickly; Vincent Kartheiser is even bigger joke as her father. I'm sorry, but there certain roles that Kartheiser just can't play at this stage of his career, a responsible father being one of them.
Then there is the character of Salas himself. In essence, he's the same protagonist who has always populated Niccol's work, the lone male who fights against the oppressive system, and Timberlake does a decent, if not amazing job in portraying him. But compared to Truman or Freeman (the protagonist of Gattaca), there's a disappointingly false note to both Salas's character and his struggle: for all the hardships he endures, things just go too easy for him. If other characters suffer from serving the film's social metaphor, Salas's character flattens this metaphor to the level of a plot device: he is, effectively, a superhero, with the time-limit forced on him being merely a kryptonite. He has all the answers, can work his way out of any situation, and never delivers a true sense of suffering. This makes it hard to feel any kind of emotional connection with him—certain scenes, notably featuring the loss of his loved ones, come off as unconvincing, and sometimes just laughable.
Where In Time works is in its visuals—a reminder that for all the film's anti-capitalist agenda, it was made by a former director of commercials. While the mixing of styles and genres or the delivery of the film's message may be cumbersomely handled through the script, it receives an excellent treatment in the design and photography department. The first part of the film is particularly effective in portraying the dystopian setting by contrasting the harsh surroundings of the ghetto with its forever young population; there's something disturbing about seeing an ugly world full of beautiful people, and this image delivers a stronger sentiment about economic inequality and consumer culture than the script ever does. As more of the world that surrounds the protagonist is revealed, the scale of visual contrasts grow: just like Gattaca's fusion of cinematic dystopias from the 1970s with the operatic elegance of a Hitchcock thriller, the world of In Time combines the grittiness of ghetto films with the slickness of James Bond movies—dirty streets, plagued with crime, are contrasted by high-tech mansions and fast cars. Action sequences are also given an extremely effective handling by Niccol, from car chases to gun fights to arm-wrestling: they give the film some of its more exciting moments, but the script again makes them feel like something unconvincingly plastered onto the plot. This pretty much sums up In Time: it's a pretty, shallow film with a deep message.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.