Good science fiction begins with an idea; a central conceit around which the film, or book, or whatever, is built. Andrew Niccol’s In Time has a good idea at its heart, an intriguing theme which gifts the film’s more standard blockbuster leanings a weight that would otherwise have been missing.
I’m not one to clamour for remakes – there are far too many doing the rounds as it is – but my first thought when the closing credits began to run on In Time was that I wish it could be remade, only not as a mainstream blockbuster. Because although its central concept – that in the future time is spent and earned as currency – is strong enough to carry the narrative, it also gets routinely gets left behind.
Justin Timberlake stars as Will Salas, an ordinary citizen living in a futuristic city in which money, in the traditional sense, no longer exists. Instead, everyone has a ticking clock on their forearm showing exactly how much time they have left to live. By working, citizens can extend their lives incrementally. If they want to buy bread, however, it’s going to cost them crucial minutes. The city, meanwhile, is divided into ‘time zones’ – the high-end areas cost months, even years, to get into, enforcing wealth divisions in society. Another conceit of this near future society is that nobody ages physically beyond 25, which explains how Olivia Wilde (inexplicably cast in a bit part role) can be Will’s mother. That the actors cast in the film hardly conform to this conceit is obvious but never mind – it’s really a throwaway and unnecessary plot point.
After the fundamental unfairness of the system he lives in is laid bare to him early on, Will takes it upon himself (with help from an unknown stranger) to bring down the system. Making his way into high society he crosses paths with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of an obscenely wealthy ‘timelender’ – that is, a banker of time. She feels stifled by her surroundings in the exact opposite way to Will – he has never had enough time, while she has far too much. The plot contrives to bring them together and have them go on the run from ‘timekeepers’, an authoritarian police force led by Raymond León (Cillian Murphy).
The film features an awful lot of running. Will and Sylvia run from here to there, usually pursued by Raymond, and the plot moves along at a sprightly pace. Timberlake and Seyfried make for a likable central couple, and their burgeoning relationship is offset against Murphy’s performance, which makes use of the actor’s uncanny ability to bring gravitas to seemingly any role. This is important because the role is underwritten and needs Murphy’s charisma to carry any weight.
The plot gets bogged down in contrivance here and there and the blockbuster trimmings are often frustratingly restrictive. Niccol (who also wrote the script) never allows his central concept to breathe quite enough, always keen to shunt the story along and get the leads running around again. There are some nice ideas thrown around, and the film works as an analogy (albeit it a heavy-handed one) for modern society’s staggeringly unjust division of wealth, but it aims to please the broadest audience possible and suffers for it.
That said, the film crucially does no t squander its theme. It is frequently standard when it could have been great, but the performances are likable and the script does just enough to make this worthy of recommendation.