my writing over at Tor.com, I rather like science fiction. As literature it provides an excellent framework for everything from social commentary to philosophical meditation. We're long past having to defend science fiction as serious literature. Kurt Vonnegut put a hollow point behind the ear of that argument, after Robert Heinlein tied its shoelaces together and Ray Bradbury kicked it to the ground. Stanley Kubrick similarly made the case for science fiction as serious cinema, for all those people with short memories who forgot about The Day The Earth Stood Still (to say nothing of Metropolis, or shit, Journey to the Moon, aka one of the first fucking movies ever). But SF cinema is a slightly iffier proposition. It's not that it can't be great (see Kubrick and many, many other examples) it's just that the difficulty curve is high; a book can stop in its tracks and take a couple paragraphs to explain shit, but too much of that kind of thing can make for a really dull movie under the wrong circumstances. This is why there's an occasional disconnect whereby SF movies can be good SF or good movies while failing somewhat in the other half of the equation. Sometimes, to quote The Wire gratuitously, things just be that way I guess. But, on the upside, that means, in a way, that SF movies have two chances to be good. That's why it's a shame that Andrew Niccol's In Time flunks both halves of the equation, in a weirdly reciprocal (to say nothing of paradoxical) fashion: it's bad SF because it's too committed to being a movie, and is a bad movie because it sacrifices too much of its connection to this world out of a mistaken belief in the profundity of its one-trick SF premise.
It's not like In Time has nothing to go for it. It sucks, but it sucks in a way that demands in examination into exactly why that is so. IN A WORLD that, despite being at least a hundred years in the future, still looks pretty much exactly the way downtown Los Angeles looks today (I kind of blame a recent viewing of Thom Anderson's fascinating Los Angeles Plays Itself for making me as sensitive to that; the only thing really wrong with the way Niccol uses his locations is that it simply doesn't look like it's that far in the future in any appreciable or convincing way), science has completely conquered the process of biological aging. Everyone, once they reach the age of 25, stays 25, in perpetuity. The catch is, everyone's given an allotment of time, which has replaced currency. Goods and services are exchanged for their value in time. When one's clock—located in a glowing green subcutaneous LED readout on one's left arm—reaches zero, one's body functions immediately cease, and one dies on the spot. There are haves, who are essentially immortal, with hundreds and occasionally thousands of years on their clocks, and have-nots, who labor daily for enough hours to be able to wake up alive the following morning.
Our hero here is one Will Salas, played by Mr. Justin Timberlake, a working-class lad living with his ma, Ms. Olivia Wilde, who due to the nature of this whole eradication of aging, looks basically JT's age, because she is. A few minutes of world-building ensues, until one evening out at the bar with one of the guys from The Big Bang Theory, JT encounters a rich guy on a bender throwing time around like a drunken sailor. Some dudes come in, led by Alex (I Am Number Four) Pettyfer (who can, amazingly, be seen to be giving progressively less of a fuck in every single one of his scenes in this picture) and make like they're going to fuck the rich dude up and roll him. For no apparent reason whatsoever, JT intercedes and helps the rich dude escape. Once they're clear of Alex Pettyfer and his thugs, the rich guy lays a suicide trip on JT, who doesn't quite know what to make of the guy and his angst; not having to worry about suddenly dropping dead at any moment is kind of a First World Problem. They drink some of the rich dude's good booze out of his schmancy flask and pass out. JT wakes up, alone, to find that the rich dude has transferred all his time (over a hundred years) to JT's clock, and JT looks out the window to see the rich guy's clock expire, after which he swan dives into the L.A. River.
The cops, led by the always awesome (he walks away with this movie, twirling it on his finger like a gun) Cillian Murphy, show up and immediately conclude that JT rolled the rich guy, just like Alex Pettyfer's dudes were planning on doing. A series of events that includes one of the most shamelessly melodramatic scenes ever filmed (I'm not exaggerating; “the scene when Olivia Wilde starts running” should replace “Lilian Gish on the ice floe” from D.W. Griffith's Way Down East as the cliché shorthand for melodrama) leads JT to the utopian New Greenwich, where all the rich fucks stay. JT encounters an intriguing young lady in a truly horrible wig (Amanda Seyfried), who it turns out is the daughter of the head evil white guy in charge (Vincent Kartheiser, reinforcing his ability, as first demonstrated in Mad Men, to wear the fuck out of a well-cut suit), who initially rather likes JT, and is impressed by his ballsy pursuit of wealth. Evil White Guys In Suits are drawn to their own kind, after all. Only JT's not evil, and Cillian Murphy's a good cop, which means in short order everything and everyone goes apeshit.
Now, none of the above is anything that wasn't in the trailer, so I'll stop the plot recap there. In any case, everything the movie is trying to say about the importance of living one's life in the moment and being appreciative of all life has to offer, and about social justice and how Evil White Guys In Suits manage to adapt to any sociopolitical scenario and stay in charge fucking over proles is all set up by that point in the narrative. The rest of the picture is just noise anyway (and a half-reprise of the above mentioned Most Melodramatic Scene In The Fucking Universe) until it ends in kind of a limpdick sequel setup, with nothing really resolved and no particularly deep conclusions to any of the picture's Big Questions. It ends up being silly and disappointingly fluffy given the potential beard-scratcher posed by literalizing the time-is-money conceit. And though the cinematography is pretty sweet (by the great Roger Deakins, natch), the things being photographed are kind of unimaginatively conceived; put it this way, I was really surprised to find out that Andrew Niccol had a $40 million budget, as it looks like he's trying to scrape by on about 10 at most.
More than that, though, the thing that really fucks In Time up is the way things happen because the story needs them to. When JT saves the rich guy, okay, let's say he does it out of the kindness of his own heart, all right, maybe I'm just cynical. But him subsequently being able to outwit, outrun, and make fools out of a bunch of armed gangsters is a little convenient. As is the fact that apparently the cops of the 22nd or 23rd century or whenever this is, despite having far more reason to reinforce the societal status quo, have inferior surveillance technology to what would be at their disposal today. Even if you presuppose that, having essentially conquered death, the ruling classes would stagnate intellectually and pursue nothing but their own pleasure, you have to think that self-interest at least would lead to them setting up some kind of at least half-assedly fail-safed system to ensure that any potential Justin Timberlakes who might come along and challenge their hold on power at least have to sweat a bit. Because, come on, when Timberlake decides to go to the Evil White Guys In Suits' motherland, he gets all the way there and almost fully insinuated into the good graces of the most Evil and Whitest of them all before anyone even knows who he is or what he's done. Not only would it make more logical sense for it to be a lot more difficult for JT to do so, it would make the movie more suspenseful too. Even if, as it begins to appear by the third act, the whole time thing and the movie in general is just a parable for living in the moment, it'd still be nice if details rendered secondary by that being the case to not be as dumb, or as brushed past. Having the villains be this incompetent and weak weakens JT as a hero.
And yet . . . in spite of the fact that it fails as a movie and as SF and has The Single Most Melodramatic Scene In The History Of Cinema (not only once, but twice) In Time isn't that much of a chore to watch. Justin Timberlake does a damn fine job with what he's given in the lead; his getting-there-slowly-but-surely acting skills are more than up to the task here, as what the role really requires is star power, which he, of course, has in spades, though his character's so thin it isn't really worthy of his talents. Cillian Murphy is so good as the cop, now I want to see him play the hard-bitten grizzled cop with weekly heart attacks and monthly divorces and all other essentials in a good movie. And, of course, I'd watch Amanda Seyfried read the phone book. It's not just pretty and talented actors, either. Despite the movie's bilateral failure, it has its moments that work in between the things that don't. At times, when the lo-tech future isn't presenting fundamental challenges to the entire premise of the story it allows for isolated, engagingly real moments with the characters, specifically between Cillian Murphy and his other cops.
All of which leads to the kind of reductive kind of contradictory state of affairs where In Time sucks, but I didn't hate it. I don't know what to tell you. Timberlake can carry a picture even if it isn't necessarily this one, and I'd rather see a good director (see Gattaca for reference) swing and miss than see a shitty director's best. Sometimes things just be that way, I guess.