Review: In Time, 2011, dir. Andrew Niccol

I’d like to make it clear that I very desperately wanted to love Andrew Niccol’s In Time, a science fiction yarn which occurs in a future where time is currency and stars Justin Timberlake, but during a preview screening I recently attended I could not for the life of me get past the notion that I was watching a very, very rough cut of a film that plainly needed some trimming. It pains me to say that for its brimming potential, In Time is a disheveled and uneven mess of lackadaisical storytelling and slipshod execution. Truthfully, In Time scores in the idea department, but for a variety of reasons none of them save the film from itself and lift the entire picture into the realms of more successful speculative sci-fi stories.

What makes In Time so frustrating is that it’s not a completely irredeemable picture– it’s just a very mediocre one that both fails to fully embrace its basic conceit and build the futuristic world in which that concept exists. The idea is quite brilliant taken on its own; we’re told at the beginning that through the miracles of genetics, aging stops at 25, but the moment a person reaches one-quarter of a century in age a clock stamped on their arm begins ticking down their remaining allotted time. The impact is simple: earn more time, expand your lifeline, fail to do so, and you die instantly when your clock reaches zero. It’s elegant and intrinsically examines social relationships between the haves and the have-nots; coming from the guy behind Gattaca, In Time really should have been a thought-provoking science fiction slam-dunk.

I kept waiting for Niccol to find stability in his plot and start working the same magic he did back in 1997, but In Time manages to get off on the wrong foot almost immediately, then right itself briefly, then slip yet again and remain in a sort of quality limbo for the rest of the film’s running time. Partly, it’s the pacing; In Time moves too fast. Maybe there’s a point to this– after all, the impoverished citizens of the movie’s cinematic world are easily identified based on how quickly they do things, while the wealthy move much more ponderously– but if this is the case, Niccol’s being too clever for his own good. As with most good futuristic science fiction, world building is essential to both plot and narrative, and In Time hurtles toward its critical, story-driving plot point so fast that Niccol’s world leaves us lagging behind. Regrettably, that pace rarely relents.

When it does, it’s not always for the better. If In Time isn’t hurtling ahead and ignoring the ever-important function world building plays in the genre, it’s wandering aimlessly toward an ill-defined end game. Boiled down, the narrative revolves around Will (Timberlake) receiving a fortune in time from the wealthy Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) who has come to the conclusion that nobody is meant to live forever and desires death. This in itself is an interesting idea; if an industrialist with bottomless pockets bumped into you in a bar and decided you were worthy of inheriting all of his or her money, what would you do with it? Will firmly holds the line and refuses to waste the time he’s given, and makes a point to share the wealth among his friends and family.

Here, In Time stumbles, though; Will suffers a personal loss, and strikes out for New Greenwich, the time zone of the upper class. (In Niccol’s imagined world, people are divided up by “time zone”. How sly.) His goal? Nebulously defined revenge, it seems, though once in New Greenwich Will only manages to indulge himself and display a propensity for brash moves during high-risk poker games. One bold act earns him an invite to the home of Phillipe Weiss (Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser), a man worth “eons”; this in turn allows Will to be found by the Timekeepers, a police force tasked with “keeping the time”, who end up hunting Will down in earnest after he  .

The ensuing chase, and Will’s kidnapping of Phillipe’s daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), throw In Time off-kilter until the end credits start rolling. Put bluntly, the film is all over the place; inexplicably, Niccol takes us back and forth between the slums and New Greenwich repeatedly, a bad decision made worse in light of the film’s inexcusable dearth of world building, and all the while Will and Sylvia are chased by Timekeeper Leon (Cillian Murphy) and a group of slum thieves known as the Minutemen, thugs who steal time from their hapless victims. And did I mention that there’s a sub-plot involving the truth of how Will’s deceased father actually died? It’s just too much; In Time begins sagging under the weight of dead-end plot threads and one antagonist too many.

In Time presents a prime example of a film just begging for a good, judicious edit; frankly, Niccol could have done away with the presence of Will’s mother (Olivia Wilde), his best friend (Johnny Galecki), the entire Minutemen gang, and the excursions between the poor and wealthy zones, and lost very little of any value in the process. As it stands, In Time suffers not only from bloat but a clear lack of conviction over the film’s final destination. One gets the impression that Niccol wrote the ending as he came to it without bothering to so much as glance at the corpulent gallimaufry he’d stitched together to get there.

None of this is to say In Time utterly lacks merit; it goes without saying that any film Roger Deakins shoots can’t help but look great, and In Time proves no exception. Ms. Seyfried and JT, as well, are quite fantastic, Timberlake in particular as he continues improving his acting chops by running the gamut between being an emotional leading man and a capable action star. (He has one moment in particular that screams “cool” and had the whole theater cheering; you’ll know it when you see it.) But for its highs (and there are others; the film does succeed at points in playing with its Big Idea and having some fun with it), In Time has twice as many lows and frankly has no business being this watered down, stilted, and jumbled. Worse movies have come and gone in 2011 but you may not see one quite so disappointing as this.

14 thoughts on “Review: In Time, 2011, dir. Andrew Niccol

    • Hey, thanks Matt, that means a lot to me.

      I encourage you– and everyone else– to go see the film anyways just to see it for yourself. It’s not awful, just a letdown, and far less than what it could have been. It did hit me sort of hard, but I had really high expectations.

  1. Gosh, that’s depressing. After Limitless and Source Code (which had their problems) hit OK with me I was hoping for more intriguing and dangerously fun sci-fi. Not a fan of Timberlake but curious to see that scene you mentioned. I’m gonna take a chance on it but thanks for thanks for the heads up and a great and fair review.

    • At this point Attack the Block is my last remaining hope for good science fiction in 2011; I don’t think I’ll get around to seeing Another Earth, but I hear it’s absolutely horrible, and I will probably miss Melancholia when it hits theaters just because Lars Von Trier doesn’t really play in major multiplexes and I can’t see the local arthouse cinema picking the film up.

      Source Code was really solid, though, so there’s that.

      • Well, now I want you to see Another Earth even more. I saw it in theaters – it’s really only barely sci-fi, and uses its sci-fi elements as a point of differentiation and as a prop to complicate matters, but it’s pretty excellently-acted and I appreciated its subtlety (and am, in fact, a sucker for dramas with ever-so-slight sci-fi tweaks that change the game).

        • That might be the first meaningful positive praise for Another Earth that I’ve read. Cheers, Dylan.

          I’ll check it out when I get a chance to and let you know what I think.

          • Come now – it’s got 63% at RT! Surely someone whose words you value is amongst that group.

            Checked my review – gave it 3.5/5. It, like In Time, has several plot holes (or rather plot mechanics that go unmentioned due to its more focused scope), but it’s a parable.

  2. Ouch! A review that starts with your first paragraph always announces bad news 😉 I definitely love the concept but wasn’t enamored with the cast so I was already a bit hesitant to go see it in theater. Guess I will wait for the rental at best now…

    • Dan– probably. It’s a rental for sure, I think, though I don’t think it’s wrong to check it out in theaters if it holds interest for you. Like I said, it’s not awful, just a far cry from the film Niccol could have given us.

      Castor– you said it! I really couldn’t start this review any other way. I literally grew more and more disappointed the more I wrote, too; this was a tough pill for me to swallow. Check it out on Netflix, since it doesn’t sound like you were all that high on it in the first place.

      • Yeah, but that’s one of the things I hate most about movies, is when you watch them and cant help but think “this movie could have been SO much better if only…”

        Thats like the kiss of death.

    • 3guys– yeah, more or less. I don’t want to discourage people from seeing it in theaters if they had any interest in it, but it’s honestly not a must-see. You’re probably better served waiting for Netflix.

      Colin– “too much” definitely describes this pretty well. There’s just so much that could had been shed for a more streamlined and focused narrative and, ideally, far, far better world-building.

      I really wish Niccol had had another writer take a good, meticulous sweep at the script to trim it down and make it more polished. He’s sitting on a gold mine of ideas here.

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