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In Time Wastes A Perfectly Good Science Fiction Idea

In Time
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol
Fox, 2011

Andrew Niccol brought us the fantastic Gattaca back in 1997, followed by his screenplay for Peter Weir’s The Truman Show the next year.  Since then, Niccol has sort of gotten caught up in a trap that I believe many creative people get into, in that they get into the business with a couple of great stories they’ve always wanted to tell, but may not have any more after that.  I think it happened to Kevin Williamson and M. Night Shyamalan, and Niccol fits the description.  Since The Truman Show, we’ve seen the awful Al Pacino flick Simone and the OK (especially for Nicolas Cage standards) Lord of War.  But Gattaca still is Niccol’s crowning achievement, and early promise has turned into a puzzling overall career.

In Time has exactly that kind of premise that you think, “Maybe he’s back.”  In this world, time is currency, and it’s your life.  Everyone reaches the age of 25 and then a countdown begins, brightly displayed on their forearms.  But, the flip side is you get to stay looking 25 no matter how old you get past that.  Most have a day, and have to earn extra time by working.  Buying stuff requires time docked from your bank.  You see people gambling it, and people doing some sort of arm-wrestling thing where one person could end up getting knocked completely down to zero.  Zero means death.

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is one of those everyday chumps living day-to-day.  His mother (yes, Olivia Wilde…and it’s hard not to think of Timberlake and Wilde being a romantic pair even though within the story that would be icky) also scrapes by and they have a basic everyday survival story in this world.  Prices for things seem to keep going up, and the pay for your increased workload seems to keep going down. At the end of the work day, a nearly depleted Salas goes with his friend Borel (Johnny Galecki) to a bar to possibly find people who owe him some time.  There, Salas runs into a good-looking, wealthy (105-year-old) dude by the name of Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), who has over a century flashing on his arm.  Unfortunately, flashing that kind of time may get you hot women wanting to bring you home, but it attracts gangsters called The Minutemen, led by Fortis (Alex Pettyfer).

Salas helps Hamilton out, and Hamilton ends up giving his savior quite the gift.  Unfortunately, people don’t just give out time like this, and thus a law-enforcement body called Timekeepers, led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) have some questions, if they can find him.  When his mother dies because of a lack of sufficient time to get back home, Salas wants to use his gift to infiltrate the wealthy city of New Greenwich, planning on “taking everything.”  The people there know he’s not really from there, because he “moves too fast,” but hey, this dude has a century on his arm, who are they to judge?  He plays a high-risk game of poker against tremendously wealthy Phillippe Weis (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser), who has a beautiful daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).  The romance begins.  The law intervenes.  Salas and Sylvia end up on the run, having to dodge gangsters and timekeepers.

This is where the movie takes an immediate turn south.  The cool idea of time-as-currency becomes a stupid chase movie, and a sort of Robin Hood of the Future.  It would have been a lot more fun seeing Salas actually get the chance to take down New Greenwich like he vows, but less violence and more brains.  The idea of gambling time could have been a pretty awesome way to do it, as we could have seen Salas use his street smarts to take down the wealthy elite.  And there could have been a lot of conflict built just from that.

Timberlake is a likeable actor, but Niccol doesn’t really fashion him a real character to play: he’s got a good heart, and he likes to gamble occasionally (and not enough for the movie’s sake).  That’s his character.  Meanwhile, Pettyfer and Murphy are playing two characters that could have just as easily been rolled up into one.  And it would have been nice to see a few more dynamic people populate this world, but everyone is just sort of “struggling” or “not.”  By the way, how is the sex trade not involved in this flick?  Trying to keep that PG-13 rating, huh?

In other words, all this movie has to offer is a premise and some half-assed ideas based on that premise.  I will give props to a pretty awesome scene near the end involving Salas and Fortis, but it’s not enough. The movie just plain wastes a good idea and it isn’t any fun after the first thirty minutes.  In Gattaca, you see the difference in character and plotting that makes that movie a rich, thoughtful sci-fi experience.  In Time loses all of that substance and suffers because of it.

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