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Thomson on Films: ‘In Time,’ a Film That Can’t Deliver on Its Own Provocative Ideas

In Time is so crammed with provocative ideas it begins to feel over-crowded. At some time in a future that looks like the recent past of Los Angeles, human aging has been stopped at twenty-five. At that point of perfection, everyone has one year left to live, and their remaining span registers as a luminous green set of numbers (their “watch”), printed on the forearm. But this situation has turned time into the new money, and so—in the way of the world—some people are richer than others. People still look like twenty-five when they are eighty. Some are charitable, and don’t mind a modest wrist-to-wrist transfusion—half an hour or ten years for a deserving case. And then along comes a Robin Hood figure, Will Salas, played by Justin Timberlake. He is given a windfall century by a despairing rich man who is being hunted by gangs. But when Will wakes up, he realizes he is now a target for the gangs and the odious Timekeepers, the new police, as led by Leon (Cillian Murphy).

All of this makes a compelling synopsis. You may even guess that so much socially astute sci-fi sounds like an Andrew Niccol picture. So it is. Alas, the trouble may be that Niccol is also the director. I do not want to be harsh, and I believe that Niccol is a remarkable creator of movie concepts. But In Time might have been a desperate, haunting, decadent, and darkly comic parable on wealth and poverty, instead of an intriguing frustration, betrayed by its inability to be lucid or dramatic. Yes, it’s a film to see, but the more it gets to you the more you’ll lie awake at night considering how to remake it.

This is not quite a predicament without history. Andrew Niccol was born in New Zealand in 1964. In 1985, he went to Britain where he built a career directing television commercials, but soon enough his ambitions had grown and he was in America. At some stage in the mid-nineties he came up with an idea called “The Malcolm Show.” But in the dozen or so rewrites that he carried out it turned into what we call The Truman Show, a triumph of originality and unexpected elegance, about a man who believes he’s a happy-go-lucky, ordinary fellow in a neat, carefree world until it slowly dawns on him that he is a 24/7, ongoing television show, from which he begins to feel a yearning to escape.

I see this as one of the most prescient ideas adopted by the American cinema in our time—it is also, of course, a disturbing commentary on our addiction to screens and our loss of reality. Early on, there were money people excited by The Truman Show. It was bought, it was developed, and Andrew Niccol offered the humble plea that he might be allowed to direct his baby. But as the project grew, so did its budget. Jim Carrey said he wanted to play the lead at a time when he was an expensive property. Worries spread that this was more than the novice Niccol could handle. A number of other directors were briefly attached—including Steven Spielberg—before it fell to Peter Weir, who believed Niccol’s vision was excessively dark. So Weir coaxed out a version that was more amusing, that offered a parody of sunlit dream communities, but which still had the intellectual impact of the first idea. The Truman Show (1998) proved a hit and a critical success. Niccol was nominated for best original screenplay.

In the meantime, waiting for The Truman Show, he wrote and directed a much cheaper film, Gattaca (with Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman), a noir story based on the possibilities of genetic engineering and personal integrity. That is putting in a nutshell what is a rampantly overgrown nut tree. In short, Gattaca is clever, striking, but confused. It lacks exactly what distinguished Weir’s Truman Show, the capacity (indeed, the need) to take a bold idea and translate it to a viable dramatic format. Similarly, in In Time, the luminous green watch on the arm of the characters seems a knock-out touch, until you have to struggle to decipher so many numbers. The engineering of the body succumbs to the clumsiness in the dramatization. Hence our frustration.

The same kind of thing could be said for Niccol’s next film, S1m0ne (2004), about a woman created in a computer. The idea was dazzling and something that seemed inevitable: As soon as you heard about S1m0ne, you wanted to see it—until you saw it. (And Simone was played by Niccol’s wife, Rachel Roberts.)

In Time is another failure, but it has virtues: The filming by Roger Deakins (his first use of digital cinematography) is eerily bright, and the production design has done wonders with real sites in Los Angeles and a feeling for fascistic style in futuristic constructions like time toll booths. Will has a mother who looks like his lover. There is a moment when a tycoon, Philippe Weis, introduces his wife, his daughter and his mother-in-law and they seem to be triplets. Moreover, Vincent Kartheiser gives an uncanny performance as Weis, looking like wax, and combining the body language of youth and old age—he might be someone out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

There is a stress on running in the movie as the only human escape from advancing time, and the energetic Timberlake may be ready for the Olympics, but he has a hard time holding attention whenever he’s with the heroine, Weis’s daughter, embodied by Amanda Seyfried as a weird gamine puppet whose strings could be wired. Her performance must be calculated, yet it’s hard to explain. She seems to be a creature who may actually depend on some ticking mechanism for her consciousness. So In Time is a strange experience, and it leaves Niccol in limbo. He also did the story for Spielberg’s The Terminal (another inspired story) and he directed Nicolas Cage in Lord of War. But it’s a truism and a dead end: No one can direct a Nic Cage film these days. Equally, can Niccol deliver his own ideas?

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.