Can I call myself a fan of Andrew Niccol if I only like his first two movies? And he didn't even direct The Truman Show; Peter Weir did, from his screenplay. I watched S1m0ne on a crappy VCD and wasn't even paying it much attention, but it didn't impress me, and I missed Lord of War. But Gattaca, man. I thought it was great the first time, and it's only grown on me on subsequent viewings; as sci-fi it's remarkably intelligent, as allegory it's terrifically thought-provoking, and as a human drama it's immensely affecting. So if only for Gattaca alone, I dig Andrew Niccol. The man doesn't make movies very often though, having only four films in 14 years to his credit (not including The Truman Show, or his story credit for that Tom Hanks starrer The Terminal). So for his first movie in 6 years, and a return to dystopian sci-fi to boot, I am down for that.
In Time is Gattaca lite - in that it's a return to the genre and themes he's very good at, but falling somewhat short of his 1997 classic.
Genetic engineering has transformed society into one where everyone stops aging at 25. The amount of time they have left to live is measured in glowing green digits on their hands, and time has literally become money - all things cost minutes and hours instead of dollars, deducted from one's own lifetime. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a working-class joe who survives on little more than a day on his clock at a time, and lives with his mother (Olivia Wilde). One day he saves the life of a rich guy named Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) who has over a century on his clock - and who gives it all to Will, before committing suicide. But before he can share it with his mother, her time runs out. With a vague notion of righting the wrongs of this society, Will travels to the "time zone" of New Greenwich, where the mega-rich keep millenia in their vaults, and meets billionaire Phillippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) who is wealthy enough to live forever. But when the Timekeepers, the economic police force led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) catches up to him, he takes Weis' daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) hostage and flees back to the slums. The disaffected rich girl soon teams up with Will to become a Bonnie-and-Clyde-cum-Robin-Hood team, robbing time banks and giving it away to the poor - but it isn't only Leon who's hot on their tail, but also the vicious time-stealing Minutemen gang led by Fortis (Alex Pettyfer).
Andrew Niccol is a bleeding-heart social liberal. Which is a political leaning that I share, so I can only imagine that those whose beliefs lie in the polar opposite - say, Objectivism, which basically amounts to "the poor are poor because they're lazy and stupid, and the rich should rule the world because they're smart and hardworking and awesome" - could only hate this film. I liked it, both for its politics as well as its merits as a film, but I can see where the former tends to overshadow the latter. It starts with a voiceover by Will saying, "I don't have time to worry about how it happened" (pun clearly fully intended, about which more later) - which is really just saying "this concept doesn't really make 100% sense, both from how it works day to day and how society evolved into it, but just, just go with me on this, okay?" And that's fine. I went with it, and I think so did most of the audience at my viewing; think of it as more of a thought experiment, and you'll be fine.
Or maybe something else, 'cos as a thought experiment, the findings aren't exactly revelatory. Niccol attempts to distract us with some action-thriller business, which is quite effectively distracting; he has a decent eye for crafting an action scene, and Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried make a cute couple. And I'm really glad he didn't pull out the ol' dystopian sci-fi cliché of a bunch of rebels who get slaughtered so the hero can single-handedly kill the one person whose death brings down the entire system. It's not formulaic, that's for sure, which makes it nicely unpredictable as to how it will all end. And its ending is by no means unsatisfying. But there's a sense that this is not the best approach for the material - maybe not a weekly TV series, as some critics have suggested (like I said, the concept doesn't really hold up if you think about it just a little), but perhaps something with more of a point to it other than that the rich victimise the poor.
I keep comparing it to Gattaca, which may or may not be a fair comparison. But the similarities are undeniable, even aside from the dystopian sci-fi angle. The deliberately low-key mood, especially in the acting. Craig Armstrong's strikingly moody score, which recalls Michael Nyman's soaring soundtrack for Gattaca. Both of which work well enough here, and certainly distinguish it from your typical cineplex fare; just that it doesn't meet the high standards set by Niccol's first film. The premise is more far-fetched, and Niccol feels the need to allude to it again and again in somewhat clunky ways - notably, by throwing in a lot of puns about time into the dialogue. Such as when Will robs a rich lady and says, "I'd ask you for your money or your life, but since they're one and the same..." I think Niccol's a smart enough filmmaker to respect his audience's intelligence, but with lines like these, he's falling to the temptation of trying to be too clever.
Still, there are pleasures to be had in this movie. Timberlake and Seyfried are likable enough to make a rootable hero and heroine (and Ms. Seyfried, in that hair and those outfits, is freakin' gorgeous), but they're outshone by the supporting cast. Vincent Kartheiser is suitably oily, and does a great job playing a douchebaggy rich old man. Meanwhile, Alex Pettyfer does not even attempt to play a 75-year-old, but his equally douchebaggy Fortis is a much better fit for those chiseled cheekbones than a teen action hero. The standout is Cillian Murphy, never less than fantastic as the Javert to this movie's Les Miserables; a principled, determined, and intelligent antagonist who fights to preserve this rotten system. But even character-wise, the story's seams are straining - it's never quite made clear why Leon believes in the system, nor does he deliver the expected speech defending it.
Also, there's a pretty shoddy CGI car crash that makes me wonder where the film's budget went - or at least, how much it really costs to make a movie with a proper car roll stunt these days. But that's about it for the film's shortcomings. By no means am I not recommending it. If you liked Gattaca, this is required viewing. If you like smart, thoughtful and thought-provoking sci-fi, this is required viewing. And if you are a social liberal who feels keenly the victimisation of the powerless by the powerful, this is required viewing. This is a world in which the only form of law enforcement is a force that exists solely to protect that society's money, i.e. keep the poor from getting any of it. If this is not only plausible to you, but makes you angry, this film is required viewing. I dig Andrew Niccol, and In Time makes me dig him no less. In fact, it only convinces me that he has another Gattaca in him.
NEXT MOVIE: Tower Heist
Expectations: Ben Stiller meh, Eddie Murphy meh, Brett Ratner epic meh