I thought of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s Writing Movies for Fun and Profit often during Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi-thriller-moral-parable In Time.  One of the most savage and unforgiving takedowns of Hollywood since What Makes Sammy Run, the book clinically details the moral/creative compromises necessary to Hollywood success.  Lennon and Garant assure readers that Hollywood does not want creative; it wants familiar just this side of plagiarism.  If you write something different, then nine times out of ten a) nobody will produce it, or b) the studio will just change the interesting stuff.

So it goes with In Time.  You can see vapors of Niccol’s original premise: it is the future, and humans’ lives are so tightly regulated that they require literal time credits to keep going.  The rich can live forever, and their manipulation of the global economy keeps the poor out of sight and dropping like flies.  One could mine this premise for rich sociological insights, and who better than Andrew Niccol, whose Gattaca and Truman Show scripts (correctly) predicted the current trends regarding, respectively, genetic manipulation and the reality TV craze?

Problem is, while the credits list Niccol as chief In Time architect (writer, director, producer), little on-screen feels derived from the mind that made Gattaca and The Truman Show so trippy.  There’s no satire or social relevance; we get a “Wrong Man” riff that patches together a little North by Northwest, a smidge of Bonnie and Clyde, a whole lot of The Fugitive, and the love interest setup from Three Days of the Condor.  The whole endeavor just reeks of studio compromise.  To wit:

Lennon and Garant dissect the traditional studio script formula into eight segments; movies that fit this model get made.

When applied to In Time, we have:

  • Part 1:  Introduction of the flawed-yet-instantly-likable hero (movie stars want enough flaws for some “edge” but not so much as to alienate viewers) – Justin Timberlake’s poor grunt, living minute-to-minute in L.A. slums.  Even if he’s low on time, he’s always willing to give a cute street urchin a couple extra minutes (instantly likable), but he’s also struggling with a sordid past that involves a gambling addiction (there’s our flaw).
  • Part 2:  The “inciting incident” that jars the hero’s normal existence – A mysterious millionaire gives Timberlake a century of time and then kills himself.
  • Part 3:  The narrative thrusts the hero into the story – Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Timberlake flees into L.A.’s rich ghetto.
  • Part 4:  His situation worsens – The cops (called “Timekeepers”) catch Timberlake after he’s pissed off the wealthiest man in the world (“Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser, underplaying the way Vincent Price might and walking away with the picture), and Timberlake escapes with Kartheiser’s beautiful daughter (Amanda Seyfried, vapid and awful) in tow.
  • Part 5:  Something worse happens – Timberlake and Seyfried get in a car accident, and bandits steal almost all of their time.
  • Part 6:  The heroes’ misfortune continues to rise – Now in love with each other (natch!), Timberlake and Seyfried start robbing time and distributing to the poor, putting them in a vicious crime lord’s crosshairs.
  • Part 7:  We stress the odds against the heroes – Timekeepers (headed by Cillian Murphy, who knows he’s slumming and looks miserable), criminals, rich people that continue jacking up the price of living.
  • Part 8:  Triumphant climax – Timberlake and Seyfried score a super-mega (and sequel-friendly) happy ending.

Fits like a glove.  Normally, I’d be fine with a little convention—Die Hard and Star Wars also adhere to this template, and both of those are just about perfect—but Niccol’s direction is so flat and uninvolving; maybe he didn’t like watching his square peg sanded down and shoved in a round hole.

His lack of commitment makes overlooking the clash between Art and Commerce exceptionally difficult.  Niccol aims for grit with inserts of the misbegotten poor dead on the street, and then he’ll cheapen it by having Seyfried crack “We look cute together” after she sees her and Timberlake’s “Wanted” poster.  Murphy starts developing sympathies towards Timberlake’s plight right up to the moment that he needs to engage in a rooftop shootout with his target.  Nothing fits; you can go arthouse or commercial, but you can’t do both.

Take that interesting central premise: the studio tweaked it so that, in the final cut, people stop aging at twenty-five before they need to supply additional time units.  In addition, as a budget-saving method, Niccol shoots the future as “near-future,” with most fashions and technologies identical to what you’d see in 2012….save the mechanism that retards all aging and decay after age twenty-five.

Think about that: mankind has conquered nature’s biological decomposition rhythms, and in under fifty years?  Along those same lines, how has evolution accelerated to the point where human are born with a mechanical LED read-out that counts down time?  I might have bought these leaps if In Time occupied some space thousands of years in the future, but not “near-future.”  Alas, science-fiction logic fails in an effort to a) save on production and b) increase the film’s marketability in the 19 – 25 age bracket.

In the end, what do we have?  Great digital photography from No Country for Old Men lenser Roger Deakins.  The lovely Olivia Wilde, who looks gorgeous for her five minutes of screentime.  Niccol finally putting failed heartthrob Alex Pettyfer’s sneering anti-charisma to good use as the sneering, anti-charismatic mob boss after Timberlake. And another sacrifice to the Hollywood Machine.  All hail the great overlord!

The Blu-ray in Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack looks sharp and clean in HD, with an immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  Features are limited to an EPK-esque The Minutes featurette and deleted/extended scenes.

In Time streets on January 31st.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: IN TIME Commits Seppuku Before the Hollywood Gods