‘In Time’: In which Justin Timberlake is trapped in a horrible future of retread science fiction
A few weeks ago, respected short-story writer, essayist and science fiction author Harlan Ellison sued the creators of In Time, a new science fiction film written and directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1M0NE) and starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.
Ellison, a writer who is rightfully proud of the lengths he’ll go to to protect his intellectual property, attempted to prevent the release of In Time, claiming that it shamelessly rips off “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick Tock Man,” Ellison’s own short story.
In Ellison’s story, an impish rebel named Harlequin, jokingly modeled after Ellison himself, rebels against a futuristic society where the time that people have left in their lives is methodically monitored and even policed by the government. Residents in Ellison’s future have internal clocks that get processed by “The Master Time Keeper,” a heartless martinet that never hesitates before punishing tardy civilians by robbing them of precious hours or even years of their lives.
I’m no legal expert, and it is important to note that Ellison’s suit, which has not reached an official judgment yet, has not successfully stopped the theatrical release of Niccol’s film. Yet his case seems to have merit. In Time has the same exact set-up as “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick Tock Man.”
Timberlake plays Will Salas, an angry 28-year-old living in a futuristic society where time is, quite literally, money. As a resident of what he liberally calls a “ghetto,” Will lives from day-to-day not knowing if he’ll have enough time to survive the next day, let alone the next year.
When Will’s mother, a 50-year-old who still looks 25 years old, runs out of time, Will vows to get revenge on “them,” or, more specifically, on the amorphous 1 percent that the Occupy Wall Street movement is currently rallying against. This puts Will at odds with the head Time Keeper (Cillian Murphy), an amoral authority figure who paces around in a Matrix-chic leather trenchcoat. Murphy’s Time Keeper doesn’t care about justice but rather about keeping time in the right hands.
It doesn’t take a law degree to know that Ellison’s suit isn’t frivolous. Ellison is prone to hyperbole but in this case, he’s worth listening to. As he’s said in his official legal complaint, in the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth and several other places, “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick Tock Man” is his most famous work. It’s also one of the most widely published short stories in the English language. On top of that, Ellison says that he recently wrote a screenplay adaptation of “Repent, Harlequin,” though it’s hard to say what stage of production development that film was in when Niccol wrote the script for In Time.
That having been said, In Time’s biggest problem isn’t that it’s derivative but rather that it’s over-serious and bland. Will Salas is a milquetoast Robin Hood of the future, a man whose nature as a scrappy underdog is frankly unbelievable. This isn’t Timberlake’s fault but Niccol’s. The dialogue he sticks Timberlake with is florid and frequently lethally on-the-nose. It’s a lumpy mix of philosophical soliloquizing and bad puns about “time” and the various different ways we waste it. At one point, Timberlake asks rhetorically, “How can you lose what you never really had?”
(That line alone, I would argue, is actionable.)
Niccol clearly had a hard time settling on a tone for this film. For the sake of comparison: Ellison’s short story is a fundamentally carnival-esque look at a future where being late is a potentially lethal offense; it is funny and bleak, in that order.
The opposite is true of In Time. Every joke that Niccol’s characters make seems to be made through gritted teeth, and the gags are forced. In the film, there are 99 Seconds Only stores instead of 99-cent stores.
In Time’s lack of finesse probably has a lot to do with Niccol’s lack of a sense of humor. His dialogue is so parboiled that it frequently makes his film’s perfectly capable cast look emotionally constipated. Will’s quest to steal time from the rich and redistribute it to the poor only really begins after a man who has stolen a century of time for himself decides he wants to commit suicide. The drifter gives the purloined 100 years to Will and leaves him a note written with his finger on fogged-up glass: “Don’t waste my time.” I not only slapped my forehead after hearing that egregious line, I slapped the forehead of the person sitting next to me, too.
Will's kidnapping Silvia (Seyfried), a rich socialite who soon goes from being a reluctant hostage to a willing participant in Will’s anarchic schemes, provides a small but much-needed escape valve lets some of the hot air out of Niccol’s over-burdened scenario, which needs fun like a desert needs water. It's not that the jokes she cracks are any good. But even if she’s just a pretty and well-dressed doll for Will to play with and dispose of, she's diverting, at least. When they make out, with Seyfried dressed in a brassiere that’s at least two sizes too small for her, you see what her function in the film really is: She's a distraction from the pitilessly dour tone of Niccol’s stumbling film.
Niccol’s direction and razor-blades-on-chalkboard script is so sprawling and diffuse that, even if one were to ignore how much more pointed Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the TickTock Man” is, In Time would still look uninspired. Even a major asset like Timberlake is wasted. The only time he’s really allowed to pour on his considerable, effortless charm is during a scene in which he fights to keep his time from being stolen by a tenacious gang leader. Unfortunately, once that scene ends, you’re still stuck with a film set in a world where there’s actually a gang called “The Minute Men” whose leader fights men to the death by arm-wrestling with them. I hope Ellison gets as much money from Niccol as he can. Somebody’s got to make Niccol pay for this abominable time-suck.