1997 and 1998 were very good years for Andrew Niccol. In less than 24 months two spectacularly innovative features arrived in American cinemas. He wrote both and directed one, in the first steps of his career notching on his CV what most never achieve in a lifetime: two veritable masterpieces.
Niccol’s screenplay for the Peter Weir directed The Truman Show expanded what could have been a simple gimmick — a person’s existence, unbeknownst to them, fuels a popular TV show — into an original take on one man’s search for the meaning of life.
On the strength’s of Truman Niccol was green-lit to direct, from his own script, the pitch-perfect science fiction film Gattaca, set in a world in which designer genetics determine everything about us: what jobs we’re entitled to, what we’re capable of achieving.
To say his career crashed, burned or simply petered away isn’t entirely fair, but nothing since has come close to capturing those highs or even bottling much of a whiff of them.
Niccol wrote and directed S1m0ne, a gimmicky film with a curious premise: a movie director (Al Pacino), hungry for a new and malleable superstar (Hitchcock once said: “all actors should be treated like cattle”) invents his own using CGI.
Niccol worked on the story of Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) and wrote and directed Lord of War (2005), in which Nicolas Cage plays an international arms dealer. The film peaked during its opening credits, a sort of cradle-to-grave for the life of a bullet — tracking its journey from a Soviet Union munitions factory into the head of a child soldier in Africa.
In Time, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, is Niccol’s most obvious attempt to recapture the magnificence of Gattaca. It also signifies the nadir of this career so far.
The premise, like the premise of every Niccol joint, is a good one: the film is set in an alternate future world in which time is literally money. Time is the world’s (read: America’s) currency, and once citizens hit the age of 25 they will die unless they have savings. Net worth is emblazoned in gaudy green digits on people’s arms. They pay for things by more or less holding hands, or placing their wrists onto metallic time-sucking devices.
Will (Justin Timberlake) is a good-hearted pauper born in the bronx, where nobody has much money — er, time — and those who do get murdered for it. He saves the hide of a loaded man with so much time he has become practically immortal; the man responds by committing suicide — not before giving Will all he has.
Rich and risk prone, Will gatecrashes upper crust society and attempts to break down the country’s stark socioeconomic barriers. He befriends and romances the daughter (Amanda Seyfried) of one of the world’s most powerful figures and is chased by Raymond “timekeeper” Leon (Cillian Murphy), whose job is to ensure society’s clock stays pointed firmly in the direction of the wealthy.
All very good on paper but nobody — not Niccol, Timberlake, the saucer-eyed Seyfried or Cillian Murphy — can make it work on screen.
The first half of In Time plays like a mutilated Gattaca — an inferior product chopped up, rearranged and repackaged. The second plays like a preposterous modern take on Robin Hood.
The film’s similarities to Gattaca are striking and, in their carbon copy obviousness, despairing. Both are based in futuristic worlds crudely divided by rich and poor, both have noble-minded protagonists born at a disadvantage who “break through,” both have police characters who staunchly believe in harsh conservative order but are pitted against what is “right” and both feature a romantic sub-plot in which the woman learns of the man’s shortcomings and joins the chase. Both even have key scenes involving swimming in the ocean at night.
Timberlake and Seyfried are a smokin’ hot couple who look like they belong on the dance floor, shaking their booties and spilling drinks. Neither have the acting chops to make their parts resonate or transcend rubbishy dialogue.
Niccol himself may have sensed this; observe how quickly he cuts away from a crucial emotional scene in which the protag cradles a limp body in a dark street and yells “nnnnnoooooo!” Timberlake ain’t half bad playing the smug cool kid (The Social Network, Friends With Benefits) but a grieving determined son and futuristic revolutionary, not so much. Amanda Seyfried, with those amazing eyes that hit audiences like beams of harsh sunlight, is obviously more suited to something like Resident Evil.
The first real indication of In Time’s dramatic ineptitude occurs early, when a key dramatic moment (time is of the essence!) registers with all the power of a fluttering leaf. The film never recovers from there, even though it gets bolder and more ambitious, evolving Timberlake’s character into a messianic figure who, with his well-dieted GF, endeavours to right the wrongs of a feral capitalist society.
This has to be achieved with liberal dollops of action littered throughout, most of it tension-free on-the-run chase scenes Niccol stages with a sense of tick-the-box necessity, as if studio big wigs insisted on them as part of the deal. Compare these to the simple but emotionally loaded “action” scenes in Gattaca: Ethan Hawke crossing a busy highway without his contact lenses; a crippled Jude law climbing a flight of stairs without using his legs.
Less was more back then. Now with In Time more is less, and the film reeks of masquerading second-rate cheapness married with unnecessary extravagance, like a scuffed formica table with sauce stains in a ritzy casino.
Worse of all, the film’s final act opens the gateway for a stream of soapbox one liners about how nobody should live forever, no life is more valuable than another, a yada yada.
These are scenes that, back in the late 90s, nobody would have imagined could come from Andrew Niccol.
In Time’s Australian theatrical release date: October 27, 2011.