In Time – First Impressions

Time for some movie talk. I recently saw the movie In Time. Have a trailer.

The movie was directed and written by Andrew Niccol, who also did Gattaca. And indeed I found In Time to be similar to Gattaca in many ways. Both movies have a great premise and lots of striking and memorable details. Both movies fail to follow their concepts to their ultimate conclusions and offer a half-hearted mixture of shallow truisms instead.

The premise this time is really something special. The story takes place in a near future where people don’t age past the age of 25. To offset the growing population due to immortality, everybody has a built-in countdown timer. Once the timer runs out you die. Instead of earning money, you earn time for your timer.

Here is where lots of fascinating details kick in. For example, you can transfer time between two people by holding hands. This opens a whole spectrum of dramatic events. There are robberies, arm wrestling gets a whole new spin and so forth…

More importantly, radically fulfilling the “time is money” concept creates wonderfully fascinating dilemmas. What if using a bus costs more time than actually walking to you destination? How much life time is a cup of coffee worth?

Additionally, the movie also contains some nice awkward moments that result from everybody looking as if they are 25. The story starts with an excellent scene where a mother is confused for a girlfriend.

But once you’ve seen all the cool radical moments that result from the premise, In Time doesn’t go anywhere. In the first half, the hero goes from rags to riches and then back to being a fugitive with just minutes to spare. Once the situation stabilizes, the movie runs out of ideas. There are multiple moments in the entire plot just stalls. When there is nothing more for the hero to do. This is the point where some really unrealistic goals come in from nowhere. The hero decides he wants to “change the system” all of a sudden. The bizarre thing is that he actually succeeds. With the magic of editing the hero and the girl manage to rob super-secure banks, kindnap the most tightly protected millionaires and to totally revolutionize this constructed world. If two completely untrained people can uspet the system so much, one is left to wonder how the system was able to be stable in the first place.

It the story-writing equivalent to a strawman argument. Create a stable, unjust system and then reveal that it actually wasn’t really stable at all.

In case of In Time, it’s even worse since upsetting the system doesn’t really have a point. You see, there is no real advocate for the system to exist in the first place. There is nobody giving good arguments for why people have to die. Even the reason above (overpopulation) is pure conjunction on my side. The bad guy’s arguments pretty much boil down to “the system must exist… well because!”. On the other hand, the good guy’s argument boil down to “it’s not natural!”. So abolishing the system is a non-solution to a non-problem.

One is left to wonder. How did that system come to be in the first place? Genetically engineering people this way and establishing such an invasive economy must have been a tremendous project. It’s likely to have had some pretty good reasons. But of course, you couldn’t include those in the movie since that might leave the premise open to critique. Such reasons would be perhaps even too compelling to brush aside with hollow phrases such as “it’s not natural!”.

Of course, the entire premise might be seen as an analogy to modern economy and the 99% issue that is so prominent right now. In this case, the movie fails as well. The system in In Time seems to follow very different goals to the commercial economy. The goal of the In Time system is to systematically kill people. Which seems to suggest that they are economically completely expendable in the first place. In Commercialism, the goal is make people earn at least some money so they can keep on consuming. You need to keep them in debt and give them a job to pay off that debt so you can exploit them for labor. You don’t want to make people go completely bankrupt. Hobos are economically worthless and therefore not desirable.

So In Time fails as a 99% analogy. Even it it was a good analogy, it wouldn’t really deliver any arguments. But that’s kinda what Gattaca was like too. It didn’t really make any statements about genetic engineering because the system it described was so artificial and contrived.

I still feel like Gattaca came out better in one regard. It was a relatively slow movie that worked with simple, tense moments of the main hero trying to avoid getting caught. It’s a type of movie that works very well with Andrew Niccol’s style. In Time seems to go the Michael Bay route and just falls flat. None of the actions scenes really work. As a result the structural flaws that were hidden so well in Gattaca become blatantly obvious in In Time.

So I suggest you keep your expectations low and just enjoy individual scenes. It can be an inspiring movie. There are some moments in there I already see myself referencing in the future.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “In Time – First Impressions”

  1. whatever

    Very good writing.
    For what you say it reminds me a bit to “The Box” of Richard Kelly,
    maybe its some new kind of nothing-to-do movie,
    so it could be read as a symptom of how much the humanity is lost in her own mental chaos or voidness,
    wonders of the crazy unholy savage path we are walking.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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