Movies that are heavy on premise tend to be light everywhere else, and In Time is no exception. Really, it’s all premise, but give the writer credit: His conceit is sufficiently clever to hook us instantly and keep our interest high while we wait for the plot to meaningfully engage. And wait. And wait. Along the way there are definitely some pleasing distractions, just not enough to obscure the growing realization that a much better picture could have been made, and wasn’t. Many films never have a chance, but this one did – it’s an opportunity wasted.
Still, the sci-fi idea is ingeniously simple. It posits a human future where time is literally money and where, at 25, the aging process stops but an actual clock begins. At that juncture, everyone receives at minimum a further year’s worth of time credit, with the digital record encoded on their forearm in neon green, like an ongoing bank statement. Subsequently, time can be earned and time must be spent on food, shelter, clothing and any affordable extras. Fair enough, except that the downside of falling into the red is rather severe. Spend more than you earn and, poof, you timeout – as in die, leaving nothing but a youthful corpse.
Well, the potential of that premise is obvious, as is the visual consequence: Since, regardless of their true age, no one looks older than 25, it makes for a very attractive cast. Grandfathers, grandsons, mothers, daughters, they’re all hotties and hunks. Among them is Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a workaday guy who, like the rest of the oppressed in the ghetto of Dayton, lives hour by hour. Occasionally, his digital readout winds alarmingly down to mere minutes, but his factory wages can be depended on to up his account to a relatively safe half-day or so. His mom, gorgeous yet a bit of a spendthrift, isn’t so lucky – watch her lose a frantic race against time.
Okay, now comes the unfortunately skimpy plot. A suicidal stranger bequeaths Will a windfall, 100 years on the clock, and he quickly sets out to see how the other half lives in the rich part of town. There, Dads are “worth eons,” and daughters like Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) are said to “come from time” – at 25, she inherited centuries of the stuff. In truth, they’ve got an overabundance and, fearful only of death by accidental circumstance, live a dull and risk-averse existence. The ocean may lie at their doorstep, but the affluent are too afraid to swim in it. Nevertheless, they keep escalating the cost of living in order to cull the poor. Their mantra could double as a terrorist’s wall plaque: “For a few to be immortal, many must die.”
Admittedly, all this makes for a neat way to dramatize the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, the one with their bored leisure, the other in a carpe diem frenzy. But, again, writer-director Andrew Niccol (whose script for The Truman Show was another premise-heavy effort) fails to take advantage. Instead, once Will and Sylvia have hooked up as the proverbial star-crossed lovers, he does little more than whittle down the narrative to an extended chase flick. Extended, because the pair are on the lam from two separate threats – the law in the punctilious form of Leon the “Timekeeper” (Cillian Murphy), and an outlaw in the nasty shape of Fortis the hoodlum (Alex Pettyfer).
They chase on foot, they chase in cars, they chase over rooftops, but the action, unlike the premise, is thoroughly mundane. So is our stars’ metamorphosis into Bonnie and Clyde, or, for the more contemporary-minded, into a two-person Occupy movement intent on robbing time banks and redistributing the wealth. Although it’s hardly an actor’s film, Timberlake is always competent, but Seyfried struggles with this gun-toting transition, and settles for hiding behind a Louise Brooks bob that accentuates her bug-eyed stare – she looks like a Kewpie doll toting G.I. Joe’s bazooka.
Happily, there are some laughs en route. More happily yet, a few of them are even intentional. Like when a Dayton hooker shouts to prospective clients: “I’ll give you 10 minutes for an hour.” Actually, as a ratio of pleasure gained to time invested, that’s about the same deal on offer here. A tip: Buy in if you want, but lose the watch.
- Directed and written by Andrew Niccol
- Starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried
- Classification: PG