Film Review: In Time

The rich live forever and the poor scrape by with just a day on their clocks in this sci-fi dystopia, which favors action sequences and trite catchphrases.

When it comes to creating dystopias, writer-director Andrew Niccol is a specialist. The socially engineered worlds in The Truman Show and Gattaca have an unsettling underbelly that evokes Brave New World. His latest, In Time, puts us inside a realm where everyone stops aging at twenty-five. After a one-year grace period, every hour, minute and second must be earned. Time also buys food and commodities, and pays rent.

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) comes from Dayton, a ghetto where people are robbed for just a few days of life. The bodies of those who have “timed out” regularly line the streets. Will’s fate changes when he’s suddenly gifted a century by a hundred-year-old man who’s sick of living. He voyages into the wealthy “time zone” of New Greenwich, where he’s astonished by the opulence and leisurely pace. When authorities called “timekeepers” question whether he murdered the man for his century, he takes a wealthy hostage “from time,” Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), and goes on the run.

From beginning to end, In Time is full of action that’s brisk, well-staged and doesn’t linger. But the gun-wielding conflicts come at the expense of the movie’s science-fiction foundation. Despite the many meticulously realized elements of this futuristic world, it doesn’t feel deep or intricate enough. The system also seems unusually vulnerable, especially when it comes to the concept of time transfer. People pay for things or lend money by clasping hands. The flip side is that all it takes to rob someone of their life is a good, firm grasp. Couldn’t the wealthy build in some kind of mechanism that would prevent them from “timing out” if robbed? Instead, they rely on hulking guards who shadow their every move. Long, stagey gloves conceal the green numerals ticking down on the underside of their forearm, representing their worth.

Despite the gaps in the logic of his fictional world, Niccol is able to sell its emotional impact. When Will is suddenly flush with a thousand years, you can feel the sense of relaxation and possibility that comes from being “in time.” When characters are down to their last minute, their desperation and helplessness transmit effortlessly. In the community of Dayton, a victim’s plea for help in their final seconds is likely to result in those around them fleeing and shutting their doors. Out of learned necessity, people behave as if those with little time left are drowning. Lending a hand could pull both people under.

One of the biggest faults of In Time is the treatment of its hero and villain. Will’s transition from having no time to lots of it prompts him to go put on the hat of Robin Hood and redistribute time from the rich to the poor. There’s nothing personal about his journey, despite a few lame lines that attempt to link his actions to those of his father, who was also something of a rebel. His foe, the timekeeper Leon (Cillian Murphy), is drawn with ellipses that render his character’s motivations not enigmatic but flimsy. In Niccol’s earlier work, Gattaca, his hero didn’t try to bring down the system but merely succeeded in spite of it. Such restraint and focus on the individual could have been useful here. Perhaps it was abandoned in favor of a car chase.

With the emphasis on action, deep observations about the world are encapsulated into cheesy catchphrases, like “For few to be immortal, many must die.” Whenever Will and Leon gravely spout these aphorisms, the characters’ credibility is undermined. Seyfried, in contrast, manages to sell her rebellious rich-girl role. She’s the one fish-out-of-water speeding through these ghetto time zones, and her initiation into a world where people run down to their last minutes makes her a satisfying, dynamic character.

In Time hints at and even apes part of what made Gattaca such a great sci-fi experience. It’s an enjoyable ride that’s better than most, but it’s still a pity Niccol couldn’t replicate the success of his better works.