Like director Andrew Niccol’s previous film Gattaca, In Time is devoted more to its concept than showing car chases, fist-fights, shoot-outs, and your basic action staples. All those things are in the movie, but mostly they provide breaks from exploring the film’s dystopian world.
It’s a few hundred years in the future, and the worldwide currency is time. Human beings have been genetically altered to stop aging at 25, and from there, they get one year; if they don’t start working, or if they’re lucky enough to be born into a timely family, they’ll die once their clock winds down.
Everyone’s time is tracked by a digital counter in their arm, and they can exchange time by shaking arms or putting them in metal containers that store time. If you want to rob someone, it takes only a forceful arm-shake, and then plop they’re dead, and you have a few extra weeks, months, or years to live.
The wealthiest individuals can live forever, but the poor literally live day to day, and it’s nearly impossible to move up in society because the classes are physically confined to time zones. Travel between them is allowed but costly.
Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a 28-year-old (or 25-plus-three, which is how they keep track of real ages in the future) from the ghetto who one night saves a wealthy slummer Harry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) from one of the neighborhood thugs. While they’re hiding out, Harry tells Will that he’s tired of living and gives Will over a century of his time before committing suicide.
At first Will’s overjoyed and decides to be charitable with his savings, giving a decade to one of his friends Borel (Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki) and taking his mother on vacation (his mother’s played by Olivia Wilde, and her introduction as Will’s mom provides a pretty big laugh).
Neither ends well, but Will decides to travel to the wealthiest part of town anyway, and for the first time lives it up in expensive hotels and eats fancy foods. He catches the eye of Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of Philippe Weis (Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser), who’s the world’s largest time-lender. He also comes under investigation by Leon (Cillian Murphy), a high-ranking police officer in an organization known as the Timekeepers, who suspects Will of murdering Harry.
Leon tracks Will down at the Weis’s mansion, Will escapes by kidnapping Sylvia, and from there, the two uncover a vast (albeit somewhat apparent) conspiracy and get into a lot of trouble, pursued by Leon, Philippe, and neighborhood gangs eager to steal their time.
Probably the best thing about In Time is how realized its world is. Even though the concept is hard to explain in words, Niccol is good at delivering a lot of exposition in just a few scenes. The people in the ghetto are constantly looking at their arms to see how much time they have left and tend to move much faster than the wealthy, who don’t constantly have to worry about the hours, minutes, and seconds ticking down.
Timberlake’s performance is decent enough. He’s not very charismatic, but he plays the role of a man constantly on the run convincingly. It may not be the most interesting character, but it is believable.
And Cillian Murphy does well as the dogged Timekeeper who’s been at the job for 50 years. Since he obviously doesn’t look 75, all the years on the job have to be conveyed in Murphy’s performance, and he plays it with just the right mix of competence, disillusionment, and incorruptibility. Even though he’s one of the bad guys, you sympathize with his character of a good cop in a bad world.
Seyfried and Kartheiser don’t fare as well. I like Seyfried, but here her character as the sheltered rich girl doesn’t really call for much, and her turn as a free and adventurous spirit feels tacked on. Kartheiser just oozes stereotypical evil as the capitalist-pig villain. His smugness comes off as more prissy than menacing, and his character is so shallow that it feels out of place.
In fact, the movie’s greatest flaw is the paper-thin evil-capitalist parable it continuously beats over the audience’s head. At one point, Kartheiser explicitly states it in a speech about social Darwinism. Niccol obviously has an ax to grind, but he’s blunt to the point of condescension.
Even still, you’d think that with all their money and the advances in genetic technology, the rich would be able to turn their timers off in addition to hoarding time. Or that some entrepreneur would come along and undercut Weis’s seeming monopoly on time.
Or someone would realize that maybe a currency that’s constantly diminishing isn’t such a good idea (well, maybe that one is a little far-fetched; though I don’t think the movie ever explains how new time is created). The point is, Niccol’s parable requires a hell of a lot of conditions, and the scenario he spends the running time exploring breaks down after a few minutes’ thought.
Nevertheless, In Time is still a taut and fun exercise in a world gone nasty. If you can withstand the constant puns on the word “time,” the ubiquitous and obnoxious sound effect of people exchanging time, and not take the premise too seriously, you may have a decent time.