“In Time” is the kind of movie that literally kills off its most interesting thematic element and character about 10 minutes into the picture. To bring you up to speed, Andrew Niccol‘s latest sci-fi venture takes place in a future world where everyone is genetically programmed to stop aging at 25 years old, and moreover, time is used as currency. But that’s not all. In addition to being able to buy everything from coffee to cars to prostitutes with the hour and minutes displayed glaringly in a digital readout on your forearm, once it runs out, you die right on the spot. A class system has emerged, of course, with the “rich” gaining virtual immortality and living the high life in an enclosed city, while the “poor” are left scrapping for enough time to stay alive in their derelict ghetto.
And thus into this scenario enters Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a factory worker living in rundown Dayton with a hot Mom (Olivia Wilde) who, thanks to genetic tinkering, still looks damn fine on her 50th birthday. One evening, Will heads out to a shady bar — we know this because of the low lighting and the dangerously flamboyant Latino band playing music — where he sees the smartly dressed and handsome Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) who is living it up, buying rounds for everyone in the place while having two women flirt and fight over his attention. The other thing that makes him standout is the very, very long digital readout on his arm indicating he has over a century of time, and it isn’t long before the absurdly named gangster Fortis (Alex Pettyfer) is waving a gun and British accent around, and planning to steal Henry’s time. But our plucky hero Will saves Henry and squirrels him away in a dank loft, where he glumly reveals he’s ready to die, and that humanity wasn’t made for infinite life.
It’s at this moment where “In Time” arrives at a crucial fork in the narrative road. In one direction, there is a very brainy, smart sci-fi tale to be told that makes an honest examination of life and death, the weight and value we place on it, and what the attempts at prolonging life say about our humanity. Down the other path is a cliché-filled action movie that barely does lip service to the premise, all in the name of a slick not-so-thrilling thriller. Guess which one this is? Absurd, illogical and, most disappointingly of all, uninspired, even those who have steadfastly clung to the diminishing returns Niccol has delivered since “Gattaca” will be hard pressed to find anything worth salvaging out of the wreck that is presented here.
Anyway, back to the story for a moment. In the midst of Henry’s depressive and suicidal speech about life, he reveals very vaguely that the only way he and others have been able to live so long is that time is being stolen from those lower down the ladder (this is the part where everyone will make an inevitable Occupy Wall Street/current events comparison, but this movie isn’t smart enough to give it that much credit.) The two decide to lay low until morning, but when Will wakes up not only does he suddenly have over a hundred years on his clock, but he peeks out the window only to see Henry on a bridge in the distance waiting for his seconds to run down so he can “time out.” Will races to try and save him but arrives too late and a sneaky CCTV camera captures him at the scene of the crime. A dead body with no minutes left? Must be murder. So he decides to hide out in the swanky rich people neighborhood of New Greenwich, where he crosses paths with time bank honcho Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) and more importantly, his comely daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). He barely has a moment for romance — but this being a movie, he does manage a quick skinny dip — before the Timekeeper (read: cop) Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) is on his tail and Will is on the run with Sylvia as his willing hostage. And remember Fortis? He’s still looking for Will, too.
Will is spurred not only by a desire not to get caught, but also by a moral outrage that these one-percenters are living the good life on the backs of the ninety-nine percent, arbitrarily raising the cost of living on those beneath them to squash any chances of improving their station. So he embarks on a Robin Hood-esque quest to steal time and hand it out to everyone in Dayton. It’s just too bad everything surrounding the plot makes zero sense thanks to glaring illogical issues with the story that are hard to ignore. The main problem with this movie is that despite the advances in technology that have allowed humanity the chance to live forever, it seems no one thought of a better way to share time. All you have to do is give someone a handshake by holding onto their wrist, slightly turning their arm and bingo, you’re done. And yes, if someone is sleeping, all you have to do is grab their wrist and you can steal their hours and minutes with ease (this is how Henry transfers his time to Will before he wakes up). Surely there is a better, more secure way? It’s just hard to believe that with all this scientific progress, the world is left with the equivalent of taping all your money to your arm and then hoping no one tries to steal it. And it seems despite genetic advancements, placing a CCTV camera properly is still a problem, as the entire plot hinges on the fact that Henry’s suicide wasn’t caught on tape thanks to a vaguely described blind spot, but a guilty looking Will being near the bridge was. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Niccol also seems to just avoid explaining anything in service of moving the movie along. At one point, the story jumps quite jarringly to Will and Sylvia starting a righteous crime spree, breaking into a bank by driving an armored truck through the front door. How did these fugitives manage to steal a Brinks vehicle? Who knows, and don’t ask why banks in the future don’t have any security guards at all or multiple layers of protection for their vaults. Also don’t inquire why the little handheld devices that store time aren’t encrypted either — your cell phone likely has better security. And that’s not all. The audience we were with tittered when our heroic duo survived a poorly CGI-ed car crash which saw their tiny silver convertible sports car flip a few times down a concrete embankment only to land with both still sitting nicely in their seats. Later, towards the end of the movie, the authorities set up a roadblock, but unfortunately among the dozens of police officers present, they all have worse shots than Sylvia, who upon firing a gun by accident for the first time, manages to hit and wound Raymond from a fair distance. And for a world where even the bus drivers get your immediate name and identity when you scan your arm to get on board, the Timekeepers have a hard time using any kind of technology (GPS, satellite, anything) to find Will and Sylvia, mostly relying on Raymond’s intuition as to where they’ll be next.
If Niccol’s concept is shaky, his direction and script don’t do him any favors either. The film is ultimately pitched as a thriller with our heroic pair running from both the Timekeepers and Fortis, creating a no-win situation. But the latter is hardy ever a threat, popping up only when the screenplay needs a surprise appearance and he eventually exits the film so quickly and with such ease (granted, in a showdown scene that got a cheer of approval from the audience we saw it with), we wonder why Will was so wary of the guy all this time. As for Raymond, he’s actually the sole bright light in the film. Murphy brings to his character the nuance and shades of gray hinted at, but missing everywhere else in film. He too is shamed by the currency system — with his per diem keeping him alive on a day to day basis — but also tasked with keeping the status quo, and there are notes of sympathy behind his steely eyes, creating an internal sense on conflict about gatekeeping the lives in his hands that wold have made for a better movie if the story was centered around his journey. Murphy makes even the most rote dialogue sing, but the same can’t be said for Timberlake and Seyfried, but that’s no fault of their own. While they are two beautiful people, the script has them changing from young lovers, crusaders and vengeful murderers in all too short a stretch, mouthing some pretty eye-rolling platitudes along the way. Their love is presumably supposed to be unfolded as they go on the lam, but they’re already making out less than 24 hours after being together, so there’s no progression or stakes to their relationship at all. And with all of this delivered in a movie with bungled sci-fi elements, limp action sequences and a poorly executed premise, watching “In Time” will test your patience.
Andrew Niccol’s film introduces many interesting ideas — including how society adjusts and people change their lifestyle when a random or premeditated act of violence is the only way to die — without really taking them anywhere. Instead, “In Time” tries to succeed as a strict genre exercise, but the world it exists in is so poorly defined and envisioned, that as the movie clunks around into the final act, you’ll likely be more entertained keeping a catalog of all the gaps in the plot and unexplained details in the movie. “In Time” tries to make the most of its 110 minutes — and in this franchise-ready age, keeps the door open for a sequel — but we’d advise that you bank your money for something more worth your while. [D]