In Time: Justin Timberlake Tries to Beat the Clock

This futurist parable, about the immortal 1% and the doomed 99%, has a great premise that doesn't make a great movie

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Fred Hayes / Twentieth Century Fox Film

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried star in a scene from In Time

In the future topia (u- or dys-, you decide) of Andrew Niccol’s In Time, all the people look not a day over 25; they might be Hollywood’s target demographic that conquered the world and got rid of anyone old enough to run for the Senate or enjoy The Help. The human life span has been expanded to infinity, but not everyone can afford it. Because here, time is money. Workers are paid in time and, to buy things, they have to spend it. (A cup of coffee? That’ll be 4 minutes, please.) Hours, days, years are like $20, $100 or $10,000 bills. Scott Fitzgerald was right. The rich are different: because they have more money, they can live forever.

Some unseen government or mad-genius scientific cabal has set people’s biological clocks to expire shortly after age 25, unless they bank extra time by working longer, borrowing at usurious rates, or stealing time. It’s literally your money or your life. Each person has a phosphorescent tattoo on his forearm, ticking away, that tells how much time is left. It’s both a reminder of the bearer’s mortality and a temptation to vandals, known as Minutemen, who set upon the unwary and clean their clocks. Oddly, no one thinks to protect that information by wearing a metal sheath to cover the arm. That makes people as vulnerable to predators as a bejeweled matron walking through a rough neighborhood.

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Tantalizing premises—political satire masquerading as science fiction—are Niccol’s own movie currency. The New Zealander wrote The Truman Show, about a man (Jim Carrey) who doesn’t realize that his life is a carefully scripted reality program. Niccol’s films as writer-director include Gattaca, with Ethan Hawke as the rare home-made man in a world of genetically modified superfolks, and Simone, or S1mOne, in which a moviemaker creates a sexy new star out of a computer program. His hard-to-ignore theme: society’s attempts to engineer perfection are ethically egregious and doomed to failure. In Time is Niccol’s most explicit denunciation of inequality, and a parable of the rich getting richer as the poor lose time. It’s a great idea that Niccol can’t translate into a great movie.

Will Salis (Justin Timberlake) is a wage slave in the working-class time zone of Dayton, where prices keep rising as wages remain stagnant, and where his mother (Olivia Wilde, who, since she hasn’t visibly aged, looks more like Will’s dream date) dies because her clock runs out and no one will, literally, give her the time of day. When a rich guy, Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), is set upon by the Minutemen, Will saves him and takes him home. There he learns that Henry is 105, with another century still on his forearm, and tired of living. As Will sleeps, Henry transfers his time to Will, leaves and allows himself to die. A monitoring camera implicates Will in Henry’s death, and from then he’s on the run. His pursuer is the implacable Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy)—Javert to Will’s Jean Valjean.

Will drives from Dayton’s Zone 12 to the Zone 4 town where the super-rich supercentenarians live. It’s called New Greenwich, which might be the ritzy city in Connecticut or a reference to the London suburb that housed the Royal Observatory whose clocks set time for the world: Greenwich Mean Time. (To the 99% living outside that posh zone, time couldn’t be meaner.) In a casino out of an early James Bond movie, Will gambles against the world’s richest man, Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, who plays spoiled Pete Campbell on Mad Men). When Philippe loses at the tables, he tells Will, “You’ve taken years off my life,” but no matter: Philippe is worth “eons.” He introduces Will to three women—his mother, wife and daughter—all looking indistinguishably young and fabulous, like classier Kardashian girls. Daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried of Big Love and Mamma Mia!) becomes Will’s accomplice when he escapes from Philippe and the Timekeeper and heads back to Dayton to free time, so to speak. Robbing a bank and redistibuting precious hours to the poor, Sylvia and Will become the future’s Bonnie and Clyde—time bandits.

In Time, like last week’s Margin Call, has lucked into a historical moment when its message feeds off the headlines. As the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads across the country, the Congressional Budget Office reports that in the past three decades the wealth of America’s top 1% has spiked by 275%. The 99%, toiling in all the Daytons of the country, get nowhere because the suave idlers in New Greenwich have hoarded the wealth. It’s Darwinian capitalism: only the rich survive—forever. “For a few to be immortal,” Philippe says, “many must die.” But Will is a Robin Hood socialist who believes that “None should be immortal if even one person has to die.”

One problem with In Time is that it’s more fun to describe than to sit through. (Which is why I’ve lavished so much space on the plot synopsis.) Another is that Niccol’s direction of his cast is spotty at best. Timberlake has the steely visage and stubbled cheeks for a rogue hero, but Seyfried, always a watchable presence, has trouble connecting with Sylvia’s inner rebellious streak or, for that matter, lending urgency to her line readings. The film’s crucial failing, though, is that Niccol’s imagination is vigorously literary but not thrillingly cinematic. The movie exhausts its capital about halfway through—devolving, as the Timekeeper tracks the lovers on the run, into a series of car chases and foot races, none of them very spiffily executed. If you’re like me, you will be captivated by the first hour and, after that, impatiently checking your watch.

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