In a dystopic society where the wealthy live forever and the working-class are faced with a day-to-day struggle to survive, currency is not money, it's time. Want to use a pay phone? That'll be an hour of your life. Want to eat at a fancy restaurant? That costs eight and a half weeks. Want to pass through the time booth that separates the downtrodden district from the presumably untouchable upper class? Well, that'll be a whole year. Even if the rest of it had been a wash, "In Time" would still have a socko, attention-clenching premise, the kind of uncannily ingenious idea that one would expect to have been taken from a Philip K. Dick or Ray Bradbury novella. Instead, believe it or not, the film is an original work, written and directed by Andrew Niccol (2005's "Lord of War
") in an era where creative output is frowned upon in Hollywood. Maybe some of the rough edges and unexplained questions in the script would have been filled in were there preexisting source material to adapt from, but Niccol ought to still be commended for building an entirely makeshift sci-fi universe that reimagines a human being's very way of life while drawing provocative parallels with our real world and the common fight to live.
On an earth where people stop physically aging at twenty-five and must earn the privilege to go on livingthe seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years are counted down like a ticking time bomb ingrained on the side of their armWill Salas (Justin Timberlake) is currently three years past his original expiration date while mother Rachel (Olivia Wilde) has just celebrated her fiftieth birthday. Struggling to make ends meet at blue-collar jobs that aren't paying as much as they used to, Will has a chance meeting one evening with a depressed guy (Matt Bomer) at a bar that drastically alters the course of his life. With luck comes tragedy, unfortunately, and so it goes that on the day Will awakes to discover this man, Henry Hamilton, has transferred over to him the one hundred-plus years he has racked up, Rachel is left stranded without transportation and is killed instantly before Will can share his time with her.
Angered at the hypocritical hierarchy that comes with the rich gaining more power and the poor never making enough headway to be comfortable, Will travels to the upscale New Greenwich neighborhood with vengeance on his mind. In a place where residents have so much time they might as well be immortal, 27-year-old Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), kin to the illustrious Weis dynasty headed up by her father, Philippe (Vincent Kartheiser), has grown disenfranchised with the suffocating stronghold her family has on her and the lack of freedom that comes with it. It takes her own kidnapping, however, for her to realize what she's been missing. With Will using Sylvia first as collateral before they both have their time stripped from them, the two are knocked back to square one. For Will, this is nothing new, but Sylvia, stricken by the threat of doom for the first time, feels like she's been born anew. On the run from the in-pursuit Timekeepers led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), Will and Sylvia begin a radical but long overdue plot to topple the status quo.
The more the viewer ponders upon "In Time," the more it speaks for itself as an unforced but oh-so-accurate metaphor for modern times and life in general. From the differing class systems, to the coddling of the top one percent while those in genuine need get no help, to the fear of death and the coming-to-terms of one's fragile mortality, writer-director Andrew Niccol finds core commonalities that connect his genetically engineered characters with all of us watching. As a major studio-released feature, the film has more on its mind than just its gorgeous cast, its layers deepening with each new glance. Niccol does an impressive job setting up his rule book while dropping the viewer in the middle of this new science-fiction realm where things don't look much different from the way things truly are until the viewer peers closer and the details emerge.
It might be possible to forget about the characters and central plot and concentrate solely on their fascinating surroundings and day-to-day lives, so intriguing is the film on this level. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of unanswered elements that could haveand probably should havebeen explored. Are there such things as diseases or fatal accidents? Since this story only takes place in the greater Los Angeles area, what is the rest of the planet like? Is there a government, or a President? Is there religion at all or a presumption of an afterlife, or does a person's death equate to a machine shutting down? None of this is divulged. Also noticeably lacking in chemistry and development is the romance between Will and Sylvia. This tale, which is all about savoring and making good use of the time a person has left, demands an urgent, devastating love story to thematically and rhythmically compliment it. What Niccol has created instead is a relationship that feels more obligatory and by-the-numbers, the two protagonists not getting together because it can be sensed that they're soul mates, but because the script demands that they do.
Justin Timberlake (2011's "Friends with Benefits
") and Amanda Seyfried (2011's "Red Riding Hood
") may not be a match made in heaven together, but separately there is nothing to fault them on. Seyfried, decked out in a face-framing brunette bob that recalls one of Godard's muses, looks stunning and does all that she can with the underwritten Sylvia, getting her first taste of living as she edges closer to dying. For Timberlake, his sympathetic turn as Will makes good on the promise of his sterling work in 2010's "The Social Network
" after more recently stumbling into blandness with "Friends with Benefits
." Timberlake holds the screen well and is altogether softer and more ingratiating here than he usually is on film. Supporting actors are memorable all around. Cillian Murphy (2010's "Inception
") brings a shade of worn-down weariness to Timekeeper Raymond that matches his looks of a 34-year-old who is supposed to have been twenty-five for many decades longer than that. Olivia Wilde (2011's "The Change-Up
") has marginal screen time, but outlasts her exit as Will's ill-fated mother Rachel, a scene where she is left stranded outside the city and tries to find safety before her last minutes run out absolutely chilling. Vincent Kartheiser (2007's "Alpha Dog
") is indelibly wicked as Sylvia's overlord of a father Philippe, his youthful, almost angelic face standing at odds with his much older, more destructive interior. Shock of shocks, even Alex Pettyfer (2011's "Beastly
"), who never saw a part he couldn't turn into the equivalent of a block of wood, is well-cast as the psychotic Minuteman Fortis, taking pleasure in sucking the last seconds from a person's life. Perhaps Pettyfer works because the character he's playing is so stoic and cold; whatever the case, it's a fitting part for him.
"In Time" imagines a place like our own, but alarmingly bleaker. Most humans have no way of knowing when their last day alive will be, and that constantly invisible clock ticking away is the kick many people need to make their mark on the world. If a person knew that they had hundreds or thousands of years leftand there would be more where that came fromthen there would be no particular drive for them to do anything at all. With procrastination becoming widespread, art, like the rest of the special qualities of life, would be replaced by terminal complacency. It's an intriguing thought, just one more angle from which to view a film that is smarter in the messages and queries it grapples with than in its specific plot progression. In the latter respect, "In Time" can never quite measure up to what writer-director Andrew Niccol is going for, its momentum flagging by the third act and the passion of its leads never getting into proper gear. In other words, the destination is of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. Getting-there, thoughnow that's novel.