In Time hearkens back to an older era of science fiction, which helps it overcome some significant storytelling hurdles. Like director Andrew Niccol’s earlier film Gattaca, it spins a single concept into an entire universe, then invites us in to play. At times it stumbles over the particulars, particularly the ending where it doesn’t wrap things up so much as ramble to a stop. But it holds too many strong notions executed too well to let its shortcomings derail it.
Granted, the initial concept takes a fairly big gulp to swallow. In the future, everyone is born genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. From that moment, everyone has one year left to live; however, people can buy and sell more time, transferring it by gripping each other’s arms. It thus becomes the new currency, with coffee costing several minutes of life and vehicles costing dozens of years. It also gives rise to a new elite class, where the unspeakably wealthy can live forever and the poor survive with literally just a few hours to live at any given moment.
The allusions to class inequity are obvious, and anyone who’s ever lived paycheck to paycheck can empathize with the quiet desperation on display. With his basic idea established, Niccol follows it through to its logical ends. Members of the underclass often run to their destinations, for instance, while the rich live in silent fear of a violent crime or accidental death (the only thing that can end their existence). Parents look just as young as their children, making for a deliberately creepy vibe in a number of scenes, and the question of population control hovers ominously over a world where everyone can conceivably live forever.
It grants the universe some much-needed weight, aided by simple yet effective art direction that spins tasty stew out of a few measly oysters. Like Gattaca, the fashions are all retro noir, and a stripped-down Los Angeles makes a convincing future cityscape (with downtown serving as the ghetto and Century City the bastions of the rich and powerful). The shake-up arrives when a rich man, tired of his pointless existence, gives over a century of life to a young slum dweller named Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) before killing himself. Will soon becomes the subject of a murder investigation, and hides among the elites in an effort to clear his name (and inflict some damage on the system that holds so many people hostage). He finds a partner in crime with Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of privilege whose abduction triggers a Patty Hearst-style change of heart.
The narrative soon settles into a Bonnie and Clyde scenario, with the pair finding love on the run as criminals and fugitives. It provides the storyline with some mainstream energy and helps increase our rooting interest in the hero. Timberlake proves once again that he has a movie star’s presence, and can make a go of characters like this quite agreeably. The cast’s real stand-out, however, is Cillian Murphy: playing the policeman in search of the fugitive couple and making an otherwise stock figure innately fascinating.
The subtext attains a great deal of resonance in our current economic environment, though it’s perhaps more overtly Marxist than it should be. Will fights for “time equality” while acknowledging that his efforts might not make as much of a difference as he pretends. Here, In Time runs into its biggest difficulties as the particulars of the system become unduly vague and the subtler message grows too heavy-handed for its own good. The film also flounders when trying to wrap itself up, settling for contrived ticking-clock clichés when it really could have done something extraordinary. The backstory department does little better, with some nonsense added about Will’s father just to give him some connection to his persecutor.
Despite that, In Time still summons more than enough assets to make the liabilities tolerable. Its biggest strength is a willingness to use science fiction as a sounding board for ideas rather than an excuse to indulge in empty spectacle. It does a lot of thinking about its scenario and the way it reflects our reality. More importantly, it asks its audience to follow suit: not to distract us, but to engage our opinions about serious things. That’s worth sitting through a little narrative nonsense; in fact, it’s worth a hell of a lot more than the modest amounts In Time asks of us.