In Time is set in a future California of indeterminate period. A dystopian fable, the film posits a world were everyone is genetically engineered to stop ageing at 25. Once a person reaches their 25th birthday, they get one more year to live live; a digital readout on the forearm begins to count down, and when it reaches zero, it’s lights out. The currency in this world is time – minutes, hours, years, decades, even centuries can be earned, stolen or won and added to the biological clock.
Theoretically, this means a person can be immortal; in actuality, it has led to a system where a small proportion of people hold most of the time, and a vast underclass lives a day to day existence desperately trying to add enough time to make it to the next morning. This is complicated by several factors – the cost of living is constantly increasing, and gangsters known as Minutemen pray on the weak, stealing their time. Class divisions separate the poor from the wealthy into different “time zones”. The world has a quasi fascist police force known as the Time Keepers maintaining order and investigating any unsanctioned movements of time from one zone to another.
In this world Will Salas (Timberlake) lives with his mother Rachel (Wilde, an actress actually younger than Timberlake). They are dirt poor, deep in debt to the time bank. At a bar after a punishing day in his menial job, Will meets Henry, a rich man (Bomer) slumming it in a time zone beneath his class. He’s flashing a lot of time around, buying drinks for everyone and attracting the wrong sort of attention. Will helps him escape from the local Minuteman leader Fortis (Pettyfer, atrocious).
Henry explains that he is more than a century old, and is tired of life. “We want to die,” he tells Will as they hide from the gangsters. When Will is sleeping Henry transfers his time to him, effectively committing suicide. Soon Will is on the run, pursued with single-minded determination by Time Keeper Raymond Leon (Murphy) who believes he may have stolen the wealth he has been given. Will is is not only running from the Time Keepers, but also the Minutemen who want his new wealth. His flight takes him into the most high rent of time zones, where he becomes embroiled with the Weis family who run the zone’s Time Bank. In particular the daughter of the family, Sylvia (Seyfried).
In Time is a throwback to the kind of science fiction popular in the the US in the 60s and 70s. There is no real attempt to give the film’s high concept any convincing scientific background, but that’s clearly not the point. This is a what-if story in the mould of The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits, intended as a fable. The economy of this future world is an extreme metaphor for our current economic crisis and in particular the growing inequality between the top 1% who control the wealth and the vast majority who chase it. The film’s focus on youth, and the black-clad Time Keepers hunting Salas, also echoes another piece of pre Star Wars science fiction, Logan’s Run. There are also parallels with the short story Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick Tock Man by Harlan Ellison – enough that the writer has instigated a lawsuit against the production. Writer-director Niccol has worked in sci-fi before, most notably with Gattaca, so it is unlikely the references are unknown to him
It is very easy to scoff at this film and proclaim the premise as foolish. The cynical might note that the genetic tampering that keeps the cast young, also seems to have had a side effect of making everyone really, really good looking. The film lays on the various puns on time a little too thick verging on groan inducing on occasion. And then there is the time fighting concept, something to which various characters refer, and which becomes a crucial plot point. Unfortunately this temporal combat turns out to be a kind of arm wrestling that is both undramatic and never clearly explained. This turns what should be a crucial set-piece into a dull scene of two people staring at each other whilst shaking hands in a manly way. Not exactly bullet-time.
Despite this, there is much to enjoy in here. Timberlake proves he has the chops to carry a lead role. The former pop star mixes cool with desperation, and like everything else on display is very easy on the eye. Murphy brings steely determination to his role as antagonist, investing the character with a degree of complexity and moral ambiguity where other actors might have played Time Keeper Leon as a straight-up villain. Seyfried may spend the whole movie looking like she is about to head out to a Skin Two party but this a film with a reasonable gender balance when it comes attractive leads.
Production design is outstanding. Rather than create a CG future, director Niccol creates a sparse and unfamiliar cityscape through the carefully chosen Los Angeles locations. The set dressing is retrofitted with a cool 60s feel. The Time Keeper’s drive slightly modified Dodge Chargers, and the rich are chauffeured around in Lincoln Continental limos. Not one costume or piece of furniture does not look like it has been hand chosen for the scene. The film looks gorgeous as only a film shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins can. Deakins is a visual artist who has worked extensively with the Coen brothers. Here he creates a world of concrete, chrome and metallic blacks, but bathes it in rich Californian sun. Finally there is a very nice classy soundtrack by composer Craig Armstrong. This might be a dystopia, but it is a seductive one.
Alas, like many high concept sci-fi films, In Time has difficulty maintaining its convoluted narrative over feature length. The narrative is often unnecessarily opaque, and some of the more interesting plot points are not explored. There is a backstory hinted at involving Salas’ father and Time Keeper Leon but it frustratingly evaporates in the Californian sun. Most damagingly for a film in which most of its characters spend a lot of time looking at watches, the deep mid point sag will have many in the audience audience doing the same.
This is not going to be a film for everyone, and it most certainly is not The Matrix, however if you enjoyed Gattaca it is worth a look.