Justin Timberlake's "people with stopwatches on their forearms" sci-fi opus In Time didn't make a positive impression on moviegoers when it was released in Fall 2011, which is too bad. While the film strains credibility, this sprightly popcorn flick is a thoughtfully made romp with themes that make it of a piece with Gattaca (1997), another film from the un-prolific director and screenwriter Andrew Niccol. For those keeping score, 2002's S1m0ne and 2005's Lord of War make up Niccol's other directing credits.
In Time imagines a near-off future in which time itself replaces cash as the currency by which people survive. Citizens of the Los Angeles-like metropolis in the film are able to stop physically aging once they reach the age of 25 due to genetic advancements, but that's also when the digital clocks on their arms kick in with a stopwatch counting down a year's time. When the clock reaches zero, they instantly die. How much time a person has left depends on their station in society. Residents of the ghetto-like Dayton are on constant alert, slaving away in factories and constantly in danger of "timing out" either through poverty or roving gangs of time stealers. This isn't too much of a problem in the gleaming, strictly secured city of New Greenwich, where the generally middle-aged and up populace relaxes in opulent surroundings.
The film follow's Timberlake's character, Will Salas, as he ekes out a living in the ghetto where he lives in a dingy apartment with his MILF-y mom, Rachel (Olivia Wilde). Will works in the local factory with his best friend, Borel (Johnny Galecki). One night in a dive bar, the two meet a guy named Henry (Matt Bomer) with more than 100 years on his forearm. The drunk, overly generous man is flaunting his wealth, which the two men warn will bring him trouble. Soon enough, a roving gang of middle-aged men called the Minutemen have crashed the bar and set their sights on Henry. The lead Minuteman, Fortis (Alex Pettyfer), taunts Henry and starts to attack him. Will grabs Henry and, Minutemen in pursuit, takes him to an abandoned building where they elude Fortis' gang of thugs. While Will is asleep, Henry transfers his century-plus worth of time onto Will by joining their wrists together in a Wonder Twins-esque manner. With minutes left on his clock, Henry walks to the nearest bridge to commit suicide. Althought Will wakes up in time to attempt to stop Henry, he doesn't make it in time. Furthermore, his actions are caught on Dayton's many security cameras - making him a theft suspect with the local police force, the Timekeepers.
Now a fugitive, Will decides to lay low while in pursuit by a veteran Timekeeper, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy). He gifts his buddy Borel with 10 years time, but a tragic episode with his mother strengthens his resolve to use the remaining time for the good of all Daytonites - even if he has to break the law to do so. He gains access to New Greenwich, enjoys a fine meal, and buys a sportscar. At the city's high-rolling casino, he meets Phillippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), an older, über-wealthy tycoon, and his attractive daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Weis, impressed with Will's risk-taking behavior at the card tables, invites him to a swanky party at his estate. The party is barely under way when Leon and his men (who had been tracking Will's movements) move in on Will to arrest him and sap him of his decades. Although much of his time was taken, Will manages to break free and avoid arrest by taking Sylvia hostage and fleeing New Greenwich. Sylvia is at first frightened, but Will gets to her and she is transformed from timid hostage to a 22nd century Patty Hearst in record-breaking time. Will and Sylvia set a plan to stage armed robberies of the various Time Banks controlled by Weiss and his rich bretheren, stealing time cartridges and distributing them to Dayton's most needy. But will Leon and the Timekeepers capture them before their ambitious plan can be implemented?
In Time benefits from a great concept that somehow marries Occupy Wall St. class warfare with Hollywood's (and America's) obsession with youth. How well is it executed? Well, let's just say the film is skillfully enough made to slightly overcome the many problems it has with basic logic. The biggest hurdle the film has lies in accepting how easy it is to exchange time in this society. When Timberlake's character transmits some of his minutes to another person (a little girl in the neighborhood) for the first time, thoughts of "Huh? Really?" might be the most immediate response. Later on, we find that time can even be added or subtracted from someone in their sleep, which made me wonder why Dayton isn't a teeming mass of murder and mayhem. By that logic, even the orderly confines of New Greenwich are a stretch to believe. It isn't a deal-breaker, however - the story and quietly compelling environment that Niccol sets up here are strong enough to make up for its (many) logical shortcomings.
Another area that drew a lot of criticism for this film came in the form of Justin Timberlake. Timberlake has proven himself an able actor in smaller roles like in The Social Network, but In Time demonstrates that he isn't quite ready for leading man action roles. He errs on the side of less showy here, which results in a disappointingly bland performance. There was also lots of flack for his lack of chemistry with Seyfried, but that's not too much of an issue here (it's not really a love story so much as a "different people thrust into a wild adventure" thing). Seyfried, done up as a dead ringer for Anna Karina in Alphaville, navigates her character's quick change adeptly, and Cillian Murphy has a satisfying turn as the crusading Raymond Leon. Vincent Kartheiser was okay, despite his character being awfully similar to his smarmy Pete from Mad Men. Probably the most disappointing feature, casting-wise, is that Timberlake, Wilde, Pettyfer and even the dress extras seem too normal for the supposedly anarchistic ghetto they live in.
Despite all its flaws, In Time captured my interest throughout its running time. The world that Niccol and the crew created for this film is low-key (basically shot in and around L.A.) and not too overly reliant on computer-generated effects (just the time pieces and a few simulated screens were the only CGI I noticed), which is somewhat refreshing. There's also just enough cheeky humor and visual cues to earlier eras (chunky '70s cars, Seyfried's wardrobe) to keep it lively and watchable - no pun intended.
Video and Audio:
Fox's DVD of In Time was a pre-release screener disc that may not reflect the audio and video on the retail version. Per DVD Talk policy, this review will be updated should that edition be available to us.
About 12 minutes' worth of Deleted/Extended Scenes of varying degrees of effectiveness make up the bulk of this disc's bonus materials. A Theatrical Trailer and Sneak Peeks of a handful of Fox sci-fi titles round out the extras.
Riddled with lapses in logic and miscast actors, In Time might be a good candidate for the "What were they thinking?" Hall of Fame - but the end result is an unexpectedly engaging bit of Sci-Fi with soul. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.