Movies take so long to produce, edit, market, and release that often a year can go by between shooting and when it rolls into theaters. As a result, cinema tends to be the least “of the moment” of all popular arts. However, Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi thriller In Time has been blessed with seemingly perfect timing, since it’s being released as the Occupy Wall Street movement gains momentum.
Justin Timberlake stars as Will Salas, a 28-year-old living in a world in which time, not money, is the world currency. Here’s how it works: Human genetic engineering has been perfected so that, as long as you don’t suffer a fatal accident, you will live forever and never show any signs of aging after your 25th birthday. Everyone is guaranteed that first quarter century, but at that point you have one year to live – your remaining time in years, months, days, and seconds appears as a glowing readout on your forearm – unless you earn more time through either legal or illegal means. The flip side of this is that every commodity you can imagine -- food, alcohol, rent, sex -- costs you time you’ve saved up. You want coffee? Four minutes, please, and that doesn’t even include the minute you might want to put in the tip jar.
Salas lives with his mother (Olivia Wilde) in a ghetto “time zone,” where manual laborers literally live day-to-day. One night he’s at a bar and saves a man with over a century on his arm from local tough guys. They escape, but this suicidal man decides to give Salas all but a couple minutes of his time, and then sits on a bridge waiting to “zero out.” The suicide is caught on surveillance videos, and now authorities, led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), believe Salas killed the man and stole his time.
With nowhere to turn to, but with finances he never dreamed of at his disposal, Salas travels to the nicest of the time zones, where he makes the acquaintance of a time banker (Vincent Kartheiser) and falls for his spoiled daughter (Amanda Seyfried). Eventually, Salas tries to redistribute the time these people have stored so that those who live in the ghetto have more than just enough to survive.
This is a brilliant setup. Sadly, Niccol has more ideas than he does story. This would have been an ideal Twilight Zone episode, but Niccol stretches out the film with so many chases that eventually we start checking our watches and wondering how much longer the movie has to live. Part of the problem is Justin Timberlake, who, though not a bad actor, doesn’t have the charisma or the chops to portray an everyman action hero. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could pass for 25 and actually has the skills to pull this role off, but Timberlake is done in by lazy plotting and a more-appealing co-star -- Seyfried’s character is far more interesting, and she gets better one-liners than he does.
Like all of Niccol’s films, In Time does have a distinctive look. He’s fond of thin actors with prominent cheekbones and large eyes -- he might have grown Wilde, Seyfried, and Murphy in a lab just to be able to use them in his movies -- and his favorite visual scheme is to show a small number of people surrounded by a vast, unpopulated space; In Time contains one of the roomiest ghettos you’ll ever see.
This style, and the film’s uncanny topicality about the dangers of unchecked capitalism, keep In Time interesting for much longer than it deserves, but it goes on too long, eventually turning into a tired Bonnie and Clyde retread that betrays how silly it all is. The character who gives Salas all that time before killing himself says that we aren’t meant to live forever. In Time wasn’t meant to be 109 minutes long.