Justin Timberlake stars as a man living day to day -- quite literally -- in this science-fiction story from Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War, S1mOne) that presents an alternative reality, where money has been replaced by time. Time is bartered and traded, leaving the rich with all the time in the world, and the poor working several jobs just to live another day. The social metaphor is in your face for the duration, and while it's obvious, it's got more subtlety than Timberlake's entire performance. Not even the usually strong Amanda Seyfried seems capable of delivering a note of genuine emotion in this rather cold dissection of the status quo.
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried and Alex Pettyfer
Rating: Two stars out of five
There are too many ways to put this movie down with a bon mot or a clever pun about wasted time, that it's not really worth the effort. Besides, there's more than enough social metaphor in Andrew Niccol's In Time to make the viewing worth your while.
That doesn't mean this science-fiction story set in the not-too-distant future is a success. The whole endeavour struggles for the duration, partly as a result of Justin Timberlake's limited skill set in the leading role, but mostly because Niccol can't complete the required circle of make-believe.
For a science-fiction story to be successful, we have to sink into every nook and cranny of the alternative reality. We have to live there, breathe there, and possibly risk life and limb to escape from there -- which is exactly what Timberlake's character is asked to do from the moment this movie leaves the starting blocks.
Will Salas (Timberlake) lives in the "ghetto" -- which anyone who's ever been to Los Angeles will recognize as the industrial areas surrounding the L.A. River. Will is stuck in the ghetto, because he doesn't have enough time to spend. He lives day to day -- literally.
You see, in this alternative reality, money has been replaced by time as the central means of exchanging goods and services. Everyone has been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, which opens up the possibility of immortality -- as long as you can buy the minutes and the hours.
Every human being comes into the world with 25 plus one year. However, because most parents have to borrow just to pay for their kids, that first year is usually all spent by the time they come of age and their clocks start ticking.
The resulting social map means the rich can store time in snappy little arm bracelets, ensuring they never have to run or rush anywhere, while the poor are constantly running and working just to live another day. Just buying a cup of coffee costs a minute of your life, and changing "time zones" will cost you over a year.
When we walk into this familiar universe, the rich have already stolen all the time in the world, leaving the poor to "clock out" with the life span of an insect.
When we first meet Will, he's showing us what a good guy he is: He helps his mother (Olivia Wilde) and his best friend (Johnny Galecki) by giving them time off his clock, but when the cost of living goes up -- even just a small percentage -- people can't keep up. They "clock out" in the middle of the street, while the rest of the world walks right on by. It's inhuman and debasing, but the rich have justified the inequity by telling themselves the poor have no inherent value: They are all lazy and stupid, anyway.
Will doesn't like the way the world works, but he can't change it -- at least that's what he thinks until a fateful meeting at the local watering hole. Some rich guy walks in with a century of time on his clock. He makes a big show of his fancy ticks, and suddenly, the local time thugs are on his back, looking to "clean his clock."
Will helps the century-man escape, but, as it turns out, the rich fellow was trying to find a way out. As a time billionaire, he'd lived so long, he grew tired of existing. He wanted to kill himself and figured he could share his time wealth on the way out.
He gives his century to Will, with only one request: "Don't waste my time."
When we see these words scrawled into the dusty warehouse window with a finger, we almost have to laugh. Everything in this movie is so obvious, and the social allegory so transparent, one has to wonder just which note of awakening Niccol was hoping to strike.
Is he going for broad strokes with an unmistakable nod to the disappearing middle class and the obscene concentration of wealth in the hands of the few? Or was he hoping for a finer-edged instrument that could make us appreciate the real things in life -- such as time with loved ones, good health, and the ability to live day to day without worrying about survival?
No doubt he wanted both, because he turns Will into a time revolutionary, committed to redistributing the wealth of hours among the masses.
The ideas are undeniably interesting, and somewhat prescient, especially as crowds continue to protest the corporate bonus culture that's whittled the middle class to a toothpick, but In Time does not work.
Niccol, whose previous credits include Gattaca, Lord of War and The Truman Show (as a writer), fails to contain the premise in a bottle. He fails to make time feel invaluable, because he leaves too many gaps in the weave.
The whole organization is never explained, nor is the mechanism by which this new economy of seconds evolved. Perhaps if Timberlake had been able to communicate some sense of urgency instead of boyish bravado -- with a slightly wooden quality -- he would have been a more empathetic marionette. But he is not a great actor, when you get right down to it. Even the highly talented Amanda Seyfried struggles in the part of the heiress with decades in a trust fund, as does the equally sharp Cillian Murphy, who takes on the role of "time keeper" -- the hard-nosed cop who keeps the time zones crisp.
Because the movie looks so good, and has such noble intentions as it strips away the veneer of Los Angeles to reveal a rather realistic picture of contemporary life, you want it to work.
Niccol was no doubt hoping we'd all leave the theatre with a new appreciation for time and our capacity to make a change, but when the premise feels silly, it's harder for it to sink in emotionally.
We need to experience the story on a human level to really feel the weight of the narrative, and this movie keeps us at arm's length by watching its own clock, and reinforcing metaphor when we really just needed to feel something in our hearts.
Still, it's an interesting piece of 21st-century fiction, but one that probably won't stand the test of those precious, ticking seconds.