You know how some science fiction movies drop you into a future without explaining how you’ve come to strange newness and you need to do your own work to catch up? In Time is not that. In fact, it’s a movie that seems as baffled by its start as you might be, and owns up right away, in narration by Will (Justin Timberlake): “I don’t have time to worry about how it happened,” he says, “It is what it is.”
Yes, it is. And the gist of “it” is this: in the future, everyone is genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, but also, everyone will also die by 26, except those who can buy themselves more time. The ostensible twist is that time is the “new currency,” marked on people’s arms by light-up tickers: poor people who are past 26 live in the Ghetto and get by on a day at a time. Rich people live in New Greenwich, 12 heavily policed time zones away, where they hoard their time—decades, centuries, even millions of years stored away in vaults or on the arm-zapping devices that Will and the other workers spend their hours making in a factory.
Will, who has recently turned 26, is primally aware of his limits, and also those of his mother, Rachel (Olivia Wilde). As she heads off to work extra shifts, they both know that her minutes are close to done and he’ll have to show up at her bus stop at exactly the right time with extra time, which they trade off like movie vampires, touching arms and watching their numbers tick off and on. It’s a vividly visual accounting of means and consumption, certainly less subtle than the similar scenario offered in director Andrew Niccols’ memorable Gattica. Here anxiety over running out of time is palpable and referenced repeatedly (a drinking game in the making), not least by Will, who says more than a few times that he doesn’t “have time for”—a girlfriend, a night out with his coworker (Johnny Galecki), or to save the life of Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), a rich guy plainly looking for trouble in a skeevy bar.
That’s not to say Will quite understands the world in which he lives: like a 99 Percenter in the making, he’s stunned to hear from Henry that—oh my god!—the system is rigged. In fact there’s plenty of time to go around, and that the jacking up of prices each month, even each day, is a means to make sure that poor people die and so, rich people can have everything. This dawning for Will is multifold: Henry bequeaths on him his century of life left (and then dies himself), but still, Will doesn’t make it in time to meet his mom. Seeking revenge, Will heads off to New Greenwich, where this Clyde-to-be finds his Bonnie, here named Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), prone to preposterously stylish outfits and heels—in which she is instantly proficient in running, though she early on, by way of identifying her suitor’s origins, notes that only people from the Ghetto run. Sylvia is conveniently mad at her dad, the super-wealthy and super-controlling Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), and so she’s ready to take a risk with the interloper.
Before they run off to steal time and distribute it among the masses (and this will be the rest of he plot, Will’s ascension to cult hero-dom), Phillipe makes the film’s most alarming observation, that as Will scopes out Sylvia at first, it’s utterly unclear whether she’s Phillipe’s wife, mother, or daughter, the times being so confusing. It neatly captures the ways that time and money work together today, that youth—however the appearance is achieved—signifies money and probably power, that pursuit of that appearance and the stocking up of money as a kind of time are now how people define themselves.
Still, the critique is both timely and out of date, as the movie can’t quite avoid the ancient clichés that ordain and frame Will’s quest, or the exceedingly banal movie clichés, including a time-stealing villain (Alex Pettyfer), whose pursuit of Will makes his time seem even shorter (though the movie still feels long); a time cop, Leon (Cillian Murphy), who also doesn’t get how the system works to oppress him; and a big-eyed street child, Maya (Shyloh Oostwald), whose affection for Will from jump makes him worthy of all our love. Generic to the utmost, they underline the film’s ongoing dilemma. For all its efforts to show a future state, In Time feels old from the moment it starts.