It may not be Gattaca, but In Time has enough verve to make it one of the more interesting sci-fi films of 2011.
Think of a world in which the poor die needlessly on a daily basis, fighting for every penny as prices rise steeply and the cost of living becomes an intolerable burden. While they work for a pittance, the super-rich splash their cash on luxury items, enjoying the fruits of money they didn’t earn. Misunderstanding between these groups fuels hate and fear, and any attempt at protest is violently suppressed. The system has been in place for so long that no lasting challenge to its crushing grip is ever made. Just another day on planet Earth, you might think – but In Time isn’t a documentary, surprisingly enough. This odd, intriguing film sinks into blockbuster cliché a little too often to achieve all it sets out to do, but has just enough panache to hold the viewer’s patience and provoke a fair bit of thought.
Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is one of the 99%...of people who fall foul of the bizarre system in which rich and poor alike cease ageing at 25, their ageing gene having somehow been deactivated. The remaining span of time allotted to them is branded on their consciousness by a livid digital clock implanted under the skin where a wristwatch should be. The only difference is that the wealthy can afford to buy more time, and effectively live forever. The poor have a grace year in which to accumulate more cash to live, after which they are condemned to a terrifying hand-to-mouth race to survive at almost any cost. Honourable to a fault, Salas defends a rich, elderly man (who looks all of...well, 25) from time-stealing gangsters, and is rewarded by two valuable things. One is the knowledge of the murderous conspiracy that drives the sick society he lives in, and the other is a gift of one hundred years of life, downloaded to his body as he sleeps by the grateful millionaire. Welcome though the extra years are, the information will prove to be the real treasure in Salas’s haul.
The only problem is that the old man has decided to end his empty life, and his subsequent suicide – plus the appearance of a despairing Salas in the security video – alerts the suspicions of Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy). Leon has a rather fantastic black coat and an attitude of moody, jaded contempt, which befit his job title of ‘blade runner’...sorry, ‘time keeper’. After the death of Salas’s mother, snuffed out in an instant when her time runs out thanks to the ever-rising cost of living, the bereft young man decides to use his new-found wealth to take his oppressors for all they’re worth. His attempts to infiltrate the leisure zone of the rich and powerful stall dramatically when obsessive timecop Leon catches up with him, but when – inevitably – Salas goes on the run, he does at least have the glamorous daughter of privilege, Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) as his companion/kidnap victim. Yep, this is high-concept sci-fi as political and social allegory, and it’s not even quite as heavily in debt to Logan’s Run as the premise might make it sound.
In Time is a curious film, hindered by some lame dialogue and the lack of real chemistry between Timberlake and Seyfried, whose romance screams ‘plot device’ right from the first shots of them exchanging smouldering glances at a swanky party. Strip away the popcorn contrivances, though, and you’re left with a strong central conceit, satisfyingly explored. The film has attracted some criticism for failing to explain exactly why anybody would have created this ludicrous, time-fixated society. As Salas tells us in the opening voiceover, however, this is just the way things are, take it or leave it. Apathy and passive acceptance of one’s fate are the norm here.
The film is worth a viewing purely for some clever little touches that briefly lend it the feel of classic sci-fi. Salas finds it hard to break the habits of a lifetime when he enters the zone inhabited by the wealthy, continuing to run everywhere in a bid to save time. Those born rich can afford to saunter. It’s a witty visual contrast that says more about this unequal mess of a society than a thousand words could. In Time also succeeds in its sympathetic depiction of the pitfalls of such an environment for all concerned, from highest to lowest. The various members of the Weis family struggle with ennui, hopelessness and an acute sense of the meaningless nature of their existence: first world problems, perhaps, but indicative of the damaging effects of too much wealth, power and time. The frozen ages of the whole cast, all stuck in their mid-twenties, are good for a laugh, with Salas touchingly unsure at first whether his intended squeeze really is the daughter of cold-hearted tycoon Philippe Weis, or if she's actually the rich man’s wife or mother.
What to make of Timberlake’s first foray into science fiction? Well, Mr JT proves that his acclaimed turn in The Social Network was no fluke. He isn’t given a great deal to do, but he sells his big emotional scenes. Seyfried is appealing, but sadly has the lion’s share of clichéd dialogue. Vincent Kartheiser brings a superbly creepy air to his role as her father; the look of polite revulsion on his face when he contemplates the triumph of his social inferiors is truly chilling. Perhaps most interesting of all here is Murphy as Leon. His laconic lawman is the one character who sheds the most light on the conflicting thought processes and desires keeping this crazed world turning. Nothing can really sway him from his role as the keeper of the rigid laws underpinning the time-obsessed system. He came out of the gutter himself and clawed his way to some semblance of a life by believing that this society works, and he will defend it to the death, regardless of the occasional pangs of conscience that register on his face.
It’s this kind of subtle shading that allows In Time to circumvent some of its limitations and push the sci-fi envelope in new and unexpected ways. As for topicality, this movie comes not a minute too late. It’s not quite Gattaca, but Andrew Niccol's film deserves credit for doing exactly what sci-fi should: reflecting our world back at us through a funhouse mirror, and letting us see it in all its true grotesqueness.