It's refreshing to see a low-tech major studio science fiction film in this day and age, one in which the only physical manifestation of its futuristic setting is a glowing digital clock emblazened on everyone's lower arm that offers a running tally on how much time they've got to live. As novel and absorbing as "In Time" is in several respects, however, Andrew Niccol's latest conception of an altered but still recognizable future feels undernourished in other ways that are not as salutary, preventing the film from fulfilling its strong inherent promise. The imperiled-lovers-on-the-run action format with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried heading an insanely attractive cast should produce decent mid-range box office totals.
In fact, it is hard to think of another film with such a uniformly striking lineup of actors; when, in the opening minutes, you have to adjust to the fact that Olivia Wilde is playing Timberlake's mother, you know the casting is skewed in a very particular direction, one dictated by the story's very premise: At this unspecified moment in what sure looks like, but is not identified as, Los Angeles, the aging process stops at 25. Giving new currency to the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Time is money” has literally become the motto of the society. Rather than striving for financial gain, personal ambition is directed entirely at acquiring more time; the “rich” have stored up thousands, even millions of years, while the poor work, borrow or steal to get enough just to make it to tomorrow. But when your arm clock ticks down to zero, you're a goner.
The specifics of this are inevitably intriguing; a phone call costs you a minute of your life, breakfast in a fancy restaurant runs eight-and-a-half weeks. You can trade time with others just by locking arms but can be robbed the same way. At the outset, ghetto-dwelling Will Salas (Timberlake) is the inadvertent beneficiary of this exchange system. Popping into a bar where the clientele look like models for a mixed photo shoot for Maxim and GQ, Will is eventually bestowed with 100 years by a world-weary 105-year-old (Matt Bomer) who sums up the societal inequity of the system by observing that, “For a few to be immortal, many must die.”
Devastated at his inability to save his mother with his newfound riches, fueled by the old man's weighty parting admonition — “Don't waste my time” — and concerned that having so much time on his arm has made him a marked man, Will escapes from so-called Dayton (downtown L.A. by the concrete river) and makes his way to New Greenwich (Century City to the rest of us), where he shortly ends up in a casino playing for time opposite Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), whose holdings can only be measured in eons; so completely is time on the side of the wealthy that they have truly become the idle rich. Will also eyes Weis' daughter Sylvia (Seyfried), a spoiled girl constantly surrounded by bodyguards who just might possess a hitherto unstirred rebellious streak.
Before long, Niccol morphs "In Time" into a yarn that borrows liberally from "Robin Hood" and "Bonnie and Clyde" as Will and Sylvia race around determined to steal from the rich and give to the poor. They are pursued not only by “timekeeper” cop Leon (Cillian Murphy), who's spent years enforcing the system while, pointedly, staying alive only on a per diem, but by the menacing “Minute Men” — or, in another filmmaker's phrase, time bandits —thieves led by a wacko (Alex Pettyfer) who enjoys draining his victims of their last remaining seconds.
The film's themes presciently merge with the “haves/have-nots” disparities behind the current Wall Street occupation and related protests, and the desperate couple-against-the-world set-up has an enduring appeal. Unfortunately, as the film moves along, its brisk pace notwithstanding, too many issues come to weigh against it. As cleverly conceived as it is, the time-for-money substitution leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Other than for Leon and a few flunkies, there are no authority figures visible or alluded to. Who runs the country, the city? Is the rest of the world like this? How did the aging process get halted? Given so remarkable an achievement, why are there no other comparable technological advances? Why are all the cars customized early 1960s Lincoln Continentals, Jags and Cadillacs?
Speaking of the 1960s, one of the film's most arresting touches it to give Seyfried face-framing hair that's straight Anna Karina/Brigitte Bardot/Elsa Martinelli circa 1963. It's a great look for Seyfried, who gets to pout a lot early on before joining forces with the boy from the other side of town. All the same, the couple doesn't generate much heat, which speaks to a greater shortcoming: As it centers on lovers who throw all caution to the wind to live intensely for a time on behalf of a cause greater than themselves, the story desperately needed to be told with urgency in a free-wheeling, vital, lyrical style with a fatalistic overlay, something achieved in films such as"Bonnie and Clyde," "Pierrot le fou" and "Thelma and Louise," for starters. Niccol's approach is too grounded and prosaic for such a spirit to take hold either with the camera or the actors, who run a lot but never together in a way that conveys their resolute connection. A more exalted, even delirious musical score would also have raised the stakes.
Timberlake capably carries the film but a glint of true rebelliousness, of a slightly unhinged element in his character's makeup, could have nudged the performance to another level. Seyfried, too, would have benefited from being further pushed. That everyone looks terrific is part of the point, but Murphy is able to provide a welcome suggestion that his character has seen it all and is wearing down, while Kartheiser's baby-faced visage and amused smile supply an extra layer of delight.
Working within the tight conceptual frame, ace cinematographer Roger Deakins enhances the real Los Angeles locations (including the CAA office building, which serves as Kartheiser's headquarters) as well as the creations of production designer Alex McDowell and costume designer Colleen Atwood.