“In Time” proposes an intriguing idea – a society that uses time as currency. In the film, once a person reaches the age of 25, they stop aging and are given one year to live. An internal clock appears in the form of a digital readout embedded in one’s wrist and once it’s activated, attaining more time is essential to survival. People can inherit time, earn it, spend it and in some cases steal it. The rich can theoretically live forever, and the poor literally live minute-to-minute. If this sounds like a great premise for a film, that’s because it is. Unfortunately, “In Time” never lives up to its inspired premise and stands as an average film that had potential to be a lot more.
Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a poor factory worker who unwillingly finds himself in the possession of a wealth of time. A sum of time that large attracts the attention of the authorities, known as Timekeepers who pursue Will after he’s falsely accused of murder and forced to go on the run. Society is broken up into different “time zones” with the poorest being Dayton, where Will resides with his mother (Olivia Wilde). The richest zone is New Greenwich and it’s there that Will initially runs to without a real agenda or plan apart from avoiding capture.
Along the way, Will takes on an attractive hostage in Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the mega-wealthy Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Will and Sylvia inevitably team up to become the Bonnie and Clyde of time bandits, with the intent to change how the system operates by redistributing the wealth of time and balance the scales between rich and poor. The pair is pursued by a veteran Timekeeper named Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), whose job is literally to “keep time” by overseeing the balance of time distribution. There are obvious parallels in the film relating to real world financial collapses and society’s endless obsession with retaining the appearance of youth.
The age limitation imposed upon the characters limits casting options, so no actor in the film appears to be over the age of 25. As such, “In Time” is a Hollywood producer’s dream as every character in the film (regardless of age) is played by an attractive young actor. Justin Timberlake turns in a solid performance as Will and has earned the right to not have his lead role status questioned at this point in his acting career. Amanda Seyfried plays Will’s partner in time, and does an adequate job in portraying the often sterile Sylvia. At age 35, Cillian Murphy pushes the boundaries of the age gimmick as the relentless Timekeeper Leon, but gives a solid performance. For an otherwise generic antagonist, Leon has a fair amount of depth to him.
Aesthetically, the film has a distinctly bland look to it. The clothes, vehicles and locations all have an overall dullness to them that appears to be more of an issue with the film’s budget than a deliberate artistic choice. In fact, the entire film appears as if it was shot within a three mile radius in downtown Los Angeles. The same locations are used repeatedly for different scenes at different points within the film. Most notably, LA’s famous 4th Street Bridge (known for its art deco design and used for countless film and television productions) is utilized several times for various action and non-action sequences. Any benefit of using practical locations is greatly reduced when their overuse becomes a distraction.
Where the film works is with its initial premise of time as a currency. The concept itself is exploited well, often to an almost comedic effect. There is even a high stakes casino where patrons can gamble their time. As Will (Timberlake) sits down at a no-limit poker table, his opponent asks: “do you come from time?” There are a lot of clever plays on the word time like that throughout the film. Banks house metal devices containing time and prostitutes sell their bodies for time. There are also the previously mentioned time zones, Timekeepers and even minute men, a criminal gang who steal time from others.
Unfortunately, these elaborate concepts fall short of coming together as a smart and engaging film. The main characters in particular don’t appear to be very smart, which is not a knock on their intelligence, but speaks more to how they were written. They lack consistency in their value systems and how they operate. In fact the three lead characters all have moments where they betray their own character traits which were clearly established earlier in the film. Will (Timberlake) is established as a noble every man, but yet takes actions that go against that. His eventual partner, Sylvia (Seyfried) is a sheltered girl plucked from high society, but adapts to criminal behavior far too quickly. Leon (Murphy) is precise and calculated in his pursuit of Will throughout most of the film. However, there is a point where Leon makes an impulsive and foolish decision which is completely out of character and betrays what we’ve come to believe about how he operates.
The inconsistencies with the characters are difficult to ignore, but there are plot holes that are even more obvious. Most importantly, there is no explanation given for why this system of time is in place. How it was started, who created it and how it became genetically engineered are questions that are never addressed. There isn’t an explanation for where the film takes places either. Is it in the future or an alternate universe? There are also repeated mentions of Will’s father and hints are dropped throughout the film regarding his history. The audience is led to think those pieces might add up to something important, but nothing ever comes of it.
“In Time” is almost worth a recommendation based on premise alone. There are some well played scenarios and a handful of decent action set pieces. What it lacks is the elements that could have fleshed out that premise by including an enticing backstory, interesting characters with a clear and established agenda and a real reason to get invested in “In Time.”
As it stands, “In Time” does not hold up to intense scrutiny. While not a bad film by any stretch, it can’t be considered a very good one either. Audiences who can leave their analytical minds at the door might enjoy the film for what it is. Those who demand more of a complete film out of a sci-fi/thriller will likely leave disappointed. With a film that places so much emphasis on time, any potential filmgoer should ask a basic and fundamental question: Is this film really worth my time?