Is it possible to give a film four stars for its premise and two stars for its execution? As an avid fan of wacked-out premises, this reviewer says yes. Sometimes a film’s concept is so rich in potential that it compensates — up to a point — for a cartoonish realization.
Writer-director Andrew Niccol has produced more than his share of clever premises over the years, in films such as The Truman Show (which he scripted), Gattaca and S1m0ne. He has two great flaws, though: an obsession with surface prettiness, and an intense literalism.
The first flaw guarantees that, even when Niccol is depicting the grossest social inequities, his futuristic worlds don’t feel particularly grubby or lived in. In Time gives free rein to his ad-man aesthetic by permitting him to work solely with actors who don’t look a day over 25.
That’s because their characters aren’t: Humanity has found a way to switch off the aging gene, replacing it with an internal clock that contains as many hours or years of life as a person can earn (or steal) on the free market. For the super-rich, immortality is real; for the 99 percent, time has literally become money. When they’re broke, they drop dead, conveniently removing a drain on society.
Justin Timberlake plays one of these peons, a factory worker named Will Salas who lives day to day — again, literally. From the first scene, it’s clear that Niccol is less interested in fleshing out his sci-fi conceit than in literalizing every conceivable metaphorical use of the word time. “Who has time for a girlfriend?” Timberlake laments, overemphasizing the key word, after his age-inappropriate mother (Olivia Wilde) nags him about giving her a grandchild. Think of any time-related figure of speech — “time-share,” “punching the clock,” “cleaning someone’s clock” — and you can be sure Niccol will make it a punch line or sight gag.
He should have put more of that ingenuity into his plot, which closely follows that of Gattaca. A rich man weary of living bestows an entire century on our have-not hero, who thus gains access to the world of the haves and meets an evil time magnate (Vincent Kartheiser) and his rebellious daughter (Amanda Seyfried). Fleeing the authorities, the heiress and the upstart become Robin Hood-style populist outlaws.
Like V for Vendetta, In Time had the potential to be explosively, well, timely. Striking the right political nerve is no easy task, but, failing that, Niccol could still have explored compelling questions about how human life might change if we removed aging (and, for some, death) from the equation.
Instead, the film’s cardboard characters and situations drain its own life force. Thanks to the cinematography of Roger Deakins, Timberlake and Seyfried look luminous in the film’s bleak industrial landscapes, yet they lack the urgency of characters who are (again, literally) running for their lives. Only Kartheiser and Cillian Murphy, as the time cop on Will’s trail, seem to relish their roles. If Philip K. Dick had written In Time, Murphy’s character — a middle-class flunkie enforcing the rules of an unjust system — might have been its reluctant antihero, and the film would have been considerably more interesting.
But then we wouldn’t have had Seyfried and Timberlake looking cute while robbing time banks, or Alex Pettyfer as a natty time mobster, or all those puns. No doubt there are in this world people for whom a day’s wage means a stark difference between life and death. But they’re probably not wasting their time on wordplay.