As a chase film, ‘Time’ lapses: Sci-fi story gives new meaning to phrase ‘your days are numbered’
For addicts of forearm close-ups, “In Time’’ is the most important movie of the year. Here the future is one in which time is the only currency that matters, and whenever people want to see how much they have left, sleeves are pushed back to reveal an electroluminescent digital clock. The movie is almost shallow enough to make rolling up a shirt sleeve the sexiest thing a man can do. Of course, there’s no explanation of when or how we turned into a race stamped with Timex Indiglo technology. But the movie tries to do for forearms what the loosely similar science-fiction romance “The Adjustment Bureau’’ attempted for men’s hats: make them chic.
Andrew Niccol wrote and directed this pitifully titled movie, and one hurdle he fails to clear involves the frustration of watching so many shots of rapidly elapsing days and hours. Eventually, we start wondering how long until the film kicks the bucket. That mounting exasperation produces other questions. For one thing: What’s this movie about? The opening narration is an example of the tautological banality Niccol is settling for: “It is what it is,’’ says our hero, a “ghetto kid’’ named Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), who finds himself caught up in a nominal chase thriller.
This movie tries to build a world that, like good science fiction, presumes to double as a dispatch from not-too-far-from-now and an allegory for how we currently live. At age 25, the physical aging process ceases, and life becomes a constant pursuit of rollover minutes. Failure results in a permanent service interruption. A cup of coffee costs time, the bus costs time, time costs time - you pay by placing your wrist in the cradle of a scanner. Having enough minutes to scrape by is a problem for the putative 99 percent of people. One-percenters’ forearms glow with enough centuries to live forever. One suicidal fellow (Matt Bomer) with too much time on his hands gives all his to Will by putting their wrists together. That transfer makes Will both a wanted murder suspect and wealthy enough to gain entry to New Greenwich, home of the rich and apparently soulless (most of the movie seems set in Los Angeles, but the fictional maps we see beg to differ).
New Greenwich affluence is embodied by an ancient time magnate inhabiting the youthful body of Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, who’s as slippery here as he is on “Mad Men’’). Will kidnaps Philippe’s flirtatious, pageboyed daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), who discovers she likes her kidnapper almost as much as she enjoys chenille and running in block heels. These two wind up on the lam in a plot sure to gladden supporters of Occupy Wall Street and annoy anyone who knows they could be watching “Bonnie and Clyde,’’ “Logan’s Run,’’ “Natural Born Killers,’’ “Inception,’’ “Patty Hearst,’’ or actual Occupy footage, instead.
Niccol fancies himself a filmmaker with something to say. He made the similarly slick, equally undercooked genetics thriller “Gattaca’’ and a Nicolas Cage action-rant about arms proliferation called “Lord of War,’’ his best film. He also wrote the on-camera satire “The Truman Show.’’ Niccol is smart and his movies are handsome and enticingly visual, but his thinking rarely goes deeper than what’s topical. He’s the intellectual equivalent of a stick-on tattoo. “In Time’’ verges on incisive dark comedy (we’ve become our devices), but Niccol feels compelled to meet market demands for wearisome Hollywood trends. For instance, Cillian Murphy plays a time cop chasing Will in leather dusters and boots borrowed from the “Matrix’’ collection. These might be the costume designer Colleen Atwood’s least imaginative clothes. New Greenwich appears to be where old Versace ads eat a lot of salad.
There’s no risk in Niccol’s ideas. Will lives in temporal poverty with a 50-year-old mother who’s played by 27-year-old Olivia Wilde. Weis makes a daughter-or-wife joke about Sylvia. But for all the references to Darwin’s greatest hits (“natural selection,’’ “survival of the fittest’’) and with so many sexy parents aged the same as their sexy children, it’s hard to believe that there’s no incest problem. Niccol has a few scenes of good banter between Timberlake and Seyfried, but he’s too self-serious to keep that up in a movie eager to stage generic foot and car chases. The movie exists, in part, to convey a tedious obsession with puns. To wit: “I’d say your money or your life, but your money is your life.’’
We also hear a lot of talk of the ghetto and of a conspiracy to keep the poor in poverty but it feels unrealized and not because Timberlake is the face of indigence (although there’s that) but because the movie’s metaphor never feels urgent. Where’s the real social danger. Where’s the hunger and the edge in these so-called ghettos? The movie seems afraid to use conspiracy theory to foment real rebellion. It’s an allegory for striving, hustling, desperation, and justice that looks like a fashion designer’s runway show. Are these people hungry because they’re poor or because they have a noon photo shoot? Niccol might have driven through some needy neighborhoods, but this movie suggests he’s never gotten out of his car.