Logan’s Run meets Gattaca when Justin Timberlake meets Amanda Seyfried in a future where time is money.
In Niccol’s Gattaca, it was your DNA that really mattered. In Time shares a similar twist on reality. After the age of 25, your body clock starts the countdown to demise. If you’re poor, you may have less than a day (or even minutes) to live, depending on the fluorescent digital readout embedded in your forearm. You can add to that tally by working, borrowing and lending. You can also lose it by theft, normal ‘ageing’ and, in a counter-reality move, by running. In Time condenses the lurking fear of death into a great looking 109 minutes.
Previously titled Now and I’m.mortal, this deft science fiction tale stems from potent controversy. Did Harlan Ellison really come up with the idea first? (There’s plenty online about that and it seems Ellison is legally right.)
You can’t copyright an idea – but as ideas go, In Time’s is both visceral and cinematic. As one of its producers – the intelligent, sophisticated Eric Newman – said of Niccol’s script, “The biggest challenge in a movie like this is how do we sell the world? Andrew did it in the first three pages of the script. Will Salas (Timberlake) wakes up, walks into a room, and there is a beautiful 25-year-old woman and he says, “Hi, Mom.’ And he’s got this counter on his wrist, and it’s counting down. And his mother gives him 30 minutes for lunch. You understand immediately that Will has 22 hours to live [unless he can obtain more time]. And that’s his mother, even though they appear to be the same age.” Newman knows a good story when he sees one: The Thing, Children of Men, etc.
The setup is irresistible: time-poor (therefore life-poor) people struggle to make it in the ghetto called Dayton; a sign of love is to clasp forearms, giving or receiving time from each other’s fatal body clock. The only good thing about being poor is that you die looking good, but you still die – something the rich don’t do. Because absolutely everyone is young makes the whole film feels like a reification of Los Angeles’ mental picture of itself.
Timberlake plays Will, a man who, through a good deed, ends up with a century on his arm. Knowing about the exclusive rich zone in New Greenwich, he heads there – partially to avenge a family tragedy (Olivia Wilde’s few moments of frame fame) and partially to mess with the system. In New Greenwich, everyone has bodyguards. Hotel suites cost months of time – a fancy sportscar costs 50 years.
Will Salas’ life changes when he runs into beautiful rich girl Sylvia Wies (Amanda Seyfried) and her creepy father (played by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser, plagued with a spot that money can’t deflate). So there it is: bored rich girl, thrusting young ghetto boy, lots of time, people who want that time = trouble.
Cillian Murphy plays the 60-year-old timekeeper Raymond León – and it is Murphy’s grounded playing of your basic “sheriff” role that makes his character pivotal; Murphy plays it still and considered, a moral bridge between worlds. Fans will love this performance – and those who are in two minds about Murphy’s skills will become fans.
Like Niccol’s Gattaca, the design of In Time is pithy, memorable and chilling – and the film looks great because it was made with the best of British talent. BAFTA-nominated Alex McDowell excelled himself with production design that’ll make your tongue hang out: 70s & 80s cars remade to look eerily nondescript and everything a little too perfect, logo free and burnished.
Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood on costumes, Oscar-winner Roger Deakins ASC/BSC on cinematography and a gorgeous soundtrack from Golden Globe winning composer Craig Armstrong gives the film a sense of quality – as if they had enough money and enough time to make it properly. Deakins’ work on the tracking shot across rooftops should be taught at film school.
Atwood’s knowing yet subtle take on the wardrobe of the future-but-different is equally stunning. In a way, In Time is a film about the superficial, the surface, what we see with our eyes. It is about seeing and looking rather than feeling – and there are many shots where the main characters’ eyes are glossy mirrors that show no soul. After all, when you age it isn’t your feelings that change so much as your exterior. In Time suffers from a lack of any emotion other than panic, which Armstrong’s lushly modern score tempers well.
Another problem is the lead. In Time works if Timberlake grabs you and doesn’t if he doesn’t. People know his name, think he’s funny on Saturday Night Live, etc, but no matter how many hit films he’s in, Timberlake can’t escape the fact he was born with an ordinary man’s face, one the camera doesn’t love. This fantasy tale about a human problem demands either a better actor or one with an ethereal look we want to watch, or both – and that’s something Murphy could do because, shades of Gattaca, he was born with the right DNA.
Like Gattaca & The Truman Show, Niccol’s direction is clean and easy to follow. Once the couple gets past the ‘mystery’ stage of their relationship, the story becomes a chase. While we care about what happens to them in the beginning, this chase makes us disengage. We know what will happen – and we almost know how. An up-and-down pace adds to the problem. As Manolo Dargis said in the New York Times, the film suffers from, “slow-and-go energy”. When Sylvia runs (and she runs a lot), it is mostly in 6 inch heels. It’s the future but, come on.
That said, In Time is more often thrilling and watchable than not, especially in its first half. (It also catches scene-zeitgeists like The Rum Diary’s swimming off-shore and Drive’s stint of driving backwards at speed.) Ultimately, what is genuinely entertaining – if not gripping – about In Time is how it captures the panic we feel about money, our limited lifespan and what we should spend those things on. It’s about the now, set in a super-stylised noir.