Andrew Niccol, writer of Gattaca and The Truman Show, brings his usual intelligence to a sci-fi actioner which takes Ben Franklin’s dictum ‘time is money’ at face value.
Justin Timberlake stars as Will Salas, a 28 year old living minute to minute – literally. All humans have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, and then die one year later unless they can earn more time by working, borrowing or stealing. Salas encounters Henry Hamilton (White Collar’s Matt Bomer), who, like an Anne Rice vampire, just wants to die as his mind has had enough, and has come to the Dayton ghetto to ‘time out’. He gifts Salas a century of time urging him – “Don’t waste my time”. Salas though is almost immediately struck by personal tragedy and so travels to New Greenwich, the richest time zone of them all, to try and use his time to bring down the corrupt system. He’s quickly made by timekeeper Leon and kidnaps time heiress Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), who becomes an unlikely ally in his crusade.
Timberlake sells the hurried nature of ghetto dwellers well with jumpy physicality, and also conveys a burning sense of righteousness, but, while Seyfried is gifted at comedy, here her huge eyes and pouting lips prove remarkably inexpressive and she’s out-acted by Olivia Wilde – who only has three scenes. Wilde’s stunt-casting concretises the high-concept by being Timberlake’s mother, but the horror on her face when a bus-fare suddenly rises lethally beyond her means is visceral: “But it’s a 2 hour walk. I only have an hour and a half left”, “So run…” Cillian Murphy is superb as Leon. He can’t be bribed, and to Salas’ amazement jumps, runs, shoots, and lets his time run low just like the ghetto inhabitant he used to be, making him formidably implacable. Leon is a great villain as he understands the system is unjust but swore to uphold it. Supporting turns are less nuanced but still effective. Alex Pettyfer is career-definingly loathsome as ghetto criminal Fortius, a sadistic but cowardly psychopath, and Vincent Kartheiser essays another weasel as time magnate Phillipe Weis.
Niccol fleshes out his high concept with numerous delightfully re-imagined phrases, “Do you come from Time?”, but like the best sci-fi this scarifying future is really dissecting our present. A critique of Darwinian capitalism it pits Weis’ “For a few to be immortal, many must die” against Salas’ “No one should be immortal if even one person has to die”. Salas’ motto is essentially an allegorised version of JS Mill’s moral axiom “Every person alive ought to have a subsistence before anyone has more” and is obviously morally right. Niccol though can’t mesh sci-fi brains with action brawn never mind square his allegorical circle. Salas and Sylvia become a latter day Bonnie and Clyde car-jacking the time-rich and staging heists on time-banks to the strains of Craig Armstrong’s ‘Karmacoma’ sampling score before then re-distributing time throughout the Dayton ghetto. We’re explicitly told robbing time-banks cannot break the system, yet that’s all Niccol proffers as ultimate solution to his problem. That and a credit crunch referencing possibility of time-market contagion…
In Time buckles in the third act, feels like it’s missing a detailed back-story between Leon and Will’s father, and features remarkably under-populated cities and a tendency to remove obstacles too easily, especially travelling across time zone borders. And yet it’s so near greatness that you want to like it. Well worth your time.