In Time is for the times

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried occupy the future.

If there were a perfect time for Andrew Niccol’s In Time to connect with audiences, this would have to be it. The film’s focus on economic injustice and a corrupt financial system makes it uncannily suitable to our Occupy Wall Street moment.

Niccol, who helmed the well-regarded Gattaca, has created an imperfect, fitfully compelling sci-fi allegory for our global economic malaise. In his future-world, people stop aging at 25, after which they have one more year to live unless they accumulate additional time, the currency by which everything — work, goods and services — is valued.

In this dystopia, those short on time work to survive day to day in ghettos, while the well-to-do acquire centuries of existence by controlling industry and prices, and keeping those short on time contained within zones that are prohibitively expensive to leave. Within one of these ghettos, Justin Timberlake toils as Will Salas, who is given a gift of over a century by a world-weary man who’s decided he can no longer bear the weight of living.

Will ends up using his newly acquired wealth to enter exclusive New Greenwich in order to avenge the death of his mother (Olivia Wilde), who died in his arms as her clock ran down to 0. While in New Greenwich, Will finds himself the target of a persistent cop (Cillian Murphy) whose job it is to make sure that time doesn’t get in the “wrong” hands. Murphy is a compelling screen presence, but his character isn’t permitted to be much more than the reason Will must run.

Fleeing by Will’s side is Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the wealthy Phillipe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, of TV’s Mad Men), from whom Will earns a vast amount of time in a poker game. (One wonders if Niccol is offering that scene as his audition to direct a Bond flick, considering that Timberlake, nattily attired, introduces his character as “Salas. Will Salas.”)

The pair of fugitives turn into Bonnie and Clyde dropped inside a Robin Hood adventure, stealing time from Weis’s banks and giving it to the poor. Seyfried is dolled up like a femme born of a Luc Besson wet dream, what with her incredibly large eyes, pouty lips and retro French New Wave haircut. She’s adorable, to be sure. She also looks like she should be the distressed damsel in a Transporter entry. Fortunately, Seyfried brings to her character an edge that Timberlake lacks.

Through its obvious construction, In Time asks viewers to consider issues of fairness with regard to wealth accumulation, the role of overseers of financial systems and the principles that should guide them. For Niccol, the anxieties of being poor that lead to desperate measures are compounded by anxieties of great wealth that precipitate greed.

As it is, In Time is far more interesting and thought-provoking than it is consistently good, and Niccol runs out of ideas as it creaks toward a disappointing ending. It’s the kind of movie that seems to have been made with equal parts care and carelessness. It’s handsomely mounted and photographed, but pales when compared to the more fully realized environment of a film like The Matrix, a clear inspiration. It takes itself seriously, but shies away from complexity or even explaining its premise. And dramatically it’s weak, largely because Niccol’s direction telegraphs moments that are supposed to have impact.

Nor is In Time subtle about its politics — it creates a universe in which the prices of goods are raised dramatically (in years, of course) to control the population and keep power in the hands of those who already have it. Those further to the right of the political spectrum will read In Time as agitprop inciting class warfare. Liberals will likely sympathize with the film’s Marxist indictment of a capitalist system that is rigged in favor of those with power and those ruthless enough to acquire it by any means necessary. Dying, it seems, can be big business.

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