The most ominous visual in Andrew Niccol’s sleek new near-future thriller is the way people keep looking at their wrists (but not wristwatches) as if they hadn’t a minute to spare. And in the ghetto, they often don’t. Time is the new currency, and how much time each person has to spend is displayed on their forearms by a barcode implant. Genetic engineering has stopped the biological clock at 25, but a year after that, more time has to be purchased or the clock stops dead. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) and his mother, Rachel (Olivia Wilde), who disconcertingly looks the same age as her 28-year-old son, are literally living on borrowed time—Rachel’s loan has run out and Will, who works in a factory, is always a paycheck away from death. Meanwhile, prices keep rising, which means the poor will die young while the rich can be immortal—rich men like Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), for instance, a world-weary millionaire who gives away his unwanted centuries. Giving time away is a crime, though a roving band of Minute Men steal time with impunity (illegal transfers are done bodily, forearm to forearm). As he did in Gattaca, Niccol creates a detailed dystopian society that expands on technology just enough to turn familiar scientific advances into sinister methods of control.
Armed with the gift of long life from Hamilton, Will infiltrates New Greenwich, an enclave of the super rich who expect to live for thousands of years. Since death is not inevitable, they have bodyguards and drive armored cars. The script doesn’t elaborate on its inherent satire of class-consciousness, except for exasperated comments by Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the overprotected daughter of a time-bank mogul (an impressively oily Vincent Kartheiser). Will’s status hopping—he’s out of his time zone in more ways than one—throws the whole schematic out of whack, and he is pursued by the relentless Timekeeper (Cillian Murphy).
But unlike Gattaca (or The Truman Show, which Niccol wrote), In Time has nowhere to go after completing its intriguing set-up, and eventually, the chilly, minimalist design (which defeats even cinematographer Roger Deakins) and parade of perfect-looking people becomes monotonous. There are hints of a deeper conflict between Will and the Timekeeper, who knew Will’s father a generation ago, and a nonsensical bit involving a factory buddy (Johnny Galecki), who blows a decade in a working-class bar, but in its second half, the plot relies on Sylvia’s clichéd conflict with her power-monger father. Her reckless romance with Will devolves into a Robin Hood-style crime spree to save the ghetto population, shortchanging their characters, and highlighting how Timberlake, an interesting character actor (The Social Network) doesn’t quite have the action-hero charisma to carry the film’s conclusion of car chases and gunfights. In Time isn’t quite a waste of time, but its last hour doesn’t exactly fly by, either.