When In Time begins, the screen glows a phosphorescent green, like a Cousteau documentary with night-time shots of coral reefs and deep-sea fish. The camera pulls back — slowly; taking lots of time — and the fuzziness shapes itself into rapidly changing digits, like on an alarm clock, except that these numbers are scorched on a forearm, like a serial number on a prisoner at Auschwitz. The grim analogy is entirely appropriate in a film that situates its protagonist (Will, played by Justin Timberlake) in a ghetto pocked with privation.

In Time depicts a sullen dystopia where aging is halted at 25 and life is terminated at 26. Anyone older is living on borrowed (namely, bought or stolen or gifted) time, and the green digits on the forearm indicate how much longer you'll live. It is like being in a concentration camp — a life of endless toil, overcast with the constant awareness of death. Andrew Niccol, the director, established with Gattaca that he is committed to thoughtful sci-fi, and here too, he toys with the idea of a future whose citizenry is rent into haves and have-nots, and whose guiding light is Darwin. Only the fittest will survive. The fittest in Gattaca were those with good genes; here, as the horological title suggests, the fittest are the ones with the most time on their hands. Literally.

This is a fine premise for a thriller. We embrace, in the present, the cliché that time is money, but in Niccol's world, time is money. Time is the currency — a cup of coffee costs four minutes. Like harried businessmen, the residents of the working-class zone named Dayton — where Will lives — keep looking at their wrists, at the time.

When Will, a have-not, is touched by tragedy, he vows, “I'm going to make them pay.” He means, of course, that he's going to take the people responsible — the haves — for all the time they've got. Will gets an unexpected gift — over a century, transferred to him by a 105-year-old who's lost the desire to live. (The latter doesn't look a day over 25, which is when he stopped aging; it's safe to assume that nobody goes to medical school any longer to train in plastic surgery.) Armed with more years than he knows what to do with, Will sets out to the district of the haves, whose coolness and reserve Niccol paints in shades of ice-blue. (The ghetto community, in comparison, is doused in warm shades of amber.) These early portions are queasily involving.

Trouble arrives in the form of Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) — for Will, and for the movie. He accepts an invitation to a party at her father's mansion, and when events conspire to land him behind bars (for a crime he did not commit), he escapes holding Sylvia as hostage. They embark on a cross-country run — Niccol runs out of ideas. There is a vital contemporariness in this story, where a few — say, one per cent — hoard the riches while the majority languishes in want. Niccol is right to transform his leads into Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Robin Hood — the have-nots rising in rebellion against the haves. But the far-flung social implications gradually simmer out of focus as the film narrows its sights on one man's (and one woman's) efforts to steer clear of the cop (Cillian Murphy) on their trail. By the end, In Time is reduced to a bafflingly generic chase movie, with the audience left to their own devices to entertain themselves, wondering, perhaps, if a dystopian version of Scarborough Fair would echo with the refrain of “parsley, sage, rosemary and time.”

In Time

Genre: Sci-fi/Action

Director: Andrew Niccol

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy

Storyline: In a society where time is the currency, a man steals from the haves and gives to the have-nots

Bottomline: Great premise, middling execution

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English Cinema ReviewsOctober 17, 2011