“I don’t have time to worry about how it happened,” protagonist Justin Timberlake says at the beginning of In Time. The “it” in question is the system by which his dystopian future is run, and Timberlake is warning viewers up front that all the upcoming plot holes and improbabilities will be glossed over with a hand-wave and a series of half-baked, heavily symbolic catchphrases about time. In the world of In Time, everyone stops aging at 25, and glowing green clocks in their arms start counting down the remaining year until they die. Time is currency, and can be earned through work or spent for necessities, but anyone caught short will automatically drop dead when their arm-clock hits 00:00. As one of the sweating, ghettoized poor, Timberlake struggles to earn enough time to keep ahead of his own countdown, until a suicidal, slumming aristocrat gifts him with more than a century, plus the admonishment “Don’t waste my time.” From there, Timberlake has to decide whether to enjoy his new riches, or use them to buck a crooked, oppressive system.
The time-equals-money equation is a clever metaphor for discussing economic inequities. Timberlake’s world is an exaggerated, painfully literal one, but there’s a potential for Brazil-like self-aware parody in a system where the poor can actually watch their time run out as they work in grimy, grey, dystopia-standard factories, while the rich idly lounge about in opulent splendor, squandering resources that would keep thousands of people alive. But writer-director Andrew Niccol addresses it all with the overwrought grimness of Equilibrium or Minority Report, albeit with less visual flash. And his constant time references (“Got a minute?” a street beggar asks Timberlake, hoping for the equivalent of spare change) and pointed speechifying spell out a symbolism that’s laid on so thickly, it chokes out the human story.
Much like Niccol’s Gattaca, in which genetic perfection rather than time was the weapon a small group of snobby, unworthy elites used to hold down the meek masses, In Time is a chilly, stiff movie where clever ideas are delivered as self-righteous sermons. Timberlake’s rigidity doesn’t help; he’s playing the kind of soulful, vulnerable action-movie hero who protects himself with a grim mask and an occasional smirk, but the resulting performance is anonymous and bland. Meanwhile, Amanda Seyfried as the obligatory love interest is a beautiful shell, little more than a wide-eyed mirror of the hero’s awesomeness, and their outlaw romance is a shallower, sillier take on Bonnie And Clyde or Badlands. Cillian Murphy, as the timekeeping cop devoted to the purity of the system, is similarly muffled by a script that turns him into a cartoon Javert and a preachy mouthpiece for metaphor. If Niccol just trusted his audience to recognize their own lives onscreen, instead of repeatedly explaining those lives to them, he would have had a lot more free time, which could have been used to make his characters less like allegories, and more like people.