In the near future, no one looks a day over 25. Geneticists have found a way to stop our biological clocks at a quarter century, but from that point on, life is a luxury. Our remaining years, days, hours, and minutes are displayed on our forearms like morbid digital watches. Time becomes currency. If you want to survive beyond your prime, you have to work for it.
What sounds like Leonardo DiCaprio’s ultimate fantasy is actually the premise of In Time, Andrew Niccols’ big-brained dystopian thriller. In this speculative future, time really is money, capable of being exchanged, saved, and spent. Run out, and you die. Everyone is beautiful and can live forever, but very few people actually get the chance. The rich hoard centuries of wealth in time banks, and hide themselves away in an elite time zone called New Greenwich. Regular people must work crushing jobs just to live another day, while a corrupt police force known as the Timekeepers work to keep wealth from falling into the “wrong” hands.
Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is the Timekeepers’ worst nightmare. After his mother (Olivia Wilde) dies in his arms, Will inherits a century from a benevolent time baron (Matt Bomer). He immediately sets off for New Greenwich, hoping to somehow settle the score and stick it to the immortal one-percenters. Before he can, he’s arrested by the sour-faced Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy).
Leon assumes Will’s newfound wealth is ill-gotten. How else would a guy from the slums get his hands on a hundred years? And it’s here, in their fraught game of cat-and-mouse, that In Time is at its most compelling. Niccols has the opportunity to unpack issues of wealth disparity and genetically-engineered capitalism through his cop and robber, but the writer-director is more concerned with adding an element of romance. With the introduction of Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a sneering time tycoon, the film quickly becomes a lovers-on-the-run thriller in the vein of Bonnie and Clyde.
In Time leans hard into its slick, ‘60s-inspired future world. Its thoughtful, desaturated palette — shot by the legendary Roger Deakins, of all people — elevates a clunky, pun-riddled script and further accentuates the cast’s otherworldly beauty. The dystopia that Niccols created is a fascinating one, and it feels like a perfect answer to the then-current events of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It also raises compelling questions about mortality and our youth-obsessed society, as well as the monetization of that youth. Unfortunately, Niccols seems reluctant to go too deep into the world he’s trying to build, and In Time is disinterested in answering any of the questions it raises. It’s entertaining to the last, but not as challenging as it thinks it is.
That doesn’t mean In Time can’t be fun. With its ambitious premise, insidious dystopia, and angsty, gorgeous leads, In Time invokes the incendiary young adult novels that were all the rage in the 2010s. It’s basically a YA movie for adults, offering a perfect dose of slick, turn-your-brain-off fun that’s not quite enough to radicalize, but more than enough to entertain.
The fact that it’s an original film and not an adaptation of a sprawling YA series is almost disappointing. In Time’s many plotholes could have easily filled the pages of a prequel series, and with a bit more tinkering, its premise could have launched a page-to-screen franchise. It’s not quite The Hunger Games, but it’s still an underrated example of art challenging our system in a fresh way.
In Time is streaming on Amazon Prime.