By Richard von Busack
Andrew Niccol’s In Time is like a lost chapter from Thom Andersen’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself; the film uses existing locations for a fantasy future, even such relatively obscure places as the finale’s setting, a bulldozed suburb at Playa Del Rey. I know the place well; it was cleared out in the 1960s when LAX expanded and the people started to go nuts from the sound of screaming jets. (Folklore, probably false, claims that the development became a mecca for deaf people looking for cheap real estate).
As in like Niccol’s impeccable-looking Gattica, an ordinary thriller plot wraps around a science-fiction gimmick. There’s little I can recall from having seen Gattica years ago except for its looks: the really brilliant idea of using Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center as a rocket base, and the elegant suits people wore in the future (they even wore them, complete with knotted ties, to head off into the cosmos).
In Time is a big-time improvement, even though it’s remarkably well appointed for a film that didn’t come with a ghastly budget.
The concept is high. In a future world, everyone is budgeted 25 years of life, as a way of dealing with the population problem. During the last year of these 25 allotted, green phosphorescent numbers pop up one one’s forearm to count down the last seconds. When the alarm finally goes off, you keel over with what looks like an explosive coronary.
However, there’s a way to buy extra years and reload the clock, while not showing any signs of external aging. That’s where corruption is built into the system. Time is money, in effect. It can be bought, borrowed, banked (in the form of little chrome hard-drives with digital readouts; it can be sold on the stock market, or conferred in little doses on the poor through rescue missions, where the soon to be dead stand in “time lines” just as their grandparents stood in bread lines.
It’s quite a system, though it needs enforcers: time keepers who patrol in handsome, matte black ‘60s muscle cars. They wear black leather greatcoats, and carry large chrome automatic pistols that look like they weigh ten pounds each.
There is an outlaw in this scenario: Justin Timberlake as Will Salas, a wily city dweller in the slummy Dayton section. He was given the present of a long life, by a friend who was tired of living. Will is falsely accused of theft and murder, and decides to try to gamble for some more time in the fancy casino at New Greenwich: a haven for the rich, likely named after the Greenwich in Connecticut.
What this means, visually, is that Will must leave his neighborhood, crossing the WPA concrete, tunnels and sluiceways near the Pasadena Freeway at the foot of Mt. Washington near Dodger Stadium. At a high price (about 70 years it costs him) a taxi driver takes Will through a series of tollgates to LA’s former monument to futurism, Century City.
At the casino, he meets a time-plutocrat named Phillipe Weis (Vincent Cartheiser of Mad Men. He exudes smirking privilege like a Bucharest doorman exudes cologne, and, worst, Weis likes expound on the rightness of the system (he calls it “Darwinian Capitalism”). At the casino, tuxedoed hero and tuxedoed villain like are matched in a card game. It’s staged to recall the time-honored 007 meet and greet; the neo-60s idea of the setup is stressed by having “Summer Samba” whispering on the Musak.
The plutocrat has an awe-inspiring daughter: Sylvia, she is called, and she’s played by Amanda Seyfried. In our world, which either drools or spits venom at young actresses, it’s hard to find the words to praise beauty, even the kind that really only comes along every decade or so. Seyfried has the eyes of the tigress, and here she has a French New Wave* bell of russet hair; she’s so chic, it’s hard to imagine having ever liked her blonde.
At this point, In Time makes its own gravy; Sylvia wants some real excitement after a life spent avoiding all physical peril in the name of longevity. After a quick skinny dip in the Pacific, Will takes her as a hostage; both head back to Dayton, on borrowed time.
It becomes a Bonnie and Clyde story, with the couple lengthening their life spans via robberies on the future equivalent of a Payday Loan parlor. Extra years of life are distributed to the poor hopeless waiting for their minutes of life. On the trail of the lovers is an incorruptible yet sympathetic time cop played by Cillian Murphy.
Despite the popular theme, the lamming bank robbers in love, In Time is not self-serious. Its puns are straight-faced. A gangster (“a minuteman” says the slang) threatens hostages: “I’m gonna clean the clocks of every one of you.”
Describing In Time as science fiction would be like describing the 1960s Batman as film noir, but the movie has a mood. Roger Deakins makes the downtown glow with floods of jewel-colored light, and the mood of dystopia is heightened with the bogus Greco-Roman of 1920s downtown (the LA City Hall, doubles as an immense bank.) Alex McDowell, the production designer, did Watchmen and Minority Report, and yet this movie doesn’t look like either of them: it uses relatively little digital art compared to existing locations; the peeling grandeur of downtown Los Angeles, or the brick midwestern slums around downtown.
Niccol has an eye for beautiful faces—Cillian Murphy isn’t even the prettiest person in the movie by a long shot. But the film doesn’t have a fashion magazine glaze on it. It has juice; unlike the dimmer Logan’s Run (which was all about the grudge older people nursed after they heard activist Jack Weinberg’s phrase “Never trust anyone over 30”) this one is invigorated by the pleasure of a well-furnished frame, a speedy pace, and a gorgeous pair of young lovers.
I enjoyed the borrowed cool in In Time far more than in the bloodier Drive, give or take the car chases: though the cars are well-matched here, with Will’s Aston Martin-oid English sports car versus the timekeeper’s Detroit bruisermobiles jousting on that familiar arched bridge over the Los Angeles River). Timberlake takes over the action hero role with dash and confidence and slight self-amusement. And it’d be hard to find any man resistant to the mojo of Seyfried, dressed in a brief but apparently fireproof wardrobe.
*Alejandro Adams called this hairstyle first.