In Time (2011)
Live forever or die trying.
What a difference a few years make. Is it the world that’s changed, or is it me? Certainly, In Time, Andrew Niccol’s goofy, sincere, sci-fi allegory, is the same now as it was on release in 2011, but it’s much more palatable to me today. When I first saw it, I loathed it. These days … hell, at least it’s trying.
Set in the late 22nd century, In Time posits a society where time is literally money — everyone stops aging at 25 and has a glowing counter implanted in their arm that measures (literally) how much time they have left to live, and more time is earned just like money, either through direct labor or through investment and capital hoarding. Those capable of the latter are basically immortal, while the working class are rigorously living day to day.
Look, it’s a bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, but recent lessons in the nature of wealth concentration, the utter failure of the trickle-down theory, the destruction of the middle class, and basically, well, the seemingly imminent collapse of society as a whole kind of have you nodding along — okay, let’s see where this is going …
Our hero is Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a factory clock-puncher whose life is changed irrevocably by two events. Firstly, a depressed rich guy named Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) gives him all of his remaining time, simultaneously enriching Will and killing himself. Secondly, Will’s mother Rachel (Olivia Wilde — everyone stops aging at 25, which makes some of the relationship dynamics read a little weird, even if they make sense in-universe) dies in his arms, having run out her clock simply by not being able to afford to catch the bus.
After this one-two punch, our man Will is basically radicalized and, with his hostage/ partner love interest Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) in tow, sets about raging against the machine, with the ultimate if nebulous aim of tearing the whole joint down. Standing in his way is ‘Timekeeper’ (cop, basically) Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), who is on his trail much like Alan Arkin was after Ethan Hawke in Niccol’s earlier sci-fi parable, Gattaca (1997).
In Time asks you to take its clearly allegorical setting as read, but it’s a bit difficult when the whole thing seems to be built on puns: Cops are Timekeepers, communities demarcated by time/ wealth levels are Time Zones, gangs of time-thieves are Minutemen, and on and on and on. It gets a bit grating, to be frank, but if you can get past it, the conceit has some substance to offer.
It’s not a particularly original conceit — Harlan Ellison’s short story, ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman dabbled in ideas so similar that the notoriously cantankerous scribe took the In Time team to court before eventually dropping his suit, while the mid-80s short film The Price of Life, which I saw back in the day on VHS packaged as an anthology with two other films, is almost identical.
However, In Time is angrier in tone than either of its forebears, drawing direct parallels between the system portrayed in the film and the capitalist system that we’re currently yoked under. It’s possible that your politics will skew your appreciation of the film, and no doubt mine do too — and before you @ me, I’m a small businessman, which makes me a lower-case-c capitalist even if I’m a big believer in robust upper-case-S Social Security and a shedload of checks and balances. But let’s get back on track.
In Time also specifically invokes the counterculture cinema of the late ’60s and early ’70s, with Will and Sylvia being positioned later in the film as a kind of ersatz Bonnie and Clyde, robbing time deposits to disperse livable hours to the poor. This comes a little too late to be really effective, but the intent is clear.
And In Time is full of good intentions, even if the end result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. It takes itself a little too seriously and seems a little too impressed with its own cleverness — the trick here is to have fun with the pulpiness while maintaining a strong ideological and thematic core, and while In Time manages the latter it skimps on the former. Still, we get charismatic turns from Justin Timberlake, The Social Network (2010), and Amanda Seyfried, Mean Girls (2004), strong support from a roster that includes Johnny Galecki as a drunken prole and Vincent Kartheiser as Sylvia’s dead-eyed gazillionaire father, the odd well-executed action beat and chase sequence. It’s a good time, although leavened by the aforementioned factors and the appearance of pretty boy Alex Pettyfer, I Am Number Four (2011), as the leader of a gang of male-model-looking time thieves. Even with the film’s ‘nobody looks over 25’ wrinkle, they’re impossible to take seriously. At all.
In Time’s biggest problem is that it never stretches beyond the obvious parameters of its big ideas — the story we get is pretty much the story you might map out on the back of a beer coaster after hearing the elevator pitch. It effectively describes its concept rather than exploring it, and so once we’ve taken on board the SF notions, the film contains — and they’re pretty well sketched out in the trailers and promo materials — we’ve reached the limit of what the film is trying to say to us. The result is a solid, occasionally provocative sci-fi thriller that hints at bigger potential than it ultimately realizes.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson