In Time is another inventive vision of the future by writer/director Andrew Niccol. In 1997 Niccol delivered the intriguing Gattaca, an icy depiction of a society whose population is predetermined entirely by eugenics. While In Time matches the cool tone of the earlier film, its premise is too heavy-handed to be as thought-provoking. As a political and sociological allegory, this movie was seemingly designed with the Occupy movement in mind. Niccol attempts to explore class distinctions in a meaningful way, but his reach unfortunately exceeds his grasp by a long ways. As with Gattaca, our society’s obsession with physical perfection is a running theme. The world of In Time is populated by people who have been genetically engineered to stop physically aging at twenty-five. The catch? Once they hit that age, they only have one year to live unless they can acquire more time.
The concept “time is money” is quite literal in In Time. Everyone has a green LED clock implanted in their arm that counts down how much time they have left to live. Time, whether one minute or a century, is spent and earned exactly like money. Put in eight hours at work and get some time added to the clock. Before doing a favor for someone, negotiate how much time they will transfer from their own clock as payment. Transients beg for spare minutes rather than pocket change. When a person’s clock runs down to zero, that person is dead. As long as a person continues to acquire time, their life goes on indefinitely. A person rich in time will live forever. The poor live day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute.
This set-up presents some interesting concepts. Most notable is the unsettling reality that every adult, whether twenty-five or one hundred years old, appears to be the exact same age. It’s a bizarre world in which an elderly man’s mother looks as youthful as his daughter. The wealthy live in a different time zone than the poor, with several time zones in between to fill out the class structure. Passage through a given zone requires a toll in the form of time. In order to transfer time, a person holds their LED clock under a scanner and minutes are deducted. These time zones are not fully explained and end up being a rather confusing element. People can also transfer time to one another effortlessly by touching their forearm clocks, which begs the question of why there aren’t more rampant muggings in the streets.
In Time stars Justin Timberlake as Will Salas, a blue collar everyman who struggles to earn enough time for himself and his mother. In a chance encounter that becomes a blessing and a curse, Will is given one hundred years as a gift from a suicidal man. Will plans to take his mother (Olivia Wilde, in what amounts to an extended cameo) to a better time zone, but her clock runs out when she can’t afford the bus fare to meet him. Determined to avenge his mother by overthrowing the hierarchy, Will begins lavishly throwing his time around in a higher class zone. The authorities naturally assume he has stolen his surplus years. Teaming up with rebellious young Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a time-hoarding businessman, Will sets out to be a futuristic Robin Hood. Despite being hotly pursued by a Timekeeper (basically a cop who specializes in time theft) named Raymond (Cilian Murphy), Will and Sylvia attempt to overthrow the social structure by stealing time from the rich to deliver to the poor.
In Time is at its most entertaining early on as it explores what this alternate version of modern society is like. A luxury car costs a person decades of their life. High stakes casino games are literally a matter of life or death. Timberlake does a good job of conveying the freedom that excess time buys a person who was previously accustomed to living day to day. The cast generally underplays their roles, as if everyone in the future is under the influence of a moderately strong sedative. But Timberlake manages to interject some sly fun into the dour atmosphere. Seyfried looks as terrifically hot as ever, but despite her considerable acting capabilities can’t manage to get a handle on her underdeveloped character.
In the end, In Time isn’t as much fun as it could have been if Niccol’s had lightened up a little. The movie goes to rather elaborate lengths to restate a very hackneyed message: the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer. But unlike real life, In Time’s upper class consists entirely of heartless bastards, utterly lacking in compassion for those about to “time out.” And also quite unlike real life, the lower classes are mostly teeming with good-hearted, kind people who simply want what they see as their fair share. If wealth redistribution is your thing, you may find yourself rooting for Will and Sylvia. In Time bites off more than it can chew, which is too bad because it does have some interesting ideas at its core.
In Time was mostly ignored by U.S. audiences during its fall 2011 theatrical release, which saw a middling $37 million box-office take. International audiences were considerably more interested, pushing its worldwide haul to more than one hundred and forty three million. Now available on DVD, it’s the kind of movie that makes a passably entertaining rental. Supplemental features are light, with ten minutes of deleted scenes being the only feature.