Nov. 4, 2011
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Considerably more ambitious and challenging than Tower Heist (which isn’t saying much), In Time is the latest offering from writer-director Andrew Niccol, whose previous films include Gattaca, a sci-fi tale about genetic haves and have-nots, as well as S1m0ne, a Hollywood satire that represented in its own way a pursuit of an ideal of perfection by technological means.
Like those films, In Time is a provocative, thoughtful but somehow not entirely satisfying sci-fi parable with a striking premise. Niccol imagines a dystopian near future in which Benjamin Franklin’s adage that “Time is money” is taken to a literal extreme. Human beings are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, but they also come equipped with a literal biological clock, complete with digital readout on their forearms, that activates at 25 and begins counting down to zero.
Everyone starts with one year, but it’s like a checking account: Employees are paid in hours and days instead of in cash, and anything you want to buy costs you time. (A cup of coffee might set you back three or four minutes; a room in a swanky hotel could start at two months.) In this world, many people live literally day to day, while the privileged wealthy may be sitting on centuries, millennia or even more.
There are gaping holes in this setup, from the absence of even a gesture in the direction of an explanation for the origins of this state of affairs to the unworkably insecure technology itself: Everyone walks around with their current time balance showing all the time, and while time can be voluntarily transferred between people, it can also be taken by force, or even simply stolen while you sleep. No society could function like this. People need to be able to lock and unlock their time balances, and turn their readouts on and off.
On the other hand, accept the premise for what it is, and In Time offers intriguing fodder for thought on a number of themes: Besides the have/have-not divide and unjust systems that aggravate inequalities, Niccol contemplates our society’s glorification of youth and beauty, fear of death and fascination with immortality, and fear of ennui and the longing for death. Simplistic attempts at bettering the conditions of the poor may backfire, and the movie contemplates whether a sufficiently unjust system may call for direct action against the system itself.
In Time starts promisingly, with a strong first act that could stand along as an intriguing short film. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a boy from the hood, lives with Olivia Wilde, his 50-year-old mother. (Zing. Once again, as in Tron: Legacy and Cowboys & Aliens, Wilde is cast is a sci-fi role as a sexy character who isn’t quite what she seems.) Will meets a man who changes his life forever, then suffers a blow that sends him on a collision course with the power brokers of his world.
From the ghetto Will travels to the bastions of wealth and power, where he catches the eye of the super-rich, super-bored Sylvia (Seyfried), and matches wits with her father, time tycoon Phillipe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Then the movie gets bogged down in role action-movie clichés, and loses its way for a time. For every smart twist, there’s an unconvincing one. The Weises live on the Connecticut coast, and when Will, who has never seen the ocean, wants to go in, Sylvia looks scandalized: “We never go in.” Will is incredulous, with good reason. Genetically engineered perpetual 25-year-olds I can accept, but superrich people living on the beach who just don’t go in the ocean? Really?
Eventually, the movie builds to a Bonnie-and-Clyde crime spree aimed at redistributing time wealth to those who need it most. “Is it stealing if it’s already stolen?” is a question that’s raised more than once. Unlike Tower Heist, though, things here aren’t necessarily so straightforward. Although the massively unequal outcomes in In Time are obvious, the mechanisms producing those inqualities are hazier. It’s got something to do with price fixing and population control, but it’s not like the superrich are literally sucking their wealth out of the poor.
The most obvious way in which the system is immoral is that it exists at all. To charge people literal time off their lives for goods and services, particularly people living on hours, is a much graver thing than charging money from even the most destitute. Running out of money is not the same as dying. It’s one thing if you have to walk home because the bus fare has just gone up to $2 and you only have $1.50. It’s another thing if the fare has just gone up to two hours and you only have 90 minutes. If it’s more than a 90 minute walk, you’re dead. (Interestingly, we repeatedly see an urban mission where a dedicated cleric distributes life-giving minutes to the poor. It’s the only religious element in the film.)
Given a system so immoral, would it be morally legitimate to break the law, or even attempt to crash the system? A case could certainly be made. Viewed as a parable, what does In Time have to say about the inequalities and injustices of our system? Is In Time basically socialist propaganda?
I wouldn’t call it propaganda, although it certainly romanticizes the protagonists’ exploits. I prefer to see it as a challenge to think about the issues rather than an endorsement of a particular answer. I said the same thing earlier this year about The Adjustment Bureau, another sci-fi parable about a guy towing a girl in a party dress around evading authorities. (The posters for the two films look strikingly similar.) In Time is a messier, more problematic film than The Adjustment Bureau, but I think I found it more interesting. It’s probably firing on about half the cylinders it should be, about par for Niccol. Still, I appreciate its ambition and ideas—qualities sadly rare in popcorn entertainment these days.
Content advisory: Tower Heist — Pervasive obscene language; some crass sexual references and innuendo; a brief glimpse of a girlie magazine; recurring profanity; a scene of comic drunkenness; comedic treatment of theft (real theft, not just repossessing stolen property); an attempted suicide; brief comic violence and gunplay. In Time — A number of deaths and bodies lying around; some rough violence including shooting deaths; brief sexuality (characters are mostly undressed but no nudity); a skinny-dipping scene (fleeting rear nudity).
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