Andrew Niccol doesn’t make movies, he makes movie-shaped metaphors. There’s a decidedly old school feel to the way he approaches science fiction, building worlds that resemble slightly exaggerated versions of our own and focusing on them rather than on characters. In the ’70s, he would have made Soylent Green. Gattaca, his first (and best) film, was a tight thriller about genetic and social engineering in a semi-totalitarian society, and he wrote the screenplay to the often prophetic The Truman Show. In Time sees him at his most topical yet, delivering a film that could as well be called “The 99%: The Movie”.
Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) lives in a world in which people are genetically engineered to stop aging (at least physically) at 25. The catch, because there must be one, is that after that, everyone gets one more year before they drop dead. People walk around with bright green numbers tattooed on their forearm, slowly ticking down to zero. A clock, but also a wallet: in Will’s world, time literally is money, and you pay in minutes, hours, days, even decades. When you run out of money, you die. Will lives in the ghetto, along with legions of poor and disenfranchised factory workers who rarely have more than a day or two on their clock and thugs who’ll kill a man for a week. One day he saves the life of one Henry Hamilton, who tells him that the game is rigged so that the wealthy can live forever and gifts him over a century before killing himself. So Will moves to New Greenwich, the enclave where the wealthy live, where he meets Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a powerful and virtually immortal banker. It isn’t long before cop Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) shows up, though, convinced that Will is responsible for Hamilton’s death, and determined not to let anyone make it out of the ghetto.
The idea at the heart of In Time is brilliant. By making time and money one and the same, Niccol creates a world in which social inequalities are exacerbated and, if not actually worse than in our world, more visible. He wisely doesn’t waste time trying to explain how the whole thing works, but instead delves right into the logical consequences of his premise. The early parts of the movie are by far the strongest; you see people working at the factory, earning time so that they can come back the next day to do the same, or quite literally drink and gamble their lives away in cheap bars. Making rent really is a matter of life and death, and homeless people are routinely found dead in the streets, having “timed out”. Unfortunately, Niccol seems to feel that his metaphor isn’t explicit enough, and he litters the movie with increasingly awful and irritating time-related puns. Cops are “timekeepers”, people who have inherited their wealth “come from time,” Cillian Murphy states that he “didn’t start the clock” and “can’t turn it back,” and so on. “I’d say, ‘your money or your life,’” one character says at some point, “but since your money is your life…” Yeah, we get it.
The other, more important problem with the film is that Niccol doesn’t seem to have much interest in the actual story. Will is an extremely bland character: he’s handsome, knows how to fight, always wins at poker, and has little to no personality. Sylvia doesn’t fare much better, as the archetypal poor little rich girl, bored with her easy life and ready to fall for the first bad boy that shows up and promises adventure. There is a massive discrepancy between the scale of the story and what’s at stake. Niccol would have us believe that Will and Sylvia’s actions could lead to the collapse of the capitalist system in which they live, yet the story remains that of a couple of good-hearted criminals hounded by one ruthless cop, with Alex Pettyfer thrown in as a minor cartoony (and deeply annoying) villain. There’s no popular movement either in favor or against (or, more realistically, both) Will’s actions, and there’s no one to back-up the local cop against the criminals that threaten to make the whole system topple. The final shot of the movie, which I won’t spoil, could be read as a nice commentary on that issue of scale if it wasn’t so unironic.
All that makes In Time at once extremely relevant and entirely at odds with what’s happening in the real world. At a time when the Occupy movement seems only to be picking up steam in spite of a generalized and often violent crackdown, this “me against the world” story seems most unrealistic. (Although Gattaca followed the same pattern, it worked there because the ultimate collapse of the system was symbolic rather than literal.) Then again, that makes sense considering the pre-digital sensibilities of the film: although In Time is supposedly set in the near future, there seems to be few to no cell phones (payphones are everywhere, though), and the internet is conspicuously absent. Only the cars look somewhat futuristic, with their weird lights and odd revving sounds. In Time’s world looks like a glossier version of the future as depicted in 1970s and ’80s films, rather than as the future as we would imagine it now, down to the cool cars as symbol of technological development. In that light, Niccol’s film seems to send a most ambivalent message, at once decrying a broken capitalist system that crushes everyone but the super-rich and yearning for a simpler time, before the internet mucked up everything, when one man alone could make a difference. When exactly that time was, I have no idea. After all, even Charlton Heston was powerless against Soylent.