In Time (2011): Immortality is for the 1%
Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011) is a dystopian action drama that shows a future world where time is literally money. According to the opening voiceover, everyone stops aging as soon as they hit the age of 25, with the only catch being they’re only given one more year to live. However, extra time can be bought and sold. And now, people go to work and are paid in hours that prolong their lives. When they buy food, it brings them a few minutes closer to death. And of course, the super-wealthy are now virtually immortal.
Niccol himself referred to In Time as the “bastard child” of his directorial debut Gattaca, but it’s clearly meant as a thinly-veiled allegory for the 1% and the growing global divide between the haves and have-nots. It’s an intriguing premise, but unfortunately, there seems to have been a lot of effort to dumb down the concept so that even the slowest members of the audience would get it, and once the concept is fully established, the movie seems to have no clue where to go or how to come to a satisfying conclusion.
Just like everyone else in this future world, our hero Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) was given a full year’s worth of time when he was born, represented by a glowing green timer embedded in the flesh of his arm. The clock began ticking when he turned 25, but alas, Will is living hand-to-mouth in the seedier parts of Los Angeles and that time was gone before he knew it.
Will is now an underpaid factory worker who’s trying his hardest to not only keep himself alive, but also his mother (Olivia Wilde, who’s actually three years younger than Timberlake, stark evidence that this is a world where no one grows old). The two are just barely getting by, often ending up with mere hours or minutes to live before getting their next paycheck.
This is an everyday struggle for Will until he ends up rescuing a rich guy named Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer). Henry is from New Greenwich, the well-to-do part of town, and according to his arm-timer, he has over a century to spend. Naturally, this attracts the attention of a street gang who wants to rob him of his time (referred to here as “cleaning his clock”), but Will steps in and saves his life.
They hide out in an abandoned warehouse where Henry tells Will that he’s over 100 years old, and is just tired of living. He also reveals the true reason behind their time-based economy: If everyone were immortal, the world would soon be overpopulated, and so a system was put in place to ensure that the poor die off while the rich stay alive forever. After their chat, they both manage to fall asleep, but when Henry awakes he quietly gives Will all but five minutes of his time.
Henry soon “times out” and falls off a bridge to his death. His body is later discovered by “timekeepers”, the homicide detectives of this future. The lead timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) wrongly concludes that Will murdered Henry, and makes it his mission to find him and bring him to justice.
Meanwhile, Will now has a hundred years at his disposal, and he goes to meet up with his mother to share the good news. But due to unfortunate circumstances, his mother runs out of time just seconds before he can get to her and pass on some of his time. She dies in his arms, and Will is so enraged that he decides to make the upper class pay.
Will soon calls a taxi to take him out of his “time zone” and into New Greenwich. Eventually, he ends up at a ritzy casino, playing high stakes poker. And I do mean high stakes, because a losing hand can literally take years off your life. Will goes up against an extremely wealthy man (Vincent Kartheiser) with thousands of years to spare, and manages to win a hundred of those years on a straight flush.
The man also has a woman sitting next to him who catches Will’s eye. The rich guy points out that Will has no way of knowing if the woman is his wife, mother, or daughter due to everyone looking the same age, noting that in the past, things used to be so much easier. But to Will’s relief, the woman turns out to be the guy’s daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).
Will attends a party at the man’s house in the hopes of getting to know Sylvia better. That’s when the timekeepers track him down and arrest him, taking back all his time and leaving him with only a couple of hours. With some quick thinking, Will manages to escape and take Sylvia hostage to ensure safe passage out of the house. They manage to shake off the timekeepers, but on their way back to Will’s home time zone, they get into a car crash and a gang comes along to rob them of nearly all their time.
The two make a mad dash to a pawn shop, selling off Sylvia’s diamond earrings in order to get enough time to stay alive through the night. Predictably, Sylvia slowly begins to realize what it’s like to live among the common people and not know if you’re going to survive another day. The two decide together to make a ransom demand of Sylvia’s father, but they want the ransom to be delivered to a mission that gives time to the poor. When her father refuses to do it, Sylvia starts to realize he might just be a bit of an uncaring douchebag, and that brings her even more towards Will’s line of thinking.
The two then go on a robbery spree, stealing from her father’s “time banks” and handing out time (which can apparently be stored in sleek silver boxes) to the poor. But they eventually realize that this isn’t going to change the system. A thousand years isn’t cool, one can imagine Will saying. You know what’s really cool? A million years.
And so, they head back to New Greenwich to rob Sylvia’s father, breaking into his special private vault containing a cartridge worth one million years. They plan to hand this out to the poor as well, which is apparently enough time to truly disrupt the economy.
They escape and the timekeepers are hot on their trail. After a major car chase, the duo get the time to the mission where it’s given out to the people who need it most. The movie ends with Will and Sylvia about to rob an even bigger bank in their quest to bring equality to all.
When it comes to In Time, the concept was really interesting, and I think it did a good job of making a statement on some of the injustices going on in our freewheeling capitalist economy. I’m not sure a time-based system could ever work in reality, but it was set up convincingly enough that I could just go with it.
However, after the concept is explained, the movie gets rather predictable. The notion that time can be stored away in vaults unfortunately turns this into more of a bland heist picture. And really, the rich do kind of have a point that’s never addressed here. What happens if everyone gets to live forever? Won’t that just drain the world of resources and cause overcrowding and lead to even more crime and suffering? Obviously that doesn’t justify killing off the poor, but there was no depth to the movie’s resolution other than “everyone deserves equality”.
The movie also suffers from being too heavy-handed, and explaining too much, and obviously being made for a teen demographic. You can tell this is why Niccol got the gig directing the Stephenie Meyer adaptation The Host, because it aims at the same audience and is about as deep and thoughtful. Also, from growing up in the ‘90/‘00s, I already have a few issues taking Justin Timberlake seriously, but the rather lackluster feel of this movie made him even more unbearable.
But even putting aside Timberlake’s acting, the dialogue and other aspects of the film were just sort of there. Nothing stood out, nothing was popping off the screen, and the entire movie blends into a rather formulaic action story of two Robin Hood-like fugitives evading the law. You start to feel like everyone was only involved long enough for their paychecks to clear. Even though they add the mathematically necessary amount of action scenes, it just didn’t stand out as something I’d care to watch again.
Also, there seems to have been a few plot threads left dangling. Throughout the film, the timekeepers constantly mention Will’s late father, who was apparently fighting the system, or trying to help the cause of the lower class, or something. However, his story isn’t really followed through, and I have no idea what the point of all that was. And the whole plot is set in motion by a guy who apparently gets tired of living after 100 years. Call me crazy, but if I was insanely wealthy, it would probably take me at least 500 years before I started to get that bored with life.
If you’re looking for an easy watch, then this film might be a good pick. But don’t expect anything that will wow you or leave you thinking after the credits roll. If dystopian class warfare is your thing, you’re probably better off just watching Gattaca than wasting time and money on this glammed-up and dumbed-down take.