When my friends have a birthday, I like to joke that whatever age they are turning is the age where they start to die. In the world of In Time, writer/director Andrew Niccol’s new science fiction film, that literally happens at age twenty-five. Niccol imagines a world where minutes and seconds are the only currency, and the disadvantaged live hour-to-hour whereas the rich have centuries. The premise is a perfect allegory for present-day income inequality, and the sexy cast helps sell Niccol’s powerful conclusions. By favoring action over drama, Niccol cannot match his earlier films, yet its political relevance may help extend In Time‘s influence.
In an unspecified future, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) struggles to make ends meet. He’s almost always running out of time – represented by a glowing green countdown clock on his forearm – and his hustling cannot support his mother (Olivia Wilde). Don’t be confused by Wilde’s role; in Niccol’s world, nobody physically ages past twenty-five, and can appear that young forever. A chance encounter with a wealthy, “old” man leaves Will with more than a century to spend.
Leaving the poor ghetto for a secure district of privilege, Will indulges in luxury. A poker game with Philippe (Vincent Kartheiser) leaves Will flush with a millennium of time, so he can easily ford a sexy new convertible. But Leon (Cillian Murphy) the Time Keeper, Niccol’s version of a cop, is on Will’s trail. Before Leon can make an arrest, Will kidnaps Philippe’s daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) and races back to the ghetto. Sylvia has a strong case of Stockholm Syndrome, and soon becomes her captor’s partner. Furious at the system, Will and Sylvia upend the status quo by robbing one time bank at a time.
Like any self-respecting science fiction film, In Time develops its own vocabulary. Niccol conflates the language of time and money in an inventive way, adding life-or-death stakes to prosperity. The way the forearm countdown creates suspense is a no-brainer: Will has multiple times where he has mere seconds to live and must find a creative way to recharge his clock. But the science fiction is its most fascinating when Niccol’s characters resort to class warfare. The wealthiest characters are smarmier since they act older than they appear. Vincent Kartheiser, aka Mad Men’s Pete Campbell, is perfect for this kind of role, since Philippe and Pete and shitheads in the same way.
The premise is more fun to discuss than the movie itself since Niccol never gives his characters time to develop. Every additional car chase and shoot-out (and there are many) represents a missed opportunity to give In Time a human dimension. This is a stark contrast from Gattaca*or The Truman Show, Niccol’s best films, which give their heroes the perfect combination of vulnerability and resolve. In fact, Timberlake’s character is more like James Bond than an everyman, especially when he struts into a casino with a sharp tuxedo. Seyfried and Murphy are icily competent in supporting roles, yet this is the Timberlake show. He is a natural action hero – he has the charisma and the breezy athleticism – and Niccol uses his likability to get audiences sympathetic to his radical message.
On the streets in America and abroad, the Occupy movement bears a strong resemblance to the In Time. Both the movie and the movement are about how many rise against a powerful few. All that’s missing are forearm clocks, retro-meets-future production design, and, well, armed robbery. Maybe that’s why Niccol opted for an action-driven film. Without the gun play, Will’s world would resemble ours too closely, and we need some separation to swallow this kind of revolt. Whether through prescience or luck, In Time is the rare mainstream entertainment whose ideas are have more velocity than its car chases.
* Intentionally or not, Niccol duplicates many of his shots from Gattaca, including a night-time swim into the ocean.