Where every second counts
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct 28, 2011
Filmmaker Andrew Niccol is a deep thinker. Just look at his resume: writer of "The Truman Show"; writer/director of "Gattaca" and "Lord of War." Each of those movies, and even the dreadful "S1m0ne," has grappled with some Big Idea - the nature of reality, eugenics, man's capacity for violence.
So it's no surprise that his latest effort is a heady affair. Set in a dystopian future in which time is, quite literally, money, "In Time" engages with philosophy and politics in a way that few action movies do. What is a surprise is that the film - starring Justin Timberlake as a Robin Hood-like character who gives new meaning to the term "time bandit" - is not just thoughtful, but brisk and engaging.
In Niccol's invented universe, everyone has been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. (This leads to a cute running joke, which starts when Timberlake's Will Salas greets a character played by Olivia Wilde as "Mom.") You're given a year to live at that point, which will go up if you work hard (salaries are paid in minutes, not dollars), or down if you're a spendthrift. Here, the price of everything - food, clothing, rent - is measured by a clock, not a checkbook.
A digital readout on your forearm keeps track of how much time you have left, down to the second.
As in the real world, there are the haves and the have-nots. Residents of the ghetto where Will lives (called, punningly, Dayton) live from day to day. Most never have very much in the bank, but they manage to get by. Until they don't, at which point they drop dead. It's called "timing out" or, if they've been robbed by a gang of time-jackers known as the Minutemen, having their "clock cleaned."
By the way, you've never heard so many time-themed double-entendres in your life. "You got a minute?" a panhandling girl asks Will. "Take five," he tells her, before offering her several of his own minutes. Many of the characters are named after brands of expensive timepieces and high-end watch parts: Borel, Breitling, Jaeger, etc. It's a bit much.
Mostly, though, Niccol keeps his eye not on the clock, but on the action, which is set in motion when Will comes into a lot of extra time, courtesy of Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), an old man who has grown tired of living and who happens to have more than a century socked away. But Will gets more than a new lease on life; he also learns the truth about how the unequal system works.
It's a political wake-up call for our hero, who becomes radicalized. Will travels to the exclusive enclave of New Greenwich - get it, Greenwich mean time? - where the wealthy 1 percent who control most of the world's time live. There, he falls in with the rebellious daughter (Amanda Seyfried) of a wealthy industrialist (Vincent Kartheiser). The two set out to perform a little unauthorized redistribution of wealth.
Meanwhile, Will is being pursued by a dogged cop (Cillian Murphy), known as a timekeeper, who thinks Will robbed and killed Henry.
That's the action part of the movie, and it's lively and well acted enough to keep you from checking your watch. It's the movie's themes, however, that may keep you awake at night. Niccol has fashioned an effective economic allegory that could well become a rallying cry for the Occupy Wall Street movement. And its philosophy - that there is nothing more precious than time - is a pretty, if hackneyed, sentiment.
All in all, "In Time" is not just stylish but surprisingly substantial. From now on, you'll think twice every time you hear the phrase "rollover minutes."
Contains some violence.