One’s tolerance for the 2011 Andrew Niccol movie In Time will depend on one’s tolerance for time-based puns. People live in class-segregated areas like the Districts of Hunger Games, except they are called Time Zones. Police are called Timekeepers. People continually threaten to clean each other's clocks. Banks are called “time banks.” But this is a movie where society is based around the old idiom that “time is money” made way too realistic. Subtlety is not really in the cards.
The movie sets up a hyper-capitalist situation, which fits with Niccol’s other movies. Gattaca focused on genetics, and here we run into green counters on everyone’s arms. After twenty-five years, you’re given one year, and then you’re on your own. People buy everything with time, and Justin Timberlake’s Will Salas works in a factory that makes the little sliver things that can give and take away time.
In Time is distinctly of its moment, having the luck of opening during the same year Occupy Wall Street began talking about the 99 percent. It is an idea searching for a plot to fill it, but it’s fun enough to watch this odd movie try.
When it works, In Time can make clever points. It plays against class stereotype by specifically framing the poor as hyper-efficient, constantly running everywhere to make sure not a second is wasted. People get mad at each other when they’re trying not to get screwed over on weekly pay because they don’t want their time wasted. A sneering Vincent Kartheiser (taking a break from sneering on Mad Men) plays Philippe Weis, an effete time-banker (?) who talks about the glories of Darwinian capitalism.
The problem of the movie is Timberlake, who was never cut out to be an action star and reacts flatly to the action around him. But In Time is less focused on his star than it is the world, although it quickly does away with the initial premise. A man rich in time, Doom Patrol’s Matt Bomer suddenly appears in Salas’ poor Time Zone, and once Will helps him escape, he gives him over a century’s worth in time and promptly commits suicide. Bomer gives a moving speech about how dying is natural. The movie soon moves away from this plotline.
Rather, In Time is concerned with getting Will from his poverty-stricken Dayton into the rich Time Zone of New Greenwich (another time pun). There, after a high-stakes time poker game, Will gets even richer in time, rich enough to impress recent Academy Award nominee Amanda Seyfried, who happens to be Kartheiser’s daughter.
If that doesn’t make sense considering the two actors' ages, it’s because I have not mentioned In Time’s oddest feature: everyone is frozen in age at 25, so it’s impossible to tell how old a person is. Niccol takes a few scenes to make sure everyone feels how odd this is, like an early scene with Timberlake’s mother, a 27-year old Olivia Wilde. Considering how Timberlake looks and actually was older than Wilde, it’s a truly weird scene. Timberlake once described the scene, saying, “it felt like one of those things you would do in class or something where, ‘Okay, you’re the mother and you’re the son and, go!’”
Cillian Murphy is a Timekeeper, whose main job appears to be harassing poor people and looking good in a leather jacket. There are the slightest hints of a greater world beyond the characters in this movie, but on the whole, it is self-contained. There’s no explanation of how this bizarre system came into reality, what the government looks like, and so on.
Niccol prefers to build a vibe over a world, and that vibe more often than not means cool cars. Timekeepers have no logos or badges, but rather drive around in modified 1970 Dodge Challengers. Rich people drive classic Lincoln Continentals. Timberlake time-buys a gorgeous 1959 Jaguar. Equally liberated and enslaved to time, fashion varies wildly, with people wearing 1940s suits and ‘90s wallet chains. Everyone is constantly discussing the rising cost of living, but where these costs come from is unclear. The result is a world that doesn’t fill as lived-in as the Marvel universe or Panem, but rather a quasi-movie world like those of Equilibrium and Dark City.
In Time doesn’t quite have that range: its politics are well-meaning but its plot is full of holes and its romantic leads don’t have much chemistry. In fact, Timberlake has more chemistry with his mother Olivia Wilde than he does with Amanda Seyfried, which is another weird thing. When In Time commits to the bit, it works. When it doesn’t, it’s one of those movies that you can simply stare at and appreciate that someone tried to make something this weird and got away with it.
In Time is streaming now on Amazon Prime in the U.S.