Andrew Niccol must be thanking his lucky stars that In Time, his dystopian movie about a world where the rich live forever and the poor die young, is coming out just as the fervor over the Occupy Wall Street movement is at a peak. In Time is all about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.
Should you see In Time in theaters? Maybe — it's not exactly a great movie, but it is a fascinating thought experiment, and it works if you think of it as a fable rather than a realistic story. Spoilers ahead...
Actually, you don't really have to worry too much about spoilers for In Time, because the trailers contain the entire story. And the basic arc is pretty simple, although there are a few clever twists along the way.
In In Time, it's at least 150 years in the future, and every human has been bioengineered to be basically immortal — when you hit 25 years old, you stop aging forever. To counterbalance this miracle and ensure an eternally young humanity doesn't overrun the planet, everybody only has a limited time to live, as indicated by the countdown clock under the skin on your wrist. When the aging stops, the countdown starts — everybody gets one year to live, but you can earn more years because "remaining time to live" is this era's currency.
It's all transparently designed as a method for avoiding overpopulation — as one person explains at one point, "Everybody can't live forever. Where would we put them?"
Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a plucky young guy who works hard and plays by the rules. He starts every day with less than 24 hours left to live, and he has to go out and earn more time before the day is over, or he dies. He seems basically content with this bonkers hand-to-mouth existence, until his world is turned upside down and he sees for the first time that the system is actually designed to kill poor people so that the rich can live forever. From then on, Will Salas is determined to "take them for everything they've got" and smash the system.
If you go into In Time expecting subtlety — or a story that entirely makes sense — you'll be sorely disappointed. Just like Niccol's other movies (he wrote The Truman Show and directed Gattaca) this is a movie that aims to be simple, clear-cut and contrived. The premise is a "what if" rather than something that could actually happen, and the economy of hours is an excuse to talk about economics rather than a plausible system of exchange.
Part of the pleasure of In Time, in fact, is reveling in how preachy it is. This movie is preachier than a Baptist convention. A few points are hammered home over and over again, like the idea that for a few to live forever, many must die. Please don't take a drink every time Justin Timberlake says something like, "It's not stealing if it's already stolen" — I don't think your liver could take it.
At the same time, this is a seriously fun movie, with the whole "Bonnie and Clyde" vibe and lots of zany action. Whenever people aren't standing around talking about social unfairness, they're running and shooting at each other and having car chases and driving off bridges and stuff. As one review I read put it, there's more running in this movie than ten episodes of Doctor Who. And everybody loves daring robberies and poker games and down-to-the-last-second victories. Not unlike Real Steel a few weeks ago, this is a fun, totally predictable movie about a plucky underdog who has the deck stacked against him but just won't quit.
In Time both is and isn't an allegory for our own widening gap between rich and poor. On the one hand, the actual situation is very different — there's no unemployment in Niccol's future, because if you don't work you die. Labor costs, in real terms, are at rock bottom. One of the ways the system encourages poor people to die off is by engineering runaway inflation, so that just buying a cup of coffee shortens your life by four minutes. So it's not a picture of life in the Lesser Depression, with massive unemployment and borderline deflation — rather, it's a picture of a world where extreme laissez-faire capitalism has won. And yet, Will Salas proves that a hardcore capitalist world is actually fragile and precarious.
There's no middle class in this movie, at least not that we ever see — there's just the immortal few and the short-lived many. Which makes this movie the perfect metaphor for the idea of the 1 percent and the 99 percent. In real life, poverty does kill people, and even the middle class are one serious illness away from being wiped out financially. Etc. etc. etc. So maybe In Time will become the semi-official movie of Occupy Wall Street — it's not a bad piece of propaganda.
The biggest problem with the film is really its star — you cannot take Justin Timberlake seriously in this movie, and the harder he tries to emote, the more he looks like a Shar Pei that feels bad about not being housebroken. He's very cute, and I like the fact that his head is equally fuzzy all over. He's pretty good at being a bouncy action hero, and you have no trouble rooting for him to wipe the smug grin off the face of Vincent Kartheiser, who plays an evil plutocrat. But you can't really buy into Timberlake's character as a real person, or even a relatable cipher.
On the other hand, as we mentioned yesterday, Cillian Murphy basically steals the movie as the cop who's chasing down Timberlake's character. All of the genuine emotion and complexity that Timberlake (and the other stars) fail to bring to the film are there in Murphy's amazing performance. Murphy's in a much better movie than everybody else, and it's pretty much worth seeing the film just to see Murphy playing a guy who works for The Man and actually believes in the system even as he sees the flaws with it. You can choose to watch this movie as a tragedy starring Cillian Murphy, and it works just as well. Maybe better.
Besides Timberlake's non-performance, though, there are other reasons why it's hard to take In Time seriously as a literal story. There is some seriously choppy editing, in which scenes seem to end in the middle or characters are suddenly halfway across the world — whoever edited this movie seems to have been having a nervous breakdown. Also, the worldbuilding is a bit silly. And the fact that it's at least 150 years in the future, but everybody's driving 1970s cars with weird things attached to their fronts is sort of funny. It's been at least 100 years since we eliminated aging and death, but otherwise technology has not advanced at all. Nobody has cellphones. In fact, there are no computers. (Although the fact that technology is stagnant is part of the point — the rich can live forever, so they have no need to take risks or try to innovate.)
Meanwhile, though, In Time does a lot of its worldbuilding via sound design, and it's curiously effective. The cars may look like Dodge Pacers, but there are cool sound effects whenever someone opens their car door or starts driving. The wrist readout with the "time left to live" countdown makes a noise sort of like an amplified, slowed-down heartbeat, and the "time draining away" sound effect when people pay for stuff is creepy and super-effective. Niccol milks the jarring visual of a glowing green countdown clock under the skin for all it's worth, too — the film starts with a weird closeup of all that green, and later, that eerie green glow catches you by surprise a few times.
And even if the world never feels real, the questions In Time raises do. As we watch Will Salas travel between the ghetto and the rich suburb of New Greenwich, the whole thing feels a bit like a fairy tale, and Timberlake's inability to act just makes it all feel more stylized and fable-like. Timberlake has to learn how to pretend to be one of the privileged few, and meanwhile we see how living forever makes life no longer worthwhile.
In the end, there are a few reasons why you really should see In Time in the theater: 1) It's a fun action/adventure movie, and Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried look cute running around and being bandits together. 2) Cillian Murphy gives a memorable performance as a good cop supporting a bad system. 3) This is a fun throwback to the days when science fiction movies were thought experiments mixed with social commentary, and it's a surprisingly effective parable about class divisions and how they hurt everybody. 4) It's probably the closest we're going to get to well-done OWS agit-prop any time soon.