The thing to understand about In Time—the latest from Gattaca director Andrew Niccol—is that it isn’t a good movie. Characters lack compelling motivations, action set-pieces veer from boring to incoherent (In Time apparently takes place in a world where everyone is an expert marksman), and it’s hard to take Justin Timberlake seriously as an action hero.
But for as much as In Time fails as an action thriller, it fascinates as one of the most overtly ideological—and openly left-wing—movies of the year. The film’s premise is straightforward: at some indeterminate time in the future, humans were genetically modified to stop aging at 25, at which point they receive a year of time, which is the world’s currency. Time can be exchanged between people through a touch on the forearm or earned through work, and when you run out, you die. Like most people in this world, Will Salas (Timberlake’s character) is time-poor, lives in the slums, and works an industrial job in order to scrape through a working-class existence with his mother (played by Olivia Wilde – yes, it’s weird).
After rescuing a very rich man (played by Matt Bomer) from a crew of gangsters, it’s revealed to Salas that the system is completely rigged—the rich (those with centuries or millennia of time) live in lavish, guarded communities where they tightly control the supply of time and live lives of near-immortality, while ordinary people toil and die and pine for the endless life they’ll never attain (a heavy-handed reference to the dreams of wealth held by many Americans.)
From here on, the movie becomes a full-on Marxist critique of capitalism. As something of a reward for saving him, the rich man gives Salas his entire century—and dies in the process. Salas attempts to use his newfound wealth to treat his mother, but she is unable to meet him under her allotted time, and dies as a result. Spurred by his grief, Timberlake uses his time to infiltrate a nearby wealthy community and steal as much as he can, to redistribute it to the slums. In the course of this, he meets Amanda Seyfried’s character, Sylvia Weiss, a young, disillusioned socialite with a tremendously wealthy father—and together they embark on a quest to rob her father’s banks and shower the poor with time. It’s as if you took Bonnie & Clyde and crossed them with both Robin Hood and a Depression-era leftist.
Cillian Murphy pursues the couple as Raymond Leon, chief of the Timekeepers—men and women tasked with maintaining the unequal distribution of time. If you’re keeping up with the film’s Marxism, Murphy also exists to illustrate the concept of false consciousness, through his commitment to a system that harms him (he’s underpaid) and his community (he’s a native of the slums.)
There are points when In Time’s commitment to its ideology gets a little tiring. When they’re not running across rooftops or stuck in formulaic high-speed chases, the characters are either denouncing the stranglehold of the rich, “It’s not stealing if it wasn’t theirs to begin with.”; defending it, “Many must die so that a few might have immortality.”; or bemoaning the extent to which individual action can’t break the system, “We can’t win. We can’t hurt them. The time we take makes no difference.” At the same time, what makes the movie interesting is the extent to which it runs with its theme.
It should be said that the movie is filled with genuinely good moments. Cillian Murphy’s performance impresses throughout, and Justin Timberlake is surprisingly subtle in his class mannerisms—walking with a fast pace, eating quickly, and carrying himself in a host of ways that mark him as a member of the low-time caste. Indeed, the film is at its best when it focuses on these cultural markers; during one action sequence, Timberlake and Seyfried assume that they’ll be able to escape the Timekeepers, on account of their class-bred aversion to taking physical risks. When Timberlake sees Cillian Murphy disregard his safety in pursuit of the duo, he realizes the extent to which Murphy shares his origins (and marks the moment with a well-timed “Unfuckingbelievable”).
It’s no exaggeration to say that more than anything else on screens right now, In Time seems to be the movie that most captures the mood of the moment. Millions are furious with a system that rewards the rich at the cost of everyone else, and In Time offers one possible solution—the forced redistribution of wealth at the hands of ridiculously attractive people.
For my part, I think we should approach this movie as Hollywood’s contribution to Occupy Wall Street; flawed, but still worth the engagement.