The very best science fiction is not about strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations for their own sakes. The point is — or was, until the overwhelming dominance of space opera — to turn a mirror back on ourselves with just enough of a twist to help us see what familiarity had rendered us blind to. In Time gives us just such a mirror. There’s no way that writer/director/producer Andrew Niccol could have planned his dystopian masterwork to coincide with the crescendo of the OccupyX movements, but the coincidence is striking. But social commentary can only go so far; on top of that, this is a phenomenally well-made film.
We are so used to the idea of extreme income inequality that even when the system starts choking the life out of those at the bottom, we just shrug and think that’s the way it is. So to see it clearly we make this literal: everyone stops aging at 25, after which they have a year on their “clock”, which can be discharged and recharged at will. Time literally is money, and when you run out of time, you die. Niccol wisely refuses to explain the details of how this works, exactly, but the consequences are obvious: the rich not only live in opulence, they can live pretty much forever, so long as they don’t meet with any unfortunate accidents.
Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) works at an industrial plant in Dayton, in “Sector 12” — a ghetto where people live literally day-by-day. His mother, Rachel (Olivia Wilde), turns fifty with only three days on her clock and owing half that in rent alone. But Will has a strong sense of justice, and when he sees Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) flashing over a century around a dive bar, he saves Hamilton from being forcibly “timed out”. Hamilton, though, is fed up with the system he profits from — there’s more than enough time to go around, he notes, but everything is arranged so they rich stay rich and the poor keep dying. If everyone could live forever, after all, where would you put them all?
As Will sleeps, Hamilton gifts him all mbut enough time to get to a nearby bridge so he can time out over the edge. But this leaves Will with over a century in a neighborhood where people can tell if you’re carrying a week more than usual. He decides to visit the rich enclave of New Greenwich, where he meets Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) — a fabulously wealthy financier — and his restless daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). But his newfound wealth makes Will a target of both Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) and the crime boss Fortis (Alex Pettyfer). And that’s when the time starts hitting the fan.
The film fits together like, well, one of the fine watches Niccol uses for so many characters’ names. While Niccol works in the same reflective spirit as the best science fiction, he still does some serious world-building. Slang, traditions, behavior, and more have all been considered and fleshed out. And little of it comes in massive dumps of exposition, but rather it emerges organically, trusting the audience to process offhand references and fit them into a coherent picture. No detail is overlooked, and no time is wasted as the story pushes forward.
The design work is gorgeous, sleek, and sexy, even shot in the vaguely queasy greenish tinge that has become de rigeur for dystopian cinema. Colleen Atwood’s costume design in particular is fantastic, suggesting whole themes of fashion in this world. And then Roger Deakins’ cinematography comes along and makes all of this attentively detailed design look amazing.
Craig Armstrong’s score is wonderful, too; the obvious ticking-clock motif is present, but not overly dominant. Reminiscent of Thomas Newman’s work and filled with lush strings, oboes, and a haunting, wordless vocal, it underscores even the action scenes with a certain plaintive longing that Will certainly lives with.
Speaking of whom, Timberlake follows up his appearance in Friends with Benefits with another solid performance, proving his ability in action and science fiction this time. Unfortunately the same can’t really be said for Seyfried, who mostly looks pretty and naïve. She can’t quite muster the gravitas to sell her more important lines.
Luckily, Niccol gives his best rhetorical sound bites to Kartheiser, to Bomer, and to Timberlake himself. Over and over we are hit with these moral and ethical bombshells that seem obvious in context, but evidently aren’t when translated back to our own situation. It may seem heavy-handed, but In Time never claims to be anything but exegetical at heart.
The most powerful statement that Niccol makes isn’t in any of the lines, though; it’s in the way that even when their friends and neighbors are literally dying of poverty right in front of them, the residents of Dayton simply accept it as just the way things are. It’s no great feat for the wealthy in New Greenwich to close their eyes to the real effects of their lifestyles, but for those living in the ghetto not to be enraged by what’s going on seems inconceivable.
That is, until you consider that this is exactly what has really been going on, and how long it’s taken for people to react the way the finally are. With the science-fictional setting serving to turn up the contrast and make things that much clearer, it’s hard not to rush out and find a recalcitrant member of the “one percent” to shake by their lapels, asking how many people need to die to justify their life of luxury. But I was hardly a fence-sitter before; I only hope that this film manages to raise the consciousness that it sets out to.
Worth It: definitely; a must-see.
Bechdel Test: fail.