Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy discovers, or has someone hand to him, a bag full of money. Bad guys come after him. The cops come after him. A pretty girl gets mixed up with him. Chaos ensues. It’s easily the most hoary of noir clichés, and every generation of filmmakers tries to come back to it with new graphics and hardware.
In Time takes the bag-o-bucks and swaps it for a science-fiction concept that, I admit, I adored for its audacity and potential for social commentary. At some unspecified point in our future, money no longer changes hands. Instead, time really has become money. The world is populated with folks who are the product of careful genetic engineering. At the age of twenty-five, they stop aging — and a fluorescent clock on their arm begins counting down from one year. They can work to accumulate time — or gamble, or steal — but as soon as that clock hits zero, they’re dead. It’s Logan’s Run by way of D.O.A., if you want to get your science-fiction chocolate in my noir peanut butter some more.
The first and most merciless insight that the film derives from this setup is how it will create, and preserve, all of the same ruinous inequalities that we experience in our own world. The poor are stuck in ghettos where they live literally from day to day (and sometimes hour to hour), where a week’s overtime just gets siphoned away by the rising cost of living, where it costs days or months on end just to go to another “time zone”, and where it’s not uncommon to step over the body of a co-worker in the gutter.
Such things fill the first half-hour or so of the film, which deliver another surprise: a pleasantly capable (if stolid) Justin Timberlake in the lead role. He plays Will, a factory worker, living a hand-to-mouth existence in a dingy apartment he shares with his mother (Olivia Wilde, Tron: Legacy and Cowboys and Aliens), producing the time clocks that are used to shuttle time between people and store it for the powers that be. One night Will goes to a bar with a friend, and spares a playboy named Henry (Matt Bomer) from the local time-robbing thugs. Henry’s loaded to the tune of a hundred years, precisely the sort of thing you shouldn’t be flashing around in a bad neighborhood, but he doesn’t seem to care. Immortality has become a malaise for him: what’s the point of having all this time when you’re constitutionally incapable of figuring out anything interesting to do with it?
Will gives him a dressing-down for his self-absorption: if he had that much time, he wouldn’t be wasting it … or for that matter, hoarding it. The next morning he wakes up and discovers all hundred-plus years have been transferred to him, and his friend has “clocked out”. Worse, his mother miscalculates how much time she has for a bus fare and ends up dropping dead in Will’s arms. With nothing better to do, Will heads into one of the tonier parts of the city to … get revenge? It’s unclear what his exact motivation is, but maybe that’s deliberate: someone who’s just suffered that many shocks is probably not going to have the clearest life plan anyway.
This is where the film begins to step wrong, although not fatally so. Will gets into a high-stakes poker game with the wealthy Weis, owner of many time banks and high-interest time loan operations. Weis’s restless daughter, Sylvia, catches Will’s eye — and when one of society’s Timekeepers, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), comes after Will, he grabs Sylvia as a hostage and goes on the lam. No prizes for guessing the rich girl’s daughter eventually goes all Stockholm Syndrome on her captor after her first taste of gun-wielding liberation. It’s not that their time-bank-robbing adventures and ultimate showdown with Daddy and Leon are letdowns, but that we can sense a far more interesting story slipping through the fingers of this one.
What there is here, though, is a notch or two above what typically passes for SF in mainstream movies, in big part because the story lends itself naturally to many varieties of allegory and social commentary. Readers of books like Nickel and Dimed, wherein are laid bare the various ways the poor are unable to be anything but poor because the system punishes them for it, will see a lot of familiar territory here. I was also reminded of Nova Express-era William S. Burroughs — “Who monopolized Life Time and Fortune?” — and his cynical insights about capitalism: never give away something for nothing; always make the buyer wait as long as possible; always take it all back if you possibly can. We see all this happen, and the movie’s final comment on it is that any system that perpetuates unfairness on its own participants is not going to be sustainable. (It helps our heroes immeasurably that most everyone in their world can be easily bribed.)
I have always appreciated how constrained resources force you to be creative. SF movies from Japan, for instance, are shot on miniscule budgets, but the good ones make up for it with ingenuity and inspiration. In Time has the same focused, scaled-down flavor: it was shot entirely in Los Angeles and the surrounding environs, in neighborhoods that didn’t need much dressing-up to be either bleak or sterile, with only as much set dressing as was needed to make the point. (The retro-futuristic cars probably cost more than anything else.) It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized writer-director Andrew Niccol had done the same thing with his earlier and somewhat more successful Gattaca, another film where a brave few also fought against the way a social destiny had been preordained for them. But I was also reminded of Equilibrium, another dystopian future created out of sleek, slimmed-down pieces of the present, which also probably cost the filmmakers less than the catering budget for any tentpole of that year, and which while it also descended at the end into action-film clichés still had enough original things to say to make up for it.
Again, the biggest problem with In Time is that the film gradually forgets it’s SF, or even allegory, and becomes just another criminal-lovers-on-the-lam-from-the-cops picture with a fantasy gimmick. It’s not that I dislike crime-noir pictures, even when they’re played straight — Bonnie and Clyde is one of the greatest American movies ever made — it’s that we get there by way of a concept that has, theoretically, far more to offer than such a retread. It also isn’t a mistake to wrap science fiction inside noir, or vice versa. Blade Runner did that to outstanding effect. It’s only a mistake when you start with the possibilities of one, but end up constrained by the limitations of the other. Like Henry in the film, it has a fantastic gift that it can’t think of anything really interesting to do with. But people curious as to how SF can be done without blowing a nine-figure budget should take a look.