“In Time”… Clock, Stock and Barrel

Posted on November 5, 2011


When In Time begins, the screen glows a phosphorescent green, like a Cousteau documentary with nighttime shots of coral reefs and deep-sea fish. The camera pulls back – slowly; taking lots of time – and the fuzziness shapes itself into rapidly changing digits, like on an alarm clock, except that these numbers are scorched on a forearm, like a serial number on a prisoner at Auschwitz. The grim analogy is entirely appropriate in a film that situates its protagonist (Will, played by Justin Timberlake) in a ghetto pocked with privation. In Time depicts a sullen dystopia where aging is halted at 25 and life is terminated at 26. Anyone older is living on borrowed (namely, bought or stolen or gifted) time, and the green digits on the forearm indicate how much longer you’ll live. It is like being in a concentration camp – a life of endless toil, overcast with the constant awareness of death. Andrew Niccol, the director, established with Gattaca that he is committed to thoughtful sci-fi, and here too, he toys with the idea of a future whose citizenry is rent into haves and have-nots, and whose guiding light is Darwin. Only the fittest will survive. The fittest in Gattaca were those with good genes; here, as the horological title suggests, the fittest are the ones with the most time on their hands. Literally.

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This is a fine premise for a thriller. We embrace, in the present, the cliché that time is money, but in Niccol’s world, time is money. Time is the currency – a cup of coffee costs four minutes. Like harried businessmen, the residents of the working-class zone named Dayton – where Will lives – keep looking at their wrists, at the time. The pawnshops trade in time. Automated ticket-vending machines announce monotonically, “Please deposit one month.” When Will, a have-not, is touched by tragedy, he vows, “I’m going to make them pay.” He means, of course, that he’s going to take the people responsible – the haves – for all the time they’ve got. Will gets an unexpected gift – over a century, transferred to him by a 105-year-old who’s lost the desire to live. (The latter doesn’t look a day over 25, which is when he stopped aging; it’s safe to assume that nobody goes to medical school any longer to train in plastic surgery.) Armed with more years than he knows what to do with, Will sets out to the district of the haves, whose coolness and reserve Niccol paints in shades of ice-blue. (The ghetto community, in comparison, is doused in warm shades of amber.)

These early portions are queasily involving. Niccol’s future-world is rendered different not by extravagant computer imagery but through touches just a shade eccentric – a retro-looking mirror that folds into the wall like a concertina, or a phone that rests on a metallic pyramid-like base. The linguistically inclined among us are kept busy counting the shameless number of time-related puns, not a single one of which is left untouched. The most unremarkable of phrases (“Who has time for a girlfriend?” or “Got a minute?”) accrue new meaning. This lightness is slowly leavened through hints of racism, which is sometimes subtle. After Will wolfs down his food in the district of the haves – called New Greenwich, an altogether apt name for where the rich live (money is time, which, as displayed on the forearm, is green) – a waitress walks up and observes, “You’re not from around here, are you?” She knows because he does everything a little too fast, his eye on the clock. Timberlake, who has grown into an unexpectedly interesting actor, is perfect as someone from the wrong side of the tracks who’s nonetheless comfortable in the midst of people far above his station. He puts a boyishly handsome face on our naked desire to cheat death, to get more time.

Trouble arrives in the form of Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) – for Will, and for the movie. He accepts an invitation to a party at her father’s mansion, and when events conspire to land him behind bars (for a crime he did not commit), he escapes holding Sylvia as hostage. They embark on a cross-country run – Niccol runs out of ideas. There is a vital contemporariness in this story, where a few – say, one per cent – hoard the riches while the majority languishes in want. Niccol is right to transform his leads into Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Robin Hood – the have-nots rising in rebellion against the haves. But the far-flung social implications gradually simmer out of focus as the film narrows its sights on one man’s (and one woman’s) efforts to steer clear of the cop (Cillian Murphy) on their trail. (Will and Sylvia also have to dodge time bandits – which could have been this film’s title had it not been appropriated, earlier, by Terry Gilliam – who prey upon those with, um, too much time on their hands. The puns just keep inserting themselves, don’t they?)  For all his grandiose stabs at changing the world, all Niccol wants to do is borrow the premise and the predicate of Logan’s Run. By the end, In Time is reduced a bafflingly generic chase movie, with the audience left to their own devices to entertain themselves, wondering, perhaps, if a dystopian version of Scarborough Fair would echo with the refrain of “parsley, sage, rosemary and time.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: English