Movie Review: Occupy the Clock

In Time. A cerebral sci-fi film without a single explosion and starring Justin Timberlake? Yes, and it’s surprisingly, almost shockingly good.


In the world of In Time, time is quite literally money. The human genome has been modified so that people cease aging once they hit the age of 25. However, at that point, a clock is activated, represented by a series of glowing green digits on the forearm, counting down from one year. Once the clock reaches zero, you “time out” and die. This is complicated by the fact that, instead of cash, everything is paid for in time. A coffee might cost you 4 minutes, for example. The poor struggle every day to make enough time just to stay alive for the next 24 hours, while the rich can effectively live forever. After working-class Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) saves a well-to-do but ennui-stricken man from crime boss Fortis (Alex Pettyfer) and his Minuteman Mob, the man times himself out and gives Will his remaining time, which is well over a century. Will travels to the wealthy district where he intends to cause trouble for the upper classes, coming into conflict with tycoon Phillipe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) and attracting Phillipe’s bored daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Meanwhile, Timekeeper Leon (Cillian Murphy) is tailing Will as a prime suspect in his donor’s death, and Fortis wants Will’s newfound riches for himself.

Every second counts.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s debut film, Gattaca, explored a dystopian future where a person’s genetic code was a hardwired blueprint for his entire future. It was an extension of the superficial nature of human society, where the pretty and the high-born enter life with privilege that the rest of us can only dream about. In Time follows a similar path by taking the economic stratification of the United States and pushing it to its logical extreme. Economics has become a virtual, tyrannical caste system. The 99% literally struggle to live day by day while the 1% are immortal, barring anything unforeseen (bullets will still kill you no matter how much time you have on the clock). Crossing the toll booths just to enter the wealthy district may actually cost you your life. The status quo is brutally enforced, with the cost of living in the working class districts raised on a whim in order to keep the poor in their ghettos and keep the rich comfortable.

The political motivations of the film are pointedly clear. It was completed before the Occupy movements went national, but the same kind of economic disparity has been a part of American culture for some time. Like the best of classic sci-fi, Niccol has taken a real-world problem and amplified it to levels that make the story seem both fantastical enough to register as complete fiction, but disconcertingly real once the story has been digested by the brain. The setting of the film is never made entirely clear: it could be an alternate earth, or it could be some time in the future. The districts have the rather generic names of Dayton and New Greenwich. There is no major technological difference from the current day except in the design of car engines, and the aesthetic style is decidedly retro-chic. This could be any place in America, any time in the future.

Above: your future. Spend it wisely.

The opening voiceover states that it doesn’t matter how this all came about. The more important thing is that it happened and this is how things are. Niccol doesn’t waste time trying to show the origins of the time crisis, and his protagonist isn’t on a mission to punish those responsible. Instead, Will is determined to set things right. He’s not out to destroy the system; he’s out to make the system work fairly for everybody, to prevent hundreds of people from dying just so that one rich person becomes richer. To this end, Niccol doesn’t devote much screen time at all to explaining the time-based currencies. That’s just how it is. The characters all act very organically in this setting. There is no exposition other than a brief narration by Timberlake in the first minute of the film, and just from the first scene, Will’s world feels like part of a fully-formed and fully-functional socioeconomic biosystem.

The leads of the film generally are very good in making Niccol’s words and ideas come to life. Justin Timberlake is remarkably well-suited to the film. While he’s proved his comedic abilities time and again during his multiple stints as host of Saturday Night Live, he’s still trying to show that he’s just as capable of dramatic roles. While his performance won’t win an Academy Award, Timberlake slips very easily into Will’s skin, immediately reaching a distinct simpatico with the audience. He only overplays the script once (you’ll know it when you see it), but otherwise gives a confident, remarkably serious performance. He has a very natural chemistry with Amanda Seyfried, who has a more challenging dynamic to convey, going from petulant rich girl to sympathetic soul as she spends more time with Will. Sylvia’s story has some odd but distinct resonances with the Patti Hearst/SLA incident of 1974, which become more apparent when Sylvia and Will start robbing time banks. That Seyfried can make that transition seem real shows that she has the talent to act, just not the ability to choose the right films to show that talent off.

Taking romance one day at a time.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bunch, ranging from adequate to very good. Cillian Murphy does a great job as Timekeeper Leon, a steely, determined cop who finds himself upholding a system that he knows himself to be inherently unfair and repressive. With his magnetic baritone and piercing eyes, he’s a strong-jawed Javert to Timerblake’s near-future Jean Valjean. Olivia Wilde appears as Will’s mother, and she has far too little screen time. The fact that everyone in society is frozen in development at age 25 makes it easy to cast her as Will’s mother, but she works extremely well with Timberlake, and their bond feels very real. Vincent Kartheiser plays a variation on his character on Mad Men (or really, any character from Mad Men), but never quite comes across as authoritative or menacing as the script requires. He’s believable as an eons-rich billionaire, just not as a capitalist despot. Alex Pettyfer is very attractive, and he looks dashing in a pinstripe suit, but he tries a bit too hard to make Fortis look effortlessly ruthless. He’s a more effective and commanding antagonist than Kartheiser, however, so it’s a shame that Fortis’ story arc is often given short shrift in favor of Phillipe’s story.

Give him your watch or he’ll clean your clock.

Niccol does make a few missteps here and there. While he keeps the film blessedly free of the explosions and cacophonous mech battles that so often define current sci-fi, the pacing is sometimes slack. When an action sequence appears, it’s immediately exciting and sometimes even amazing (as in the scene between Will and Fortis), but in-between the film can sometimes grind to a near halt. It’s ironic that a film that’s all about making the best with the time you have allotted sometimes can’t make efficient use of its own running time. Some of the subplots brought up, such as what happened to Will’s father prior to the start of the film, appear a bit too abruptly and explained away far too quickly. We know that the events left a profound impact on Will, but why that impact still affects him is never fully explained. Niccol sometimes even knows he’s losing momentum, and before too much of this kind of thing can sink in, he’s got the plot up and running again.

A delayed flight is a matter of life and death.

Overall, In Time is a solid, well-acted, well-conceived and well-staged science fiction film of the classic, quietly cerebral Outer Limits/Twilight Zone variety. This is true sci-fi, fiction that uses a futuristic setting to make commentary on current problems. It’s not robots blasting each other over cityscapes, and it isn’t a meaningless alien invasion. This is about real people facing real-world problems on a hyper-real scale. It speaks a bit too well to the immediate state of American society, almost to the point of being unsettling on both a conscious and subconscious level. However, it’s a perfect distillation of the unease, anger and helplessness that many people feel in today’s economy, just with cooler looking cars. And come on: it’s not like you don’t have two hours to spare. Right?

Rating: 8 out of 10 / B+

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and needs to borrow a few hours for cab fare.<a href="; title="imageimage

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