The chemistry between these two is a highlight of the film.

In Time is a movie that is so of the moment that it feels like it had to be on purpose though how Andrew Niccol (writer and director, also see the amazing Gattaca) could have predicted Occupy Wall Street is anyone’s guess. Maybe when he sat down to do the screenplay, he saw the writing on the wall. However it came to be, In Time has arrived just as an entire generation seems to have grown immensely tired of the abuses run rampant in America’s economic system. It is very much a movie for them, but also a loudspeaker for everybody who is sympathetic to the idea that our zero-sum capitalism is harmful. It nicely outlines some of the reasons why there are protest movements over the distribution of wealth and the subsequent balance of power in the United States and elsewhere. Because the film is populated entirely by young actors, a quirk provided by the premise, it also feels like a product of youth and as if it is speaking most directly to us. This combination is a powerful political cocktail and I hope that In Time catches on because it does have a lot to say to us, in this moment, now. Aside from all that, it’s an excellent movie that knows exactly how to walk the line between its lighter and heavier elements.

In Time is an allegorical film. It’s science fiction premise is less an extension of what our world is like with the twist of some new technology and more a kind of alternate world built up completely around its concept. As a result, it gets away with some glossing that a film more committed to realism would not. That In Time is often more of a fairly tale than anything else is still going to bug people even with that caveat. Oh well, their loss. The premise is that we stop aging when we turn 25 and are allotted an extra year to live, but after that we’re on our own to make enough time to survive. The scarcity at play is one of space and resources, I imagine, as one character puts it, “everyone can’t live forever, where would we put them?”. As a result, people keep working just to live another day, week, year. That sounds pretty familiar right? We may not literally work to live in our part of the world, well in most cases, but we can certainly understand the concept of labor exchange for needs, wants, etc. The city in which the film takes place is split into “time zones” in much the same way contemporary cities have poorer and richer districts. There are no longer police in the regular sense, but rather Timekeepers who try and keep people from killing each other for time. In the poorer areas, such as Dayton where much of the film takes place, crime is a serious problem and people are so concerned with keeping their own clocks going that every other concern is on hold. It’s a ghetto filled with fit, attractive people. Many of them white. It’s a weird thing to see.

Though it isn’t about these things, In Time does a lot of great world-building without much exposition. We see how the world functions, we don’t hear endless yammering about it.

While there are many zones we don’t see, the other end of the spectrum is represented by New Greenwich where all the rich people live together. One of the themes of the movie that does deal head-on with the idea of potential immortality is that these people don’t really live. They have bodyguards because they are worried about being murdered and robbed, they stay away from the poor zones where they are a target for Minutemen, groups of criminals that survive by preying on others’ time.

Our inside to this whole mess is Will Salas, played by Justin Timberlake in his first starring role and one where we see whether all that charm and presence he’s leveraged to positive effect in lesser roles over the last few years amounts to anything. I’ve been saying that he’s got potential since Alphadog and I’m not surprised he handles In Time so effortlessly. Will is a good guy with a bumpy past, something that is more alluded to than shown but is in evidence whenever he has to throw down or stay a step ahead of his enemies. Will is like many of us, living in the system and trying to make it work for him without breaking too many rules along the way. He doesn’t begin any journey toward questioning it or damaging it until it kills his mother. At the same time, one of Will’s good deeds leaves him holding over a hundred years of time from a suicidal rich guy. Unused to thinking beyond the next few hours, Will does not start out with any big plans to become a rebel or economic terrorist. That the structure of the film is so strongly tied to the concept of perspective on time is brilliant and a detail I hope audiences won’t miss as they watch.

Not the action hero you’d expect, maybe, but definitely one to watch by the end.

One of the jarring things about the movie, used to glorious effect and never overused, is that his mother is played by Olivia Wilde. They look the same age because they pretty much are and selling that these characters are mother and son is a fucking feat. Both actors make it look easy. After her death, Will is determined to get some kind of vague payback. He’s at this point starting to wake up to the fact that there are people who keep things desperate for his class, even though they don’t have to. The scarcity is false but Will is still just one guy, unused to thinking past the next few hours (the pattern emerges!). His grand plan, then, is to beat rich fuckers at poker. It isn’t until he meets Sylvia Weiss (Amanda Seyfried) that everything begins to fall into shape, both of them actually acknowledging that they feel like they don’t have a choice but to continue their crime spree and take it as far as it’ll go. Timberlake and Seyfried have a fuckton of chemistry and it helps them get past the preachier bits as well as some stiff dialogue during their early scenes. Their attraction to each other is completely believable and has to be, since so much of the movie depends on it.

Sylvia’s father Phillipe (Vincent Kartheiser of Angel and Mad Men) who is one of the richest men around, a guy who actively works (via time banks) to keep the whole system running the way it does, is the closest thing to a big bad that In Time has. He calls it Darwinism and is an overall stand-in for the hawkish capitalists that fucked the bottom out of the economy. The enemy is really the system itself, but Phillipe Weiss is an agent of that system and one of the faces behind the curtain. In the movie, it takes Will and Sylvia’s Bonnie-and-Clyde rampage to upset the system enough that things might change. After the Timekeepers come after Will, convinced that he is responsible for the death of the man who gave him that first hundred years, everything begins to move inexorably toward that rampage. Watching it all unfold is great fun and gives us all the space we need to see this world, get this allegory, and walk away satisfied.

It’s all in those gigantic eyes.

While it didn’t have to, In Time also makes room for additional adversaries that each have their part to play in the allegory. The Timekeepers are economic enforcers, and some people think police forces in general are the same. Even crime is represented in the film, a problem for and of the poor and desperate. I should mention that Cillian Murphy is an MVP in the movie. He’s such a great actor and does the best job selling the idea of an experienced, older mind walking around in a young body. His Raymond Leon, a leading Timekeeper, has a gruff integrity that balances out the idealism and urgency of Will and Sylvia’s activities.  Leon isn’t strictly speaking a villain, but a just man enforcing an unjust system. That he doesn’t suddenly have a change of heart at the end (but that one of his subordinates do, in a quiet tiny subplot that pays off excellently) is fittingly against expectation.

Murphy is a safe bet but I was totally surprised by Alex Pettyfer. I didn’t even recognize him. Pettyfer plays Fortis, the leader of the Dayton Minutemen who maintain an intermittent and threatening presence throughout the movie until they finally corner Will and Sylvia and we find out what the “strongarm fighting” that is referred to a few times is all about. It’s a great frigging scene and probably the case-in-point for that Justin Timberlake definitely has this acting thing in him. All the actors seemed to be having fun in this movie but Pettyfer always seems to be having the most. His character is a charismatic monster who earns the great comeuppance Will delivers.

Alex Pettyfer being awesome. For a change.

In Time is a fiercely idealistic movie. It kind of has to be. The notion that distribution of wealth is just economic Darwinism is a pervasive one. Most people buy into the idea that if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. You could always work harder, be smarter, etc. They say that insulated in the idea that they could be rich too, if only they cared enough to bother. But no, they are satisfied where they are but they don’t want to hear you complain if you made different choices or had no choice at all. That is a lot to stand up against, believe it or not. Though as written it may sound silly, it is the very allure of capitalism, it is the so-called American Dream which has really just become The Dream. Anyone can make it. You can make it. You’ll be the exception. But what if you’re only supposed to think that, what if it’s as reliable a commodity to the status quo as time or money are themselves? Kartheiser gets a nice speech as Phillipe Weiss that encapsulates the exploitative nature of this uncomfortably familiar system.

Against that are Will and Sylvia who would rather give and live, where living is about the idea that “you can do a lot with a day”. It’s no accident that this phrase is repeated in the film. At one point, Will says to Phillipe Weiss that no one should have immortality if it means even one person has to die. This is extremely idealistic, even to me, but the idea needs to be expressed. If there’s enough whatever for some people to live like the Weisses in New Greenwich or the rich people in your city, your country, this world here, then there’s enough for everyone. But it’s necessary because, in their world, people die in the street every day and they die because they can’t make enough time to survive or because others prey on them or because banks lend them time with exorbitant interest and the cost of living just keeps getting higher. Maybe the trade-off isn’t as stark for us as it is for the people Niccol has created for his movie, but it should sound familiar by now. It’s a dismal world and a pretty compelling parallel for the kind of poverty you can see every time you drive through the wrong part of town. It’s a world that does reflect ours, like any good science fiction world should do. While I don’t know that I agree with the utter selflessness of Will’s eventual philosophy, I know Peter Singer would and I do respect and admire the balls it takes to not only promote such a view but to live by it. It’s an idealism and a philosophy that I think has a foothold in my generation, the generation that is looking around at the world its inheriting and saying “wait, what the fuck?” and maybe trying to do something about it.

So while it is a fairy tale, and it is lighter than you might expect, In Time has something to say to us. Something relevant and important and directed at those of us with the potential to change the tone of our times. That is a pretty great thread for a breezy science fiction movie with guns and cars and mortal arm-wrestling.

Weisse doesn’t get the last laugh in the movie, but guys like him are laughing all over the place in our world even as I type this.