Who wants to live forever? That’s the question haunting every frame of In Time, the new sci-fi thriller that opens nationwide on Wednesday, October 26.
Set in the fictitious near future where time has replaced money as the unit of currency, at the age of 25 your aging gene is switched off and you are given just one more year to live -- if you can raise the money to turn off the ticking clock on your arm (like the rich) then you’ll live forever, but if you can’t afford it you’re going to die.
It’s a stark enough fable for our Occupy Wall Street era, where increasingly blatant social divisions create neighborhoods divided by class and cash. But in this world it’s time (not money) that’s traded on the global stock market. And just like dollars you can never have enough, and if you do your life span is potentially limitless.
As Raymond Leon, the Time Cop who pursues runaway fugitives played by Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried when they steal time, Irish screen star Cillian Murphy is like a force of nature or a terrifying avenging angel.
In Murphy’s hands, this steely eyed cop’s motivations are as complex as his character. He didn’t create the system, he doesn’t even like it, but he’ll be damned if he lets anyone change it.
Leon has no time for “everyone was doing it” rationales to excuse all the freeloading of time, because he knows what freeloading leads to -- recession and market crashes. He wants the system -- no matter how lethal it is, no matter how unjust -- to survive at any cost. That’s what makes him so dangerous and driven.
Murphy is perfectly cast in the role. His cold blue eyes and oddly expressionless face make him a deeply threatening man on a mission. And as Will Salas, the young man who discovers all the rot underneath the supposedly perfect system, Timberlake is an effective young everyman whose world is shaken by what he uncovers.
But it’s Irish-trained actress Olivia Wilde who supplies the emotional depth to In Time. Cast as Timberlake’s 50-year-old mother in the body of a 25-year-old (in reality Wilde is actually younger than Timberlake) she’s a hardworking woman living on literally borrowed time.
Because she and Timberlake live in the ghetto they have never seen anyone afford more than a day in time (which means they’re never ever late for work and that they can never stop working).
But life in the ghetto is terrifyingly harsh. Thieves prey on law-abiding citizens and people are every day killing for or running out of time.
Will Salas himself is the most unlikely of heroes (he doesn’t volunteer to become one, it’s just that his natural curiosity about what’s really going on gets the better of him). What he discovers is that there are other inaccessible zones where the rich citizens have time to burn, in stark contrast to the short lives he sees all around him.
If no one need ever die, how do you stop the population from exploding? Answering that question is at the heart of In Time, and you can tell in the first 10 minutes that it probably won’t be pretty.
What we discover is that there’s a good reason why the people in the ghetto are forced to work more and more for less time. By regulating them -- by keeping them on shorter and shorter leashes -- it becomes easier to cull the herd and prevent a population explosion.
As metaphors go it’s about as grim as can be. In Time wastes no time finding parallels between our own recession-hit economy and the fictitious world of the film.
What’s surprising is its utterly subversive message. If something has already been stolen is it theft to steal it yourself?
Wall Street brokers and bankers won’t see much to love in the film, which suggests that if you’re being screwed over by shadowy banking figures then the only thing to do is return the favor.
Echoing other classic sci-fi hits like The Matrix and Inception, In Time succeeds best when it maintains the courage of its convictions. This is a film with one central big idea that works best when it demonstrates how close that idea is to real life.
Unfortunately there are a lot of moments that are played for drama or sheer spectacle that distract us from the film’s central message. In particular, women will probably scoff at the sight of the utterly diminutive Seyfried running from the Time Cops in what appear to be jet black six inch Manolo Blahniks.
In fact she never takes them off, no matter how hairy things get (and things get awfully hairy), so here is a girl for whom style is literally more important than her own neck. That’s admirable, but not very believable.
Imaginative leaps of style over substance that one are all over In Time, probably due to choices made by director Andrew Niccol. He creates a futuristic world of retro police cars and women with short skirts, and his attention to these details sometimes overwhelms the film’s plot.
When In Time succeeds it’s due to its very timely message and the performances of Murphy and Wilde. Both of these actors know that it’s substance and not surfaces that carry movies and they blaze to life in every frame they appear in.
Wilde in particular demonstrates what an underrated actor she has been by bringing the only spark of real humanity to the film and giving Timberlake something to work with other than a bob-haired fembot in those ridiculous high heels.
Murphy, too, is a revelation in a role that he brings a surprising level of mystery to. We know that although he looks 25, he’s actually closer to 90 and he’s seen enough of the new world order to know that it’ll be tough if not impossible to beat.
As a former member of the ghetto who somehow managed to make it out (and buy himself a little more time) he’s unwilling to change the system that even he despises but does everything in his power to maintain.
What compels him? Why support what he can’t stand? Murphy has made his character the center of In Time, and the questions he asks are as troubling to the audience as they are to his peers. He’s a reminder of how hard some men will fight to protect a system that gives them a finger hold, however modest, when everyone around them is falling down.
That troubling question will make In Time resonate with anyone who sees it. Murphy’s performance reminds us that sometimes the worst choice is making no choice.
Watch the trailer for 'In Time' here: