In a new sci-fi thriller, writer/director Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show) takes the adage, time is money, at face value, imagining a world in which time has become the currency, and cars, gas, and coffee are purchased with days, hours, and minutes. It's a remarkably intriguing concept as it cuts so close to the way society already functions (half the money I spend in a given month is to save myself some time) while simultaneously presenting alluring possibilities. If we could actually bottle-or in this case, electronically harness-time, is there any question it would immediately become the world's most tradable commodity?
However, it soon becomes apparent that Niccol is less interested in exploring the implications of a dystopian world where one could buy back lost years or hoard eons than in using the premise as a metaphor for the real-world financial crisis. Like everyone else in the future, working-class Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) stops aging at 25. From then, he is given one year to sell, trade, or keep as he sees fit. Unfortunately he and his mother need it to pay down debts, and Will is reduced to living literally day to day, earning hours from factory work.
That all changes when he meets a suicidal fat-cat who tells him the dirty secret that there's time enough for everyone to have a reasonable amount, but the rich steal years they don't need from the poor. When he gives Will a century, Will is suddenly introduced to the opulent closed-off enclave of Greenwich where the wealthy have so much time they squander millennia on cars they don't drive and sea-front property they don't use.
This rigged-game view of capitalism is later reinforced when a faceless powerbroker tells a villainous Mr. Minute-bags that large amounts of time cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands because it will upset the balance of the "market." Even the police are in on it. The uniformed Time Keepers aren't interested in the petty larceny of days between the poor, only in making sure the large theft of decades is allowed to continue by the rich.
A bold setup, to be sure, and I was intrigued to see how Niccol would justify his parallels between Wall Street billionaires and his Greenwich Time Bankers. Sadly, he makes exactly zero attempt to craft a plot around these charges. Instead of building an intelligent, or frankly even an unintelligent case that haves steal from have-nots, he spends his precious hour and 49 minutes of screen time on a lot of cheesy, throwaway lines and Bonnie and Clyde-style action. If the protestors down at Occupy Wall Street made a movie, In Time (rated PG-13 for profanity and a lingerie-clad love scene) would be it.
Niccol's unfocused outrage is equally undermined by a view of poverty that is laughably luxuriant. In his ghetto (which would be a veritable paradise to at least half the world's population) the poor live in slightly shabby apartments where residents have their own bedrooms and private bathrooms. They even, as Will's mom (Olivia Wilde) demonstrates, have time to spend on silky, bust-enhancing negligees. (I couldn't help thinking that if the Salases economized their time a little better, they might not run so short of it.)
Despite the gaping door provided by its premise, In Time never seriously probes the deeper truth that time is not so much money as life. Even now we mercilessly barter the value of other people's time. To wit, it is not usually the financial cost of a child that pro-choicers point to as an argument for abortion, but the opportunity cost. A baby will take too much of a woman's time-time that could be spent on college or career-therefore they deem it acceptable to rob a child of an entire lifetime.
Interesting as the film is as a science fiction concept and dull as it is as a political allegory, the Christian understands that there is a fundamental flaw in the story, namely that W.H. Auden was wrong. We are already immortal and we can conquer time, or rather, we can redeem the time that has been conquered for us.