‘In Time’ Is a Bad Action Movie, But a Radical Statement On Income Inequality

In Time, a mediocre action movie in which Justin Timberlake plays a poor boy turned revolutionary and Amanda Seyfried plays Patty Hearst, or close enough to it, is not a great film. It’s awkwardly written, its worldbuilding is incomplete, and its action scenarios are mundane and the setups that lead to them are ridiculous. But all that aside, In Time is a fascinating illustration of what we — and Hollywood in particular — refuse to speak aloud about income inequality in mass-market entertainment. And especially at a moment when Americans are literally being beaten in the streets for raging against vast wealth disparities, In Time feels almost revolutionary in its insistence that redistribution is the only option — it’s the rare movie that outflanks me from the left. In Time is a fascinating, flawed movie, and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. (It should be noted that no plot twists in this movie that you couldn’t discern from trailers appear in this review.)

In Time follows Will (Timberlake) a factory worker literally working for the time he needs to survive the day, after he obtains a large and unexpected amount of time and uses it first to gain access to upper-crust society, then to return to his own world with an heiress, Sylvia (Seyfriend) in tow. At first, she’s a hostage, but as her experience living in poverty and in constant risk of running out of time changes her, she becomes Will’s partner in a revolutionary crime spree, stealing and redistributing time from her father’s own company. Too anxious, perhaps, about the risk of being mistaken for a talky movie of ideas, In Time relies heavily on action sequences that work best when they comment on themselves and stall when played straight. “It went off! I was trying to help!” yelps Sylvia after she shoots a cop, in a nice little parody of mysteriously competent female action heroines. “Unfuckingbelievable,” Will mutters crankily after a ridiculous number of rounds have failed to dislodge that same cop from an interminable rooftop chase. But when the movie wants us to accept various transparently ridiculous ploys Will and Sylvia pull off — and when it expects us to buy that after a series of highly successful heists, Sylvia hasn’t bothered to pick up a decent pair of running shoes — it becomes just as silly as the tropes it’s riffing off. In one sequence, where the camera lovingly follows Will and Sylvia wrecking a gorgeous car in slow-motion, my screening companion leaned over and whispered “movie over” in my ear. I was hard-pressed to disagree. There’s a lot of showing rather than telling and general movie silliness about Seyfried’s outfits, though the movie’s depiction of eternal youth raises queasy implications of sexual confusion.

But for all the sound and fury the movie subjects us to, In Time has a vastly better claim than any movie I’ve seen in ages to using loud, attractive nonsense to deliver a message that otherwise would be confined to art house theaters. Avatar may have given us heartwarming visions of environmental interconnectedness, and Wall-E offered a disconcerting commentary on a world where we’ve destroyed ourselves and our planet through consumerism. But both of those movies displace their messages to the distant future and offer salvation through empathy. In Time may be in the future, but it’s a close one, in a world that looks disconcertingly like our own. And brutal confrontations with reality and revolution are what writer and director Andrew Niccol has on offer as solutions.

In Time is a perfect example of how science fiction, by displacing us from our present circumstances, can create space for us to talk more directly about them. It’s striking to see what movie characters can say when the word “money” is replaced with “time” that they’d never say without the linguistic switch,. “For a few to be immortal, many must die,” warns the wealthy Henry Hamilton at the beginning of the movie. “Everyone can’t live forever…Where would we put them?…The cost of living keeps rising so people keep dying…But the truth is, there’s more than enough. No one has to die before their time.” In a world where coming out as one of the 99 percent is still a cathartic act, a clear statement that income inequality kills is stark but important. When Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) spits, “Around here, they’re killing for a week…You can’t hide a year in the ghetto. They can sense when a man has a month more than he should,” his contempt is withering, but it’s almost more refreshing than the supreme hypocrisy of hearing Paul Ryan talk about how much he cares about the preservation of the social safety net. “How does anyone live like this?” Sylvia asks Will, appalled by the sense of panic she’s feeling for the first time. “You don’t generally sleep in,” Will tells her. Disgust for the poor cuts especially deep when you’re asking someone to literally choose between bus fare and dying before they get home to someone they love.

The enemy is everywhere. “If it’s a matter of resources, I’m happy to make a contribution,” Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) says to the Timekeepers chasing his daughter in a vicious parody of noblesse oblige, and the desire for reform only when the rich have need of social services. “It’s a scandal what we pay our Timekeepers.” It’s sickening to see Weis preach “Darwinian capitalism” when he’s benefiting from regulations that allow him to enrich himself on the backs of the desperately poor. When a woman goes in to a usurious moneylender who works for Weis’s vast company, she’s told that the interest on a month is 30 percent, and interest rates and prices in Will’s neighborhood rise as corporate interests try to undermine Will’s generosity by erasing the benefits the poor get from the time he’s giving away. And a sociopathic criminal (Alex Pettyfer) stalks the residents of the district, explaining to Will that “the reason the Timekeepers leave me alone is because I have boundaries. I steal from my own people.” There are all kinds of predators.

And the movie is uncompromising that the only solution is radical redistribution. “If you guys are looking for stolen time, you could arrest everyone here,” Will tells the Timekeepers when they first come to arrest him, then repeatedly asserts that he and Sylvia aren’t stealing if they’re liberating stolen wealth. “Don’t think of it as stealing,” he says at one point, inverting a term that’s come to mean taking things from people who can’t afford to keep up payments on them. “Think of it as repossession.” Redistribution is the sexual glue between Will and Sylvia.

But the subject of the movie’s most incisive movements may be the social signifiers that show who’s grown up with wealth and who hasn’t. Watching Will wolf a meal in a gorgeous restaurant, a waitress tells him, “You’re not from around here, are you? You do everything a little too fast.” And Sylvia, who’s grown up drowning in languorousness, is drawn to Will’s haste. “I saw you run,” she tells him. “It reminds me of people who come from the ghetto.” Even if there’s a revolution, people will still cling to distinctions of rank and privilege. And culture can be hard to kill than economics systems.