In Time

[Christianity Today Movies, Oct 28, 2011]

Cast: Justin Timberlake (Will Salas), Amanda Seyfried (Sylvia Weis), Cilian Murphy (Raymond Leon), Vincent Kartheiser (Philippe Weis)

[SPOILER ALERT!!  SKIP FIRST PARAGRAPH TO PRESERVE SUSPENSE…not that there’s any suspense, really]

The most frightening, and eerily timely, image in In Time comes close to the end, when we see that a bank collapse in the wealthy district of New Greenwich is spreading. On a wall-sized electronic map, areas that in earlier scenes were placidly blue are now pooling red. The stain spreads and spreads, till all the world is furiously blinking out this sign of danger—no longer merely threatened, but finally arrived.

And that’s the happy ending.

It’s this unintentional resonance that threatens to turn In Time from a nifty thriller into an unintentionally obtuse message-movie, one that seems to say that an international financial disaster would be the best thing that ever happened to the poor. There may have been eras in the last few decades when a saucy statement along those lines might have been relished. Now is not one of those times.

That’s a shame, because the movie is all about time. “I don’t have time. I don’t have time to tell you how it happened,” lead character Will says in an opening voiceover. (It’s the anti-exposition. I like to picture the originally scripted explanation getting more and more complicated till someone finally said, oh, let’s cut the whole thing.) The situation is that money has been literally replaced by time. Humans have been genetically modified to live 25 years. On your 25th birthday you stop aging, and you start dying. On your forearm is a row of 13 digital spaces, blinking green numerals, that indicate how many years, days, seconds you have left. The countdown begins, and after one year’s grace period, you must find a way to earn every minute of life to come. Otherwise you “time out”—you die.

Will Salas lives in Dayton, a working-class district. Each day he has to find a way to earn enough hours to live one more day; as he says, “I want to wake up with more time on my hands than there are hours in the day.” The re-assigned meanings of almost any commonplace about time are just one of the ways this time-based economy has been cleverly thought through. There are “Minutemen” who mug and rob unwary citizens (time is exchanged by clasping wrists together), “Timekeepers” who enforce the law and “keep the clock running,” and “time zones” separating the rich from the poor. Someone born with a silver watch on his wrist is said to “come from time,” rather than “come from money.” In Will’s neighborhood there is a “99 Seconds Only” store (akin to a Dollar Store), and Timelenders loaning a month or two at 30% interest. There is a Mission that distributes minutes to the poor; its neon light says “Time” when there are proceeds to distribute (people in the street yell “Time!” and come running), supplemented by “Out of” when the time is all gone.

The plot gets under way when Will helps a wealthy gentleman, who’s been out slumming in a lower time zone, to escape from menacing Minutemen. (This character, Henry, looks 25, of course, and it’s an odd feature of this movie that every other male character surrounding scruffy, knobby-headed Justin Timberlake is uniformly beautiful. It’s a parade of male models, and the contrast is distinctive. I note the casting decision without understanding it.)

As they hide in an abandoned loft, Will cautions Henry that he shouldn’t be flashing that kind of time around. Henry says that, actually, he’s ready to die. “Your mind can be spent, even if your time is not. We want to die. We need to.” He explains the fundamental injustice of the system. Hasn’t Will asked himself why time zones separate rich and poor? Why do cost-of-living increases hit the ghetto and New Greenwich at the same time? Everyone can’t live forever—where would they put them? The whole system depends on death. “For a few to be immortal, many must die.”

That night, as Will sleeps, Henry quietly transfers to him all 116 years. He leaves a note on a dusty window: “Don’t waste my time,” and goes to sit on a bridge over a culvert for his last minutes. Will awakens and rushes to save him, but is too late, and Henry times out dramatically. (Timing-out is a big, sudden, gasp-and-thunk, and I looked forward to it every time.) Security cameras catch only his fall into the culvert and Will standing nearby, and the search is on for Henry’s murderer.

Meanwhile, Will begins spending his time to get to New Greenwich, paying tolls that range from a month to a year along the way. (A brushed-silver electronic device which fits under the wrist deducts the payment.) Upon arriving he gets into a poker game and swiftly wins a thousand years, and is invited to a party at the home of the gracious loser, Philippe (a cherry-lipped figure, perfect for playing Richie Rich). It’s another mental whiplash when Philippe introduces Will to three identically-beautiful 20-something women as “my mother-in-law, my wife, and my daughter.”

It’s only a matter of minutes till Will is on the run with the daughter, Sylvia, and from that point on there is not really a development of plot, but rather a catalogue of their adventures. Sylvia, initially resistant, becomes convinced of the injustice of the system. She and Will find ways to redistribute time to the poor, in the process joyously wrecking her dad’s banks. Timberlake really is fine in his role (and does a particularly good turn when weeping, in a convincingly halting and noisy way, when his mother times out in his arms). Seyfried, however, is so visually arresting, delicate and beautiful with large, protruding pale-green eyes, and the character so comparatively underdeveloped—she’s not the sassy, back-talking type—that her looks speak louder than anything she does. It is like Will is racing through the events in the company of a Persian cat.

The motivating passion of the film is intended to be economic justice, but I confess that I couldn’t entirely grasp the mechanics of how the system worked. How does it help the rich for the poor to die, in their separate time zones? Do the rich somehow siphon off their years? How does this solve the “where would you put them” problem, if the rich zone is populated by people who never die? We meet beautiful people who are over a hundred years old, but no one in their thousands; yet they must be there, somewhere, taking up space. If the film’s ideal solution is meant to be free distribution of minutes, we see the ambivalent results when Will donates 10 years to his best friend, only to later learn that he immediately “drank himself to death with nine years on his arm.”

At the end of the movie a TV newscast tells us that “factories in Dayton lie idle” as the formerly poor surge into New Greenwich. Why are they going there? To get their hands on upscale goods? Now that they are rich, too, whole will work in factories to produce those goods? Will factory work be outsourced to still poorer folks in other lands? How will international financial collapse affect that prospect? In short, what in the world is going to happen next? But the film slips away at this point with only a happy “Isn’t it fun to rob banks” adieu. (I wondered if the low-impact ending and beginning were safe replacements for more thoughtful elements that couldn’t be worked out.)

Still, this is a terrific action movie. I’m not the target audience–I’m a grandma and prefer milder fare—but I found In Time to be consistently suspenseful and exciting. We are given a number of opportunities to watch someone’s numbers count down to zero, and it was gripping every time. Action sequences are well-choreographed, and often enough come to unexpected results. Admittedly, the story-line is one that’s been seen before: upstart kidnaps the rich man’s daughter, and she is initially resistant but gradually comes around to being his partner in adventure and defying her daddy. It’s not new, but the money-to-time twist keeps this version consistently intriguing. It will cost you 109 minutes to watch this movie, and if this is a genre you enjoy, you’ll consider it time well spent.

Talk About It

1. Henry says “We want to die. We need to.” Will tells Philippe, “We’re not meant to live like this. We’re not meant to live forever.” Why, in a secular movie, would characters say this? What do you think would they would say, in their own terms, to explain what’s wrong with earthly immortality?

2. We hear allusions to Will’s father dying under mysterious circumstances. Will thought he died in a fight, but Timekeeper Raymond tells him it was something else: “He didn’t die stealing time. He was doing something much more dangerous.” However, we’re never told what this was. If we assume this means he was giving time away, we have to remember the Mission on the corner which does nothing but give time away. This appears to be a dropped stitch in the plotline. What do you think Will’s father did?

3. The suggestion is made several times that the rich are so anxious about preventing accidental death that they don’t really “live.” Sylvia’s mother tells Philippe that he has suffocated them all. Yet their opulent lives hardly look unenjoyable. Do you think the film achieves a balance here?

The Family Corner

Lots of high-impact violence, though not much blood. A discreet nude swimming scene and a partially-clothed game of strip poker.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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