‘In Time’: We are the 99% of the future

October 27, 2011

It’s not a great movie, probably not even a very good movie. But Andrew Niccol’s “In Time” is good enough to be proclaimed for what it is: a political film espousing the same arguments against income inequality that are the basis of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In the future that Niccol creates, the aging process ends at 25. After that humans have only one more year to live. Time has become the new currency; workers are paid in minutes and hours; a day is a lot of time and a month? Now that’s extravagance. And when you run out of time? You literally run out of time – and drop dead.

Theoretically, you can earn enough to stay alive, on a month by month or even a minute by minute basis. As the film starts, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a laborer in a ghetto “time zone,” is wishing his mother (Olivia Wilde) happy 50th birthday – or happy 25th for the 25th time. Will is himself celebrating his third year being 25.

It’s all tracked by a phosphorescent digital read-out on each person’s arm; people “power up,” as it were, or pay up by putting their arms under scanners. They can also give each other time with the kind of hand-to-wrist clasp we’re used to seeing Roman centurions give each other as a sign of friendship.

Of course, time can be stolen the same way. And then there are “Minute Men,” urban gangsters who play a version of arm-wrestling called strong-arm, in which the power of will determines which one takes the other’s time. Talk about time-shares.

One night after work, Will walks into a bar, where a good-looking, well-dressed guy (Matthew Bomer), who has more than a century on his arm, is buying drinks for everyone. He’s out of place in this time zone, a ghetto called Dayton – and Will tries to get him to leave before trouble happens. Too late – the Minute Men walk in and the head Minute Man (Alex Pettyfer) demands that Richie Rich play the “strong-arm” game to see who gets his time.

Will, however, rescues the outsider and escapes. The guy, whose name is Henry Hamilton, isn’t happy about it; he’s more than 100 years old and has enough time to, in essence, live forever. More to the point he tells Will that the game is rigged; if everyone lived forever, there wouldn’t be enough stuff – food, land, air – to go around. So the wealthy keep the poor at bay by limiting their access to time – and by continually inflating the price of commodities and raising taxes so that no one can save enough time to live very long – except the very rich.

When Will awakes, he finds that Henry has given him all his years and then let himself die. So Will heads off to New Greenwich (represented in Niccol’s film by Century City and Malibu) with his new wealth, then gambles his way to more than a thousand years of time in a card game with time billionaire Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). He winds up at a party at Weis’ mansion, where he smooth-talks Weis’ daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) – then kidnaps her when the law, in the form of Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), shows up to question him about the missing time of Henry Hamilton.

Niccol’s plotting isn’t particularly original and most of the action is pretty generic. But it’s the subtext – the growing anger of the have-nots at having their lives manipulated by the unconcerned uber-rich – that’s so telling. It’s not hard to connect the dots between the rising anger of the ghetto dwellers of “In Time” and the Occupy Wall Street movement: the growing movement of middle-class and other people to hold big business accountable for wrecking the economy beneath the unwatchful eye of the Bush administration – and for learning no lessons as they bamboozle the Obama administration into keeping hands off.

What’s amazing is that this is a mainstream piece of entertainment, starring a couple of hot young stars – Timberlake, Seyfried – along with one actor who’s well-known from a hit TV show (Kartheiser of “Mad Men” fame) and another who’s one of the brighter lights of British and Irish cinema (Murphy). They’re all together in a big-budget studio movie that is being advertised heavily to teen-agers, who may be drawn in by its thriller allure or simply by Timberlake’s presence.

The ultimate irony: It’s being released by Twentieth Century-Fox, the company owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News Network has gone out of its way to misrepresent, downplay and otherwise cast aspersions on the Occupy Wall Street movement.

If the Occupy Wall Street folks were thinking strategically, they’d be setting up information booths or, at minimum, demonstrating, at every multiplex in America that’s showing “In Time.” They’d be offering the young (and largely uninformed) teen audience a word to the wise about how closely “In time” mirrors the state of our economy today.

With the right sort of media campaign, “In Time” could do for Occupy Wall Street what “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did for the abolition movement: light a match to the fuse of growing public discontent over government’s unwavering obedience to the demands of business (and business’ mouthpieces in the Republican Tea Party).

Apparently, Fox thought Andrew Niccol was making a commercial sci-fi thriller that would sell popcorn. But with luck, he’s launched the salvo that could galvanize a movement with “In Time.”

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