We sometimes talk about living on borrowed time. But no one takes the phrase quite so literally as those who live in the rundown Dayton district.
Here, in a world where time really is money—where people stop aging at 25 but start dying then, too, where folks spend minutes for coffee and weeks for a hotel room—the residents of Dayton literally live day to day. Will Salas, ever since his clock started ticking, has never gone a day with more than a day to live: He’s survived the last three years through guile and hard work—pulling extra shifts at the factory and then running home to share his precious minutes with his mother.
But there’s never enough time to do what you want to do, and Will knows that he can’t stay 25 forever. Prices keep rising. His wages keep falling. His time is running out.
Then one night he sees a guy at a bar spending decades like Monopoly minutes. He’s carrying more than a century with him—and carting around that much time in Dayton is like signing your own death warrant. Will rescues the dude from a tough scrape and spirits him away to safety. And while the guy appreciates the gesture, he tells Will that, at the eternally youthful age of 105, he’s ready to pull out the batteries.
“The day comes when you’ve had enough,” he says. “We want to die. We need to.”
Yeah, sure, thinks time-deprived Will, and he drifts off to sleep. But when he wakes, he discovers two curious things: One, his own internal clock has been reset with another 116 years. Two, his new friend is lying dead outside.
So Will’s been given the precious gift of time. Lots of it. But in this crazy, clock-obsessed world, folks like Will aren’t supposed to have extra time on their hands. They’re supposed to live and die like good citizens, so a few rich and powerful people can live for as long as they want. Will’s new cache of time violates the scheme of things—a delicate economic system that’s worked so nicely for … well, quite some time. And it’s not long before time-coveting crooks and time-keeping cops decide to clean Will’s clock, whispering to themselves, We want what’s … hours.
Maybe we could all use a green, glowing countdown clock on our forearms—something that would tell us how much time we really had. Perhaps if we did, we wouldn’t waste our time like we sometimes do. Will, in some ways, sets a good example for us: He certainly makes the most of the time he’s been given—using every hour, minute and second to its full potential.
And that ethic hasn’t made him stingy, either. He’s generous with his time. We see him give a decade to a friend and an unspecified amount to a little homeless girl. He even gives a couple of hours to a timekeeper who’s pursuing him—allowing the cop to get back to base before he expires. Why? Because Will doesn’t think time should be rationed, that the poor should have days and the rich eons. He believes there’s time enough for all—and he pushes the powers that be to become fairer and more equitable.
(Now in so doing, Will becomes something of a chronological Robin Hood, and naturally that comes with its own set of problems. But while we may take issue with his methods, we can’t fault Will’s heart here.)
For a world so obsessed with time, there’s very little mind paid to the subject of eternity. There’s a sense here that when your clock stops ticking, that’s it: You’ve just stopped ticking. There’s no discussion of an afterlife, no ruminations on God and whether He would’ve approved of time being used and abused in this way.
And yet faith is not entirely absent. There’s a mission house in Dayton that doles out time instead of food. The place is headed by an apparent priest (in the credits he’s called Levi) who bears a religious symbol that ever so slightly resembles a Christian cross. Will sneaks up on Levi at one juncture with a mask on, and Levi assumes that he’s being robbed:
“I don’t have much,” Levi says. “Everything I have I give away.”
“I know,” Will says, and loads up Levi’s counter with his own minutes.
One more spiritually themed note: The world’s time-based economic system is often characterized as fair, in a strictly survival-of-the-fittest sort of way. And the code needed to access a safe holding lots and lots of time is, unsurprisingly, Charles Darwin’s birth date.
Will hooks up with a girl named Sylvia, daughter of a fabulously wealthy time magnate. The two skinny-dip in the ocean (we see a glimpse of Sylvia’s backside) and later play strip poker in a hotel room (Sylvia, dressed in only her underwear, is clearly losing when they pause to make out on the bed). The pair also smooches passionately a few times.
Women wear formfitting, cleavage-revealing clothing. A prostitute propositions a timekeeper, offering him 10 minutes of her time if he gives her an hour. Will makes a crude sexual allusion to a waitress.
In Time gives us a world in which people die when their countdown clocks hit 0. These genetically predetermined deaths aren’t particularly lingering: Victims look as if they were stricken by a sudden heart attack—a gasp, a grimace and they’re gone. We see a handful of folks go this way—one after his time’s been forcibly taken from him, another after losing a “fight” in which the contestants vie for each other’s allotments. A man gives away all of his time, killing himself.
The deceased get little notice, interestingly. And their bodies are sometimes left out in the open like old candy wrappers.
There are other ways to die of course. Several folks carry and use guns. One man is shot in the back of the head. Three others are gunned down in rapid succession and then laid out on a sidewalk like logs. Another takes a bullet to the arm and survives. People get punched, kicked and slammed into bathroom stall doors. Will and Sylvia get into a serious (though seriously fake-looking) car accident.
One f-word, three s-words and a smattering of other profanities, most prominently “d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times (once with “d‑‑n”), and Jesus’ name is abused once.
We’ve always heard that drinking heavily can take years off your life, and in this movie that’s very, very true. Will, when he comes into some unexpected time, gives his best friend a decade. But his friend—who seems to spend a great deal of his spare (and not-so-spare) time at the local watering hole—wastes it all on booze and literally drinks himself to death, leaving behind a wife and baby.
Others drink wine and champagne. Will’s rich friend shares a flask of something with him.
[Spoiler Warning] When Will has his gift of time—the time given to him by his suicidal friend—taken away from him by the timekeepers, he turns to a life of crime. He kidnaps Sylvia, though it’s not long before the two become the time-bandit version of Bonnie and Clyde. They begin robbing time banks, giving the poor most of what they take … a crime spree that eventually culminates in them stealing a great many years from Sylvia’s father and turning it over to the destitute.
“Is it stealing if it’s already stolen?” Sylvia asks. It seems like a fair question, but the answer still has to be yes. Because the counter-question is, If the stuff you’re stealing was really stolen from someone else, is it OK to spend it on yourself?
Will and Sylvia refuse to grapple with that second question, using their ill-gotten time to pamper themselves. Will and others engage in high-stakes gambling.
Someone throws up in a toilet.
It’s appropriate that In Time is so focused on the clock, because the film itself is a little two-faced. On the hour hand, we have this intriguing premise—the distribution of time. One of the world’s great levelers has always been time: No matter how rich or poor we are, we all get the same 24 hours in a day, and (quality healthcare aside) we can’t ever really buy more of it. In Time flips that long-standing reality on its head, transferring our days and weeks and years into the hands of a very few, very wealthy people.
But if you look at the minute hand, you can see that the film manages to transform this compelling theme into a silly, almost campy crime caper pandering to the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Certainly those who question the merits of capitalism and favor redistribution of wealth—however wealth is defined—will find much to like here.
And even then, In Time isn’t wholly consistent. It’s easy to latch onto the idea that hoarding time would be a crime. That the economic system in play here is inherently unpleasant. But the fact that Will and Sylvia spend so freely of other people’s time when they “steal it back” doesn’t bode well for an unswerving narrative. Shouldn’t they be giving that time back to its rightful owners? It feels sort of like a rapper railing against poverty on one song, then trumpeting his latest Maybach on the next. There’s just something unseemly about it.
The film tells us that time is a precious commodity. Agreed. It’s all the more reason to think long and hard before spending it on this movie.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.