Movie Mechanic: In Time (2011)

Make: 20th Century Fox

Model: Dystopian Sci-fi

Year: 2011

Look what just rolled into the shop! I’m not sure anyone remembers this movie. It’s the one with clocks in the arms. Here’s a trailer to refresh your memory:

The premise is simple enough: time is literally money, and when you’re broke, you die. The rich are immortal, the poor live day to day, and everyone is governed by the little clock on their arm. A super cool premise, but the execution missed the one detail that matters, a dystopian future sucks so it has to be completely undone by the end of the movie. In Time fails to change anything meaningful about its dystopia, and so, fails as a movie. But the fix is so simple, it kills me that the movie did not actually end this way. Let’s get this rebuild under way.

What works: The premise. A classic bit of sci-fi is to exaggerate a facet of life or simple saying to its ultimate end and build a story around it. In this case, the whole movie is based on “Time is money.” People age normally until they reach 25, then the clock on their left arm ticks down unless they earn more time. If the clock reaches zero, they die. Super simple, but it ties together fear of death with a fear of capitalism in a way that draws people in.

The people. JT and Amanda Seyfried are great in their respective roles as Will Salas and Sylvia Weis. Cyllian Murphy is excellent as the singularly minded cop trying to keep the social order.

cillian-murphy-in-time
Cillian Murphy as Raymond Leon from In Time (2011)

What doesn’t work: The ending. After two acts of a strong sci-fi flick, the third act stalls and devolves into a pathetic game of Bonnie and Clyde cat and mouse. Will and Sylvia just rob banks, and hand out the time-money to the poor. Nothing really changes. People are still stuck living day to day, hoping for a handout from their Robin Hoods. But, if Will ever gets caught, there goes any hope with him. So what’s the fix? The only unused element in the whole movie: Will’s father.

Rebuild

In our rebuild, the first two acts play largely the same, with the one exception being Will’s father’s story. Will’s father was a champion arm wrestler, able to win hundreds of hours off his unwitting opponents. Then, after a big score, he went up against a new guy, someone no one had ever seen before, and he must have lost because he disappeared, and Will and his mom never heard from him again. He used to say that he wished there was a way he could just live a normal life, like people used to, and die of old age.

Will and Sylvia fight their way through the cops and gangs, break into the bank and hand out some time, but they realize that unless they can do something dramatic, nothing will change. “But what should we do?” Sylvia asks. “We’ll know it when we see it,” Will answers.

justin-timberlake-amanda-seyfried-in-time
Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried check their clocks

After stealing a million years to divvy amongst the poor, they finally get caught by Cillian Murphy’s cop, Raymond. Raymond decides that it’s better to kill them both rather than let them live and give false hope to the people. No one can escape their fate. The world is run by the rich for the rich. You may be able to trade places with them, but you can never destroy them. Raymond tightens his aim, but just as he squeezes the trigger, he gets shot in the arm, missing Will. Sylvia, on the other hand, gets hit in the clock arm. Her clock is malfunctioning and her time is dropping to zero fast.

in-time-Cillian-Murphy

The mysterious gunman appears and assesses her damage. “I can save her, son.” Son? The man reveals that he is Will’s father, and he is old. “I can save her, but she’ll have to lose the arm.” Will Salas nods in agreement. The elder Salas pulls out a set of tiny tools and starts cutting into her arm. With 3 seconds left on her clock, Salas Sr. disconnects Sylvia’s arm. Sylvia is still crying from the pain, but the point is she is still crying. “Listen, son, we figured it out,” Salas, Sr. says. “She will live a normal human life. She will grow old. She will die when it’s her time. But, she can’t do it here. Not anymore. You can join her and me. There’s a group of us making a life free from all this. You can make that choice, but you’ll have to lose that arm too.” Will looks down at the million year pod he has in his pocket. He sees Sylvia’s tear-filled eyes look back at him. He looks up at his father’s aging but familiar face. He nods. As the three of them walk away, a group of kids comes to investigate the shooting. They find the million years, a dead cop, and two left forearms with time still on their clocks, but not ticking. The movie ends with Will and Sylvia embracing the simple life in their one-handed colony, as more people trickle in from time to time having escaped the dystopia for good.

Wrap up: Dystopias are horrible. The Hunger Games knew it. Planet of the Apes knew it. Even Snowpiercer knew it. The only way to deliver a satisfying dystopian movie is to undo the dystopia. In Time failed to do this the first time around, but maybe we can get a Netflix adaptation that gets it right someday.

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