Movie Analysis : In Time (English)

According to the Oxford Dictionary, capitalism is “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” Often criticized by intellectuals, and especially by Marx, because accused of being immoral, this system is nowadays commonly used throughout the World. What is often questioned about it are its supposed consequences on our future, since capitalism tends to have dreadful effects on inequalities and environment. Since its creation, loads of artists took part on denunciating how inhuman societies functioning on capitalist theories were. 

Andrew Niccol is part of them as most of the movies he wrote and directed were dystopic criticisms of our capitalist society. Attached to the issue of artificial realities, the New Zealander director produced In Timein 2011, nine years ago. In this particular movie, he decided to show a World in which time would have replaced money, more than a hundred years from now. People do their grocery shopping, take the public transport and live every action by paying with their time. (picture 1) This is materialized by a green counter all inhabitants of the society he imagined have on their left arm (picture 2). At 25, they all stop aging and need to make time in order to survive. Thus, their environment is divided in 12 zones, which request large amounts of money to be reach through (picture 3). 

As in Hunger Games, the different areas are ranked in descending order, the twelfth one being the most destitute. Since an excessive lot of money is needed to pass from a zone to the other and that rich people don’t want to see their time stolen in poorer lands, social classes almost never meet. The film has been realized to make us feel as if rich and poor were living in two different Worlds and as the middle class disappeared (never shown). This view of depicting society have been shared multiple times in the 21st century, especially in movies. 

In such extents, the question to be discussed in this essay would be to wonder how is the construction of the movie “In Time” enabling Andrew Niccol to draw a critic of capitalism? To sort out some elements of response, analyzing how the director managed to create his dystopia would first be interesting. Then, the model of “time as a currency” depicted in the movie have to be explored in order to submit a coherent conclusion.

I. The creation of In Time’s dystopia 

a) Living on the poor side of the spectrum

            “Is it stealing if it is already stolen?”.This sentence, repeated several times during the movie, accurately defines the life on the poorer districts. If one wants to live and help his family doing so, he often has to steal time to have some. No matter how paradoxical the situation is, people are playing arm wrestling to make ends meet (picture 4). Indeed, Will Salas, the main protagonist is against this game in which people die very often, since his own dad passed away during one. However, it is used several times throughout the movie with close-ups, as it is one of the most famous way of earning time. Thus, living alone with his 25 years old mother, Will have no choice but to work at Dayton factory to enable both him and his mom to keep going. In Dayton, since all get the same revenues, almost everyone is working in factories (picture 5). The filming of those could easily reminds of Metropolis, in the sense that people are gathering into factories in mass and are all walking towards the same direction (picture 6, 66). 

The atmosphere in Dayton, the Time Zone where Will Salas lives is also quite grey, without any sign of vegetation (picture 7). As if we were back into the Industrial Revolution, people exercise manual and repetitive works, which is at some point incoherent since we should be in the future. Moreover, Andrew Niccol uses retro-futurism which intertwine old styles of art with futuristic ones. However, this usage is quite clumsy since the official synopsis of the movie announced that we were in 2169, which creates an awkward futurism, which is even less futuristic that the time we’re living in nowadays : the cars are from the 60’s (picture 8), the constructions are also rather old (picture 9) and there is no inventions except the implant they have in their arm which is really modern and counterbalances peculiarly the staging of the movie, since it is the only thing that doesn’t exist yet in our 21st century lives. 

The setting in which In Time’s“ghettos” take place can look overall frightening at some point. All the inhabitants seem to live in apartments looking the same (picture 10) and have no choice but doing the same things as there is not much to do there. Indeed, the rare shots we got on the city are contrasting from those filmed near the factories. In what appears to be the downtown of Dayton, streets are often empty as well as few shops and businesses are to be seen (picture 9). Cars are very rare and aren’t parked next to the sidewalks how it used to be in real life which creates a disturbing void. Even if the price of things should be graded according to people’s wages, life in the district is very expensive (picture 1) for those people that are living each day as it was the last. Usually having less than 24 remaining hours to live in their counter, citizens have to pay 4 minutes for a coffee and 2 hours for a bus ticket, which will ultimately lead to the death of Will’s mother. 

Before she died nevertheless, her appearance in the first scene of the movie has been quite interesting since she was having a conversation with her son (picture 11). There, the viewer can realize how ill-at-ease it makes him feel to see a mother having physically the same age as her child (picture 12). As they are dancing together, her wearing a silky nightie is turning the scene into a sort of position where you actually wonder if those two are lovers or not. 

            Hence, as it is the context in which the movie takes place, it is to be pointed out that being poor in In Timeis tremendously dangerous. Not only because people are stealing time, but also while each minute has to be under control to survive. However, if there are multiple scenes showing inhabitants looking at their counter, the most present ones still are the ones showing Will looking at the window in medium shots (picture 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18). Those shots often make us feel even more the jeopardy people are living into since Will Salas has to surveil constantly if someone is not planning on assaulting him, and thus willing to end his life to win hours. 

            There is indeed a lot of criminality in Dayton and people are living with weapons to protect themselves. A team of gangsters led by Fortis will follow Will and Sylvia during the whole movie, executing people in order to be able to know their location (picture 19). But those are surely not the only criminals the city has since people are living with fences on their doors and windows that they put at nightfall (picture 13, 20, 21). In order to secure this area, the government, which is quite common in dystopias, decided to implement surveillance cameras everywhere on the public spaces, which suffocate the inhabitants (picture 22, 23).

Finally, it is also important to bear in mind that Andrew Niccol has a deep interest in symmetry, which likely contributes to the creation of his dystopia (picture 24,25,26,27,28,29,30,32,33). Scenes are shot in this respect, always visually respecting some sort of proportions. Also, the different (and multiple) shot/reverse shots often taken in medium close-up (picture 34 & 35) enhance this feeling as they build an impressive equality of time each character speaks during dialogues. Will Salas going back and forth from a Time Zone to the other will also reinforce this idea as it represents also Niccol’s will to equally divide the images and the scenario. In a way, this visual need for symmetry is totally opposite to the system he is describing, which is undoubtedly built on inequalities. 

To put in a nutshell, in this promiscuous world, people don’t get the chance to be happy as they always have to watch out for themselves and to earn more and more time as life is becoming more and more costly. We could even push the vice further by saying that they don’t get to live properly as they dedicate the little time they have to get more, which is again quite paradoxical.

b) Living on the rich side of the spectrum

            “Haven’t evolution always been unfair?”. On the contrary, this sentence pronounced by Sylvia’s father would perfectly fit the description Andrew Niccol made of the richer districts. In total opposition to the World we’ve seen one paragraph before, in New Greenwich, it is the era of excess. Things are done slowly, and each inhabitant is following strictly the usual diktats in order to keep his precious decades, and often centuries, of insurance. 

As Sylvia, the incredibly rich daughter of M. Weis, director of the only bank among the 12 Zones, will explain: “Sometimes I envy the ones from the ghetto. The clock is good for no one. The poor dies and the rich never live. Of course, we can live forever as long as we’re not doing anything foolish or courageous.”(during the ball) This proves how precious life is for people in those Time Zones, which have all “a lot to lose”(Will). At first, Sylvia will even doubt Will’s origins as she realizes that he is acting way too fast to be coming from rich areas. That is the reason why people in New Greenwich are often protected by many bodyguards, as they fear for their lives, just as people in Dayton, no matter how much time they have (picture 32 + beginning of the ball). In that sense, Sylvia, who is living right across the sea, had never put a foot into it, afraid of the risks it could contain. 

Furthermore, Sylvia’s depiction in the movie is quite interesting as she is the lover of Will. Before them getting to know each other, three different scenes will show her staring at Will and immediately sparks his interest. (pictures 67,68,69) Since they are several times in the same place even though they don’t know each other yet, this could be interpreted as their encounter was destiny and that she was meant to play an important role in the movie. During those moments, the emphasis is laid on her facial expressions, which show her apparent coldness.

Coming back to the sentence I first used to introduce my paragraph, it is to be underlined that in New Greenwich, most people believe in the old theories of biological evolutionism, in which individuals would have evolved according to natural selection, which defined each social status. Thus, they do not feel any obliged to help others on the other side of the Time Zone, as they feel like everybody is where he should belong. This rigidity of mind concerning the system is also because the society implemented is hard to change, reaching sometimes the status of fatality. And often, the viewer will hear Sylvia complaining about how fixed the World is (ball + when she is in the car with Will after being kidnapped + in the hotel room).

 However, it is again a belief that the government created. As people from both sides are convinced they have not the capacity to change things, they don’t even try to. Therefore, when two people coming from different people meet (Will and Sylvia), they learn the truth about what life really is in this other alternative World they only heard of and then, their thoughts about the possibility of changing the rules imposed are becoming distorted. On the other hand, the time keeper, interpreting a sort of futuristic policeman, will emphasize this idea, that it is very“rare to change Time Zones” (to climb the social ladder for instance) which he explains after having arrested Will at Weis’ house.

Even though people in New Greenwich have hundreds of years to live and could afford anything life on earth can provide, they still live in old castles from the 19th century (picture 36, 37, 38) without major improvements. Furniture are also quite old as well (picture 39) just as their clothes (picture 40) which are rather normal when loads of dystopias rather uses a more futuristic and minimalist approach such as the TV show 3%.

They are also using things that doesn’t change from our nowadays societies, which could mean that Andrew Niccol’s aim is not to criticize modernity but only genetically modified human beings and capitalism as it is spoke about during the two first minutes of the movie. Yes, people do live in luxury and are enjoying loads of leisure activities and mundanities, but they do not benefit from incredible smartphones and other technologies. Introducing those in a dystopian context would have made it more realistic but would have also criticized them, so Niccol probably decided to focus on how people were spending their time and capitalizing it, more than the things they are spending it with. 

II. Time as a currency

a) Consequences

            Now that the two social classes of In Timehave been observed, it is important to take into account the “time as a currency” system on its own. First of all, this idea could be seen as an exacerbation of our modern world as it is an exaggeration of the capitalist society. In capitalism, calculating the labor force is needed in order to estimate the profit one could make and here it is rather the same thing, except that time have become money itself. It reminds us of Karl Marx’ mode of production since time here is everything while man is nothing, or at least is less valuable than its outcome.  This is shown in the movie mostly because people are gambling with the price of their lives (picture 41, 42), meaning that their existence now matters less than the time they could win. 

The figure of the time keeper, Raymond Leon, played by Cillian Murphy, also follows this logic which is incredibly paradoxical. As his job is to maintain time constant and to control its transfers, the time keeper will do everything he can to stop Sylvia and Will who are trying to redistribute it among the population. Between the multiple car racing filmed in dolly shots (picture 43, 44) and him stalking them in every corner of the city, Raymond at some point will end forgetting to manage his time and “timing-out”, which is to be understood as dying in the film (picture 45 & 46). Hence, the protagonist is thinking so much about controlling time that he hasn’t seen his own clock running and paid it with his life. 

However, what is also interesting with Raymond Leon is that he is the embodiment of climbing the social ladder. Coming from Dayton just as Will Salas, his job enabled him not to live under the poverty line and to benefit from a stable situation. Even if he knows his origins, he is also aware that he needs to make the law respected otherwise he could lose his prosper situation. In some scenes, such as the conversation Will and him have on the phone, we clearly see that no matter how impossible he thinks Will’s ideas are, he wishes he could help him, even if he knows he has to stop him. His condition is preventing him for letting Will be, and as we learn when both of them are in Philippe Weis’ house. 

Thus, his role is not to reestablish justice, but only to ensure private owners transfers by watching out how time is used in every zone : “I haven’t initiated the clock and I have no idea who has, reversing it I can’t, the only thing I can do is to try keeping it running as fair as I can”. The scholar Tony McKenna will thus compare the character to Javert in Les Misérablessince “like Javert, Raymond Leon pursues his targets with a robotic doggedness stemming from an obsessive devotion to the formal aspect of the law, and, like Javert, it is revealed at the end of In Time that Leon himself actually came from poverty, from one of the ghettos that the law he serves so effectively represses.”

            As Francesca Gino and Cassie Mogilner from Harvard Business School reminded in Time, Money, and Morality, “money and time are the principle resources that individuals encounter on a daily basis, as they constantly manage how to spend and save their dollars

and hours.” This way, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that Andrew Niccol chose to use time as the representation of money in the future, since time is both needed nowadays to make money, and to live in the other hand. Thus, it is always managed, in enterprises, private life or public one. In this respect, In Timeshows character always looking at their clock, as if it was now a real obsession (Raymond and Will mostly). 

Bank of time emerged (picture 47) and are giving loans for those struggling to deal with theirs. As Andrew Niccol strongly stands against neoliberalism, defined as free-market capitalism and economic liberalism, he uses time to give a coherent response to extrapolate its failures. Three years after the 2008’s crisis, the collapse of capitalism has probably inspired the director in his movie since he created a world in which time has divided people so much that they are not able to bear one’s differences and must live separately according to their social class. Both Dayton and New Greenwich exacerbates the current context of the rich and the poor who seems not to be able to understand each other. 

On the other hand, according to Pinkerton, In Time “pretends to be about the future, when (it) is really about the present”, which could explain some incoherencies of the film such as the use of retrofuturism we referred to. Also, it echoes Benjamin Franklin’s “time is money” quote, which appears to be the guiding line of the film. Characters are always shown running thanks to tracking shots (picture 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53) and their lack of time often makes them pretty egoistic. For instance, the scene happening between the bus driver and Will’s mom reminds this idea (picture 54 & 55), as the driver is ready to let a woman die (picture 56) in order to protect his own interests and because he is not willing to trust her when she affirms that she will pay back at her arrival. 

This is also emphasized by Philippe Weis, who keep one million years of time in a secure room of his house (picture 57), when he perfectly knows that on the other side, people are constantly dying. What is the interest of keeping that much time for himself? What could he do with it? Does he really intend to live for thousands of years? It seems quite unrealistic, but his will to always win more, really gives an egocentric dimension to the movie, which is rather accurate to draw a critic of capitalism.

Making time a new currency also comes also from a long-lasting myth: the one of never aging and living forever. However, the different protagonists, whether they earn a lot or not, are showing that having the opportunity to live for the eternity doesn’t necessarily mean being happy. For example, Henry Hamilton, the one that will give Will Salas 116 years had everything to be happy. Nevertheless, he explains how tired he was of living to Will when they hide, after being assaulted by Fortis’ team. “One day comes where you have had enough. Your mind can be spent even if your body’s not. We want to die, we need to”he entrusts Will. 

Immediately, the main character gets angry, saying that people’s concerns in New Greenwich is only that they are living too long, which is pathetic when everyone is dying where he lives. It emphasizes the idea that people coming from different zones are not able to understand each other’ problems. Thus, Hamilton answers him by saying: “For a few to be immortals, many must die” which reminds us of the famous proverb: “For a few to be rich, many must be poor.”Finally, he reveals him that the other zones are controlling tax rates in order to take years in the ghettos that they could use to live for the eternity. However, the character is convinced that “there is more than enough time” and that someone – he explains that implicitly – should help building a fairer World.

Ultimately, that is the reason why he will give Will all his years, without knowing the issues the protagonist will be confronted to because of these. Then, as a sort of Robin Hood figure, Will Salas is going to fight in order to steal time from those who have too many, in order to give it to those who need it the most.

b) A system meant to fail

            Poor people constantly need one another to survive. Just as Will and his mom or him and his friend Borel, people are exchanging time between their relatives in order to ensure that the one they care about continue to live (picture 58). This, in a sense goes against the theory that people in capitalist societies are selfish. Yet, what is striking about In Timeis that it is uniting people only when in precarity, which is quite a realistic choice. Indeed, unity is to be observed mostly in bad times of history in real life, and Andrew Niccol decided to take this stand throughout his movie since he made Sylvia and Will being together for the sake of humanity. 

            Thus, the failure of the system is inevitable. Just as Bonnie and Clyde (picture 59,60), Will and Sylvia are getting together to help people, even though they do so by using criminal means (stealing cars, having guns, breaking banks…). As Sylvia is at first kidnapped by Will, she developed a Stockholm syndrome and fell in love with her tormentor and decided to support him. Then, they use guns and are breaking the law to succeed. The most relevant scene to prove this point is probably when they stole a taxi to escape from the time keepers (picture 61). Both him and Sylvia haven’t hesitated to threaten people with their weapons in order to be respected and to get what they want. The end of the movie is also following this scheme, since after having given people in Dayton one million hours, they go even further the usual 12 zones to reach greater banks, ready to steal them, still holding their guns (picture 62). 

            The movie expresses Andrew Niccol’s convictions about capitalism as it shows an unsustainable system of government, that is sealed by failure. Even the time keepers themselves give up their mission when they realize Will’s and Sylvia’s intentions. One of them will affirm, after Raymond Leon’s death that agents of security should“go home”(picture 63). He will then put his gun on the table, showing that he quit and that they should probably do the same. 

The movie concludes with the ending of the capitalist time society, by showing people happy, crossing time zones together (picture 64, 65). Even the millionaire Philippe Weis is depicted powerless, looking at his safe, without being able to react. When his employee will ask him to “do something”,he will only reply: “It is already done”.

Even though both the government and rich people seemed to be attached to this system that was benefiting them and tried to avoid this ending as much as they could, they finally let it happen. It looks as if they are more or less satisfied that everything is collapsing and that they consider their own failures and why it was not working.

            However, it is rather strange to see that none of the people Will and Sylvia helped fought to have more time or tried to steal the machine used to give each some years. Moreover, it is a young girl, probably around 11, that is giving money to the poor, without being assaulted. The redistribution is happening without violence, when the rest of the movie has shown criminality was present everywhere in Dayton.

            As a conclusion, In Time draws a powerful critic of capitalism and its drifts. This is permitted by the depiction of a brand-new society, in which both the poor and the rich aren’t blossoming. Those are separated into two worlds thanks to the cinematographic processes used by Andrew Niccol in this action movie. Here, the aim of life isn’t to be happy anymore but only to have time. In Time also reveals a system which is doomed to fail, as the union of Sylvia and Will, which could be thought of as the union of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, is undermining the government. 

Moreover, this dystopia is made even more worrying by the use of a gloomy atmosphere overwhelmed by dark colors and mass movements. Niccol questioned time while here, future is only an option and present is about survival, and maybe, as many philosophers affirmed such as Épicure, the solution would be to live like there’s no tomorrow, just as Sylvia and Will, experiencing love and thrills. 

In a way, the movie could be seen as a double dystopia, as it isn’t even able to fill with joy the people it was meant to benefit. No one is winning and time is becoming a concrete value, like it has been before in the movieThe Price of Life by Tolkin. 

At some point, time is nowadays already becoming a currency as Franck and Lillian Gilbreth already defined that businesses should calculate how much time one employee needs to do an action, and thus render it more optimal. In Japan, people are going straight to mental breakdowns as working a lot and spending time doing a job is seen as being effective and useful in an enterprise. Andrew Niccol only exaggerated those already ongoing events in In Time, in order to show what could be the consequences on our everyday lives and why it could not succeed. 

Thus, the question would be to ask ourselves whether time could became a viable currency in real life, or not ? At least it is probably what the movie tried to make us ask. In today’s world, the capitalist society created a complex due to which we often feel guilty when we’re not using our time working… However, procrastinatioin Latin, to be understand as procrastination, only means adjourning an action by act of wisdom… It’s only after the industrial revolution that it became so negative and made people sometimes forget about themselves. 

            Last but not least, the director reminded two strong human ideals: the wish to become eternal and the need for a financial system simpler and more equalitarian than money. However, as Henry Hamilton explained in the bonus scene of the movie (video 1) : “The system has never been made to be fair. The illusion of equity is the only we have left.”Is equality only possible in appearance then? Or could it be concrete and realistic?


  • Time, Money, and Morality,Francesca Ginoand Cassie Mogilner, Harvard Business School, 2014
  • Posthumanist Panic Cinema? The Films Of Andrew Niccol, Jon Baldwin (London Metropolitan University), 2012
  • Science & Society, Vol. 79, No. 1, January 2015, 117–126, Tony McKenna
  • Time is money—Time pressure, incentives, and the quality of decision-making, Martin G. Kocher, Matthias Sutter, University of Innsbruck, 2005

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