Film Review — Robin Hood Meets The Hunger Games — Andrew Niccol’s “In Time”

While my review of The Hunger Games book trilogy is postponed ’til next week, I have decided to share a different film that fits along a similar theme.  In Time is another dystopian film wherein people are divided into districts (our protagonist even appears to live in a district 12!) and where the divide between rich and poor is overwhelming.

It is with great reluctance that I take In Time back to the library tomorrow.  I was not sure what to expect from this film – the premised looked intriguing a couple of months ago, which was when I put the title on hold.  Like most library holds, it wasn’t available until I had almost forgotten about it.  I wasn’t sure if I was even in the mood to see it anymore, but I’m glad that I decided to watch it last night.

Andrew Niccol’s In Time is a science fiction retelling of Robin Hood.  There – I said it.  For all that many said it was not “original” enough, this film was not about re-inventing the wheel.  This film was about taking a wheel and attaching it to a boat.  This film has so much in common with the legend of Robin Hood that I am tempted to declare that it is a better “how Robin Hood came to be” tale than Ridley Scott’s recent medieval endeavour.  Nearly all of our favourite Robin Hood characters are here, with the exception of the Merry Men: we have Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Prince John/King Richard, and even a Friar Tuck.  We have the “rob from the rich to give to the poor” scheme.  We see how our basically good Robin (er, Will) becomes a desperate criminal with a vendetta against the wealthy.  It makes much more sense than some other ideas about Robin Hood.  He is upset at the loss of his mother and friends.  He is a hero only because he is desperate and has nothing to lose himself.

Our “Robin” is Will Salas, who lives in the ghetto of a world wherein humans stop aging after 25, but they only have a year to live afterwards without earning more time.  Time is now currency, so the poor live on a literal day-to-day basis while the rich can live forever if they don’t get themselves accidentally killed.  Will is 28 (or 25+3) and rarely has more than 24 hours left to live at any one time.  He is a decent man who lives with his mother, although he is certainly portrayed as no saint.  His father died years ago and his has no siblings.  He and his mother try hard to look after each other, but they are still dirt-poor.

One night in a bar (see about the “no saint” part above), Will meets Henry Hamilton.  More precisely, Will saves Henry from gangsters intent on stealing his time.  Henry is obviously not from the ghetto and has over a century on his clock, which he gives to Will.  Henry is tired of living – he admits that he is 105 years old.  We are meant to die, he tells Will.  From the perspective of a Christian, I was struck at how the film openly admits that humans are not meant to live forever in this form.  This life is but a shadow life.  There is something more than this.  We were meant for something else.

Giving time freely is seen as subversive.  Yes, there are missions that give out time in much the way soup kitchens give out food, but these are probably highly regulated and certainly underfunded and staffed with volunteers.  However, for anyone to merely give someone time out of the goodness of their hearts is highly subversive, since it disrupts the system that has been put into place by the wealthy to keep themselves from dying.  Hence Timekeepers (basically, police officers) are sent to investigate how someone like Will ended up with over a century of time.  The Timekeepers are also only paid on a daily basis, but that might be to keep them from being robbed.  Either way, the Head Timekeeper is dead set on catching Will and keeping order.

Meanwhile, Will finally has enough time to do something nice for his mother’s birthday, but his mother dies in his arms instead.  He gives a decade to his best friend, but his friend dies of alcohol poisoning.  [Kudos to the film for raising the question multiple times of “Why give money to the poor?  They won’t spend it on the right things.”  To that, I say that we have to have faith that our money is going to the right place, and that people will do what is right with it.  However, once we give a gift, it is up to the recipient what they do with it.  Merely to have the choice to go spend money on booze or weapons is a fundamental improvement over having no choice at all.]  In desperation, Will goes to the wealthy financial district and proceeds to live the high life (albeit while being generous to others) – he eats fancy food, stays at an expensive hotel, buys a tuxedo, gambles at an exclusive casino, and wins enough to catch the eye of Prince John, or Phillippe Weis, in this case.  Weis is one of the wealthiest men in the world, and not surprisingly a banker.  Will ends up being invited to a party at Weis’s mansion after winning centuries at the poker table.  He buys a sports car, weaves his way there having never driven before, and ends up meeting Weis’s daughter, Sylvia.  Three guesses who “Maid Marian” is?

Sylvia is fed up with the stuffy, idle life of the wealthy, but she is entirely unprepared for Will.  He kidnaps her in order to escape from the Timekeepers who crash the party.  Sylvia remains the tearful heiress until her father refuses to pay her ransom, at which point she becomes Will’s actual accomplice.  They really don’t fall into love until after she is no longer his hostage.  Why should Sylvia’s father pay her ransom, really?  Let aside the fact that Will only asked for 1000 years to be donated to his local mission (analogous to asking for a few grand be donated to one’s church), which was peanuts to someone like Weis, with everyone being stuck at the biological age of 25, Weis and his wife could likely easily have another child.  Sylvia was an expensive liability.  Yes, he missed her, but he could rationalise her death quite easily.  He is a social Darwinist, and “survival of the fittest” doesn’t necessarily include family members.

Since I have called this a sci-fi version of Robin Hood, it isn’t really a spoiler that Will and Sylvia rob banks to redistribute time to the poor.  For the rest of the story, you will have to watch the film.

However, I do think that the film raised some interesting points.  Will tells Sylvia that he doesn’t hate her because of where she was born – which is not something that many stories of class warfare discuss.  There are also the important arc phrases of: “For a few to be immortal, many must die” and “No one should be immortal if it means even one person must die.”  I heard this line and immediately thought of Christ, but then I realised two more things: 1) immortality in our current biological state is not godly, it is an illusion; and 2) Christ did not have to die.  He chose to die to bring us to Him.  Nothing compelled Him to die on the cross as though He were balancing scales.  He is the scales.  He took humanity upon Himself, including death.

Ultimately, this is Robin Hood movie.  It is an action-adventure in a sci-fi setting.  I loved it and put it on my list of films to look for on sale.  Yet, it is also an intellectual and spiritual film that discusses class differences and existentialism.  The characters, while modelled off of existing roles, are original and interesting.  I would have loved to learn more about the Head Timekeeper’s motives.  I would like to have seen more bank robberies.  Did Will end up forming a posse of Merry Men?

I strongly recommend this film.  As I state above, it is enjoyable on many levels.  It is also a refreshing take on the Robin Hood story, which I personally love and has great resonance for our society.

Like The Hunger Games, In Time is about a dystopia in which hope is rationed and heavily controlled.  The masses have just enough hope that they don’t rebel against the system, but none more.  Will and Sylvia give the people more hope and freedom.  This is undoubtedly why the story of Robin Hood is so powerful.  He gave the people hope.

Even more powerful is the Christian narrative, which is nothing if not hopeful.  Hope is dangerous, but it is necessary.  Otherwise, there is nothing, and we would merely be animals scrounging for our next breath.

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