In Time (2011)
It’s a remarkable marketing coup when the pre-launch publicity for In Time announces Harlan Ellison is seeking an injunction to prevent the release of the film. Mr Ellison alleges this “new” effort from Andrew Niccol has borrowed ideas from the notable short story, “Repent, Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman”. Far be it for me to express an opinion on anything sub judice. All I will say is that I think there’s an equal risk the writing team of David Newman and Robert Benton behind Bonnie and Clyde might be interested in comparing notes.
So here we go with another dystopian film in which oppressive corporate megalomaniacs have yet again ground humanity into the dirt. This “time” they’ve pulled off something completely remarkable (not to say scientifically impossible given anything reasonably foreseeable in the technology field). Someone somewhere in a lab managed not only to identify the ageing gene, but also learned how to turn it on and off. So what these lab rats did was to preprogram humanity (yes, everyone) so that they would age naturally until 25 at which point, they would stop ageing and a very clever piece of electronics would come into play. Grown inside every body is a clock. You can monitor the passage of time because there’s a large LED display on your left arm. This countdowns to zero at which point your genetic life-support is switched off and you die. Needless to say, you can acquire time by working, or as a gift, or by fighting or stealing. In theory, then, anyone can live indefinitely so long as he or she can keep on adding time. The transfer of time can be by a handshake through some nifty hardwired and mind-controlled technology, or by the use of a scanning device. Somewhat surprisingly, time has become the currency. A cup of coffee will set you back five minutes.
Now here comes the hierarchy. The folk at the bottom of the heap work in meaningless jobs for a few hours as payment. The point of this slavery is simply to thin out the population. Since no-one has switched off the reproduction gene, there are more people joining the human race than leaving it. So people have to be kept on the edge of death. Prices for that cup of coffee keep on rising. When people run out of time, they die. In Darwinian terms, this encourages the enterprising to stay alive while all the sheep die soon after their 25th birthday. Yet, remarkably, there seems to be almost no crime. This is set in a future America — land of the free and no gun controls. I suppose the deterrent is clear. Whether you are caught or not, if you run outside the system, there’s a strong risk you’ll just run out of time and die. That said, there are criminals who steal time. Except they are conscripts of the time-police who do the dirty work to ensure stability in the system. If too many people were to build up too much time, it might trigger economic collapse. So these thieves act like predators and skim off whatever surplus time they can find. They survive while everyone else is kept time-poor.
Yet, once you move up in the world, there’s a life of privilege and luxury on the other side of the tracks. If you have a century or so in your body’s bank, you can buy fancy cars and live in a small palace. It’s a good idea to keep a few bodyguards around. There’s no knowing what uppity oiks might try to muscle into this ultimate gated community. So, against this background, our hero Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) acquires a surplus of time through an act of kindness. He travels into the rich compound where he meets Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the Time Lord Philppe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Will and Sylvia then go on a crime spree robbing time banks and doing the Robin Hood act of giving away all their time to the poor. Trying to stop them is the lead cop, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy). There’s quite a lot of running and some driving at speed. A few shots are fired and one or two die. We then have the predictable ending.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say In Time is unoriginal and trite, but it’s not far off. We have every possible cliché thrown in as the clocks keep counting down and our heroes court death yet again. There’s almost no logic to any of this society. Abandoning money in favour of time as a mechanism for oppression is unrealistic. Why is there such passivity? Why is there no armed revolution? Guns seem freely available if you have the time to buy one or the wit to steal one. There are no barbwire fences, armed guards and savage dogs to keep people from marching into the rich compound. So what’s stopping them? Look at it this way. Although there are cameras on street corners, no-one seems to have GPS transmitters in cars (come to think of it, if they can grow a green clock in your arm which works indefinitely without the need to change batteries, the gene technologists could make it transmit your location). This failure makes the task of the police unrealistically difficult in tracking and arresting people. Yet there’s really nothing for them to do. There’s not even a crime syndicate to steal and deal in time. Why are there no time pushers on those street corners? It would be a natural extension to drug dealing or loan sharking. Why have criminals lost their initiative since this would buy them additional years? More importantly, even if we ignore the problem of explaining how society got into this mess, destabilising it would seem likely to cause even more deaths unless there was positive leadership aimed at mitigating losses. Going back to the issue of revolution, I suppose the ultimate deterrent is that the elite could just hike the price of water to infinity. Since no-one could afford to buy, everyone would die. Except, all those people would have the time to walk into New Greenwich, make their displeasure felt and suggest the price of water be reduced. A few bodyguards are never going to prevent this.
Yes, there are one of two amusing moments and it’s fun to see all the generations look 25 years old. I was pleasantly surprised by Justin Timberlake’s performance. He manages not to make a fool of himself even though there’s a lot of posing with his stubble to the fore, and there’s good chemistry with Amanda Seyfried. But without any credibility in the economics of dystopian context, the action is routine Bonnie and Clyde/Robin Hood as the cops try to chase them down. Andrew Niccol does his best but the poor quality of his plot prevents anything interesting from occurring. Frankly, I can understand why the embargo on reviews for In Time has been more strongly enforced this “time” around. The distributors want to get as many people through the doors as possible based on Justin Timberlake’s name before word-of-mouth runs the film down.
For a pleasingly detailed and positive analysis of In Time as an alternate history film, see the excellent Gary Westfahl in Locus.