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Sunday, November 20, 2011

In Time Is Money

I initially avoided In Time because of lackluster reviews. I’m glad I eventually relented because it is one of the smartest dystopian films to come out in a long while and one of the most underrated movies of the year. Though Harlan Ellison claims it's based on one of his short stories, the film’s "system-is-out-to-get-you" narrative feels more like a Philip K. Dick progeny (the originator of such paranoid fare as Blade Runner and Minority Report).  Excellently directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), the film debuts Justin Timberlake as an action hero, playing Will Salas, a down on his luck factory grunt who is big on heart but short on time. His love interest is the heiress Sylvia Weiss, played with preternatural conviction by Amanda Syfried. A bevy of hot Hollywood A-listers (Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Alex Pettyfer, Vincent Kartheiser) round out the cast, bringing sexy back to science fiction.

Time has become the currency by which wealth is measured in this world. After your first 25 years, the aging process stops, but your internal clock starts counting down, and when it hits zero, you are dead. People acquire extra time through labor, gambling, stealing, or donating by swapping it through tactile contact with another person's clock, or through specially sanctioned devices that add time to your clock. If someone hoards enough of it, they can live virtually forever. Of course in every society there are the haves and the have-nots, and our story starts with the latter. Through a stroke of luck, but also because of his well-tuned moral compass, Will finds himself in possession of more time than he ever dreamed. The person who gave it to him revealed that there was "more than enough" time for everyone to live a good life. But for some at the top to be immortal, people at the bottom had to die to make room. This put Will, an urban Robin Hood, at odds with the powers that be – “his crime wasn't taking time... it was giving it away."

Niccol’s locations for the film visually echoed the sterility of this future society. The subtext is apparent early on… “we don’t need more people because we’ve learned to live forever.” And so, the whole premise of the story is based on systematic, legally sanctioned mass annihilation. The only thing that keeps the populace from amassing against their masters is pure ignorance. It’s not just the police, whom they keep on a short leash by only doling out a day’s worth of life at a time (symbolic of our society’s pensions and perks culture), but the rich brilliantly have the poor fighting among themselves and even allow predator thugs free reign to cull the masses. In a dark grandiose way, it’s a brutally efficient society for the top 1%. But the starkness of the visuals isn’t limited to the ghetto. As Will moves through the sectors on his way through wealthier and wealthier towns, everything still smacks of that sparse socialist concrete construction that’s devoid of any art or passion. Even the opulent New Greenwich, where the top earners live, appears stark and almost sterile compared with a modern day New York or Boston. The rich avoid any risk that might shorten their immortality, even something as mundane as swimming in the ocean. Life itself, as we know it, is dying despite the wealthiest citizens trying to live forever.

The story assaults our traditional cultural taboos. Normally, a 28-year old son and his 50-year old mom cohabiting wouldn’t raise an eyebrow because a son taking up the burden to help support aging parents is a comforting concept in our society. But eternal youth skews that relationship. Will’s mother is as beautiful as Olivia Wilde and hasn’t aged a day past 25. She’s as vibrant and healthy as any athlete, but still depends on Will as a peer, despite her 23 years of experience over him. Will and his gorgeous, young mother live in a husband-and-wife dynamic that pushes Oedipal resistance to its borders. This theme repeats itself in the wealthier class as well as Phillipe Weis (Kartheiser) introduces his faux harem composed of his mother-in-law, wife, and daughter. From the dialogue in this scene, we have the sense that this immortality is a fairly new development and that Weis is part of the first generation to experience this new reality. Even he's perplexed by his bevy of beauties, as they rewrite the rules, making it up as they go along. Other than the sanctity of marriage, most of the restrictions that would keep him from bedding his wife’s mother are gone. This raises other interesting dilemmas.

If half of our marriages, with solid expiration dates on our existence, can’t make it through a decade together before divorcing, what constitutes 'til death do us part in this dystopian future? The entire concept of marriage would have to be revised to allow predesignated expiration of unions. Very few people are built to stay with one person forever. There’s no reason why the banker can’t date his hot, young mother-in-law after the fact? And what of Weiss' daughter? Taboos exist to prevent genetic disorder, but there’s no risk of that in this scientifically advanced world that has learned to manipulate genes. There's not even any need for offspring. So what's to stop the top families from keeping all that money in the family by continually marrying within the family? (This is not too far off a concept; a few of the banking Rothschild's of Europe married nieces and first cousins for that reason.)

It's amazing how much we equate wrinkled faces and graying hair with wisdom and experience. The movie's lack of older looking adults evokes a creepiness that's hard to nail down. Part of the discomfort is that what we're watching is akin to bigger/richer kids bully the weaker/poorer kids in the school yard, and you keep waiting for an adult to show up to impose fair play and punish the bullies. But that will never happen in this world. This is the insane running the asylum. The elderly display the same incomplete ethical foundations of their much younger counterparts hinting that the stifling of the aging process is not limited to the physical only. It's as though this society is descended from the group of boys in William Golding's Lord of The Flies.

In Time casts a reflection on our own imperfect world and shows that the real problems do not stem from money, gold, or other concepts created by Man, but from deep-seeded desires to cull advantages over our fellow man for our own benefit. We are at our core opportunistic and advantage seeking. Regardless of what replaces money today, if we as a race are to survive with dignity and live in freedom, then Man's fundamental nature must also undergo a paradigm shift to keep pace with the destructive nature of his constructs. This movie touched on some very deep themes. I rate it $12.50 out of the $13.50 I paid to see it.

Ed Lazellari is a blogger and fiction writer. His novels Awakenings and The Lost Prince from Tor Books are available at Barnes & Nobles and

“This blend of urban and cross-world fantasy combines the excitement of the Harry Potter series with the dark grittiness of the Dresden Files books and should appeal to mature young adults as well as to adult lovers of the genre.” --Library Journal (August 2013)


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