A Fine Time, Indeed

In Time is high concept science fiction, and I don't hesitate to say that it's high concept science fiction at its best. It takes a single, simple idea, though one that could nevertheless fundamentally change the way human beings understand their lives, and uses it to hold a mirror up to modern-day society, to comment on some particular peculiarity of modern life.

 No, it's not on the new trend of day-glo tattoos.

The conceit in this film is two-fold. On the one hand, at some point in the past a technology was developed which stopped the physical ageing process at 25, offering immortality (barring violence, accident or disease) and some slight confusion when meeting a new person as to whether or not they're a peer. On the other hand, at an equally unspecified point, a system was put in place whereby life-time became money, obliging people to literally work to live and solving what some characters claim would be the problem of an ever-expanding number of immortals draining the earth's resources. So between the two, we have a world in which everyone looks young and beautiful, but one in which poor people die in the street when they 'time out' and the immortal rich are deathly afraid of risk and chance.

One of the trickiest things, when constructing a world that has changed in some fundamental way, is to create a coherent image of society. Pleasantly, the writers of In Time appear to have devoted some considerable amount of time to the issue. There are all sorts of little things throughout the movie that reflect the very different relationship the poor and the rich have to time. The poor run everywhere, they scarf down food, they never sleep in or show up late, and they're not especially afraid to do apparently crazy things, like jump from second-storey windows or play 'strong-arm', a game actually seen in the background well before it becomes a plot point. The rich, meanwhile, walk slowly, drive slowly, eat slowly, gamble huge amounts of time in casinos (though never enough to actually risk their own lives), live in fear of mischance, surround themselves with bodyguards and hoard eons. The poor ghetto is rough and dirty, but full of a certain vibrancy, while rich New Greenwich is drab and clean and monochrome, a subtly appropriate aesthetic since it's populated primarily by the very old. In fact, the lack of more science fiction elements (there aren't even cell phones) initially struck me as silly, but then I wondered; in a society in which the most powerful are the most directly concerned with maintaining the status quo and can do so for decades, even centuries, how quickly would technology advance? Particularly since the social system is built on isolation and segregation, both within areas like the ghetto and New Greenwich and between the 'time zones' themselves.

Justin Timberlake does a solid job as blue-collar Will Salas, a member of the working poor who suddenly finds himself with over a century on the clock after a run-in with a wealthy man who's grown tired of living. After one too many of Will's close associates dies in the street, succumbing to a system that is explicitly stacked against their survival, he decides to head for New Greenwich, with the intention of taking that self-same system for everything he can. In New Greenwich he meets Vincent Kartheiser and Amanda Seyfried, as Phillipe Weis and his daughter Sylvia, and just as importantly has his first run-in with Cillian Murphy's Raymond Leon, a law enforcement officer (Timekeeper) investigating the death of the man who gave Will all that time. The intersection of Will, Sylvia and Raymond sets the plot in motion, and from there it unfolds in ways both expected and surprising, constructing a solid chase narrative that keeps the film absolutely humming with energy. The romance never overtakes the story, pared down to just one or two small, intimate scenes that convey the connection between the two characters without becoming semi-pornographic, and the obvious social commentary never becomes preachy, remaining entirely within the bounds of the world constructed at the beginning of the film. This is a world where time is literally money, and that almost primal drive suffuses the film from start to finish.

The characters are, for the most part, fairly stock, but very well-played stock. Will is the good-hearted, quick-witted boy from the bad side of the tracks, and Sylvia is the naive, sheltered but ultimately well-meaning rich girl who falls for him, with Phillipe perhaps the ur-example of the controlling and heartless rich father. The real stand-out is Cillian Murphy, and his Timekeeper Raymond Leon. Throughout the film, I found myself vacillating on just what, exactly, Raymond was. He refuses to be bribed, and seems dogged in his pursuit of Will not because he dislikes him, but because Will is suspicious and eventually an outright criminal, and Raymond is an officer of the law. And he's not a bad person; he appears to be relatively well-liked by at least some of the ghetto's inhabitants, even having a small, friendly back-and-forth with a prostitute. But he shows no apparent interest in apprehending the local Minuteman, Fortis, a gangster who steals time from those in the ghetto and kills two people over the course of the film itself, and there's a suggestion that in coming out of the ghetto himself, Raymond is working to make sure nobody else can follow after him. I didn't necessarily buy that moment, but it does exist in the film, and it's part and parcel of the pleasantly complicated character that is Raymond Leon. He's easily the standout character of the piece.

I mentioned, earlier, that the lack of cellphones seemed strange, and initially it does. This is a world in which some sort of techno-organic engineering has taken place to produce functional immorality and an off-switch in the human body, after all; surely an iPhone isn't beyond them? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Technologies like the internet and cellphones are trans-temporal; they compress space and time. In our world, a world in which the greatest amount of utility must be wrung from an extremely finite amount of time, that is a definite value. But that isn't the world of In Time. Instead, their world is one in which a potentially infinite amount of time must be whittled away to nothing for the vast majority of the population. Of course there are payphones on street corners, and not a cellphone or laptop to be seen in the ghetto, these technologies would be explicitly contrary to the entire thrust of the culture in those areas. The system would want to force the poor to spend minutes on awkwardly-positioned payphones, or run home to meet up with someone, because that burns away a few more of the minutes the system can't abide them having in the first place. In Time is one of the better, subtler representations of the systems of control that make up society cinema has provided us in quite some time.

Though it may be bad form, there is something I'd like to say about the end of the film. I'll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but if you are thinking of going to see In Time, you should probably stop reading here, and come back once we're both on the same page.

So. I went to see In Time with the lovely Madam Meagan, and after the film she expressed a certain dissatisfaction in the resolution. It wasn't that it was badly scripted or acted or shot, but rather, that it wasn't a total resolution. In a science fiction film, in particular, she prefers when things end in a way that is decisive and all-encompassing; the Good triumph, the Evil are destroyed, and Everything Is Fixed. I wouldn't have had any objection to such an ending myself; indeed, as an outside observer it seems almost silly that the characters didn't push for that last great step towards total victory. But, and this may just be the aftereffects of a recent bout with Herbert Marcuse and his theories, not only was I untroubled by the ending as presented, it actually rang truer to me than the alternative would have. Of course the ending doesn't produce a fundamental change in the status quo, of course it doesn't. It couldn't. For all that Will is out to take the system for everything he can, he is still, ultimately, operating under the constraints of the system. He can't fundamentally challenge it, because he, like the vast majority of human beings, is simply incapable of really understanding what it would take to produce that level of change. Yes, he hates the system, yes, he thinks the rich are parasites, yes, he balks at immortality for a few at the cost of death for the masses, but he is still, at the end of the day, incapable of conceiving a challenge to the system itself. His solution is redistributive, rather than reconceptual, because Will, like most people, cannot break free of the systems into which he is born, because that system defines the horizons of his experience.

That, more than the vicious representation of naked capitalism, was what felt to me like the true philosophical heart of the film. In Time is, more than anything else, an exploration of the inability of humans, even those with the most powerful motivations and best of intentions, to truly force the world to take the shape they desire of it, or even understand what, exactly, they desire in the first place. The timing of this film, coinciding with the Occupy Wall Street protests, is particularly interesting. The OWS protestors are likewise incapable of really challenging a system that is specifically and purposefully designed to exploit the greatest number of people for the good of the smallest number of people, because they are still defined by the boundaries of it. They aren't calling for communism or socialism, for the radical redistribution of wealth to create a truly level playing field, or for a reordering of society such that the utility of a McDonald's counter girl is equal to that of an elite banker. And why not? After all, that McDonald's girl is more useful to a greater number of people than that banker, and McDonald's staff have never crashed the economy. But the OWS protestors are a product of their society, a society that is viciously anti-communist, -socialist and even sometimes -socially just, so they can't make the leap from a system that is steadily failing more and more people to one that might work better for more people.

Almost nobody can. And maybe recognizing that limitation, even if we can't bring ourselves to transcend it, is the true value of In Time.

Though, the gunfights and chase scenes are pretty cool, too.

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