Release Date: October 27, 2011
A lot of growing old seems to involve looking back and wishing you’d understood then what you do now about the advantages of being young. Healthy knees, for example. So imagine a world where everyone stops ageing at 25. Utopia? Now add in the qualifying factor that unless you do something about it, you die at 26. This is the bomb ticking away at the heart of the new science fiction thriller In Time.
Justin Timberlake has put aside his lightweight roles in Friends With Benefits and Bad Teacher to tackle the action-packed part of a man fighting against his own mortality. Will Salas lives in our future where science has managed to switch off the ageing gene. People now live their entire lives in 25-year-old bodies, but in order to avoid overpopulation those bodies shut down at 26 – unless you earn enough to extend your existence. Time has become the new currency and while the rich make decades at a time, the poor struggle to beg, borrow or steal every minute they’ll need for the next day. However Salas’ life takes an unexpected turn when a wealthy man gifts him a hundred years so that he will finally be able to embrace death. The police suspect foul play, but in avoiding capture Salas uncovers the truth: the world’s system is deliberately geared to sacrifice the many for the sake of a few.
In Time is a classic chess game plot. Can Salas work out how to bring the whole system crashing down before he literally runs out of time? In that respect its ‘on the run’ structure shares a lot in common with its science fiction predecessors The Island and The Adjustment Bureau, even Blakes 7 if you care to go digging. But writer / director Andrew Niccol is a virtuoso at combining both action and interest in a futuristic format, as he first demonstrated in Gattaca, then The Truman Show and Lord of War. His skill lies in taking a recognizable element of society – in this case our Western obsession with working to secure our future – and extrapolating it to a plausible conclusion. What would human beings do to avoid death? The answer is the same as it has always been: anything.
In Time has a strong social conscience that seems to reflect a growing concern with how developed societies like ours relate to the developing world. Recently I was working on a documentary for World Vision in Northern Uganda where I met cattle tribes who’d lost their traditional pastures so that a wildlife preserve could be established for tourists. It was my first clear insight into how the pleasures of the West are built on the backs of the third world. Salas discovers a similar inequity when his mysterious benefactor, Henry Hamilton, explains the facts of life:
Henry: “The poor are meant to die. That’s how the system works.”
Will: “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
Henry: “You really don’t know do you? The truth is there’s more than enough time for everyone. There are men with a million years while most live from day to day. For a few to be immortal many must die.”
I don’t doubt that Niccol wants us to question where we would sit in such an equation. It’s certainly true that the chocolate bar which represents such a minor purchase for us could have been produced by the slavery of African children.
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However if there’s a weakness to In Time it has to be the attitude it takes to death. On the surface Salas and his supporters seem to stand for a world where everyone has the right to live, but this is more about our attitude to our demise. We don’t ‘waste time’ because there is only a limited quantity of it and the grave waits for everyone. In fact, death is a natural part of life that has to be embraced rather than defeated. Will’s benefactor tells him, “The day comes when you’ve had enough,” and his love interest underlines the message: “We weren’t meant to live forever.” Death in this light is no tragedy, but the natural end of all things.
And that’s the real tragedy of the movie. In Time has such a low view of life that only a villain would aim to extend it forever. The US working title of the film was actually I’m Mortal. There’s no hope of something after; death is just the full stop that sharpens our appreciation of whatever we can get now. Will’s conclusion is that “No-one should be immortal if even one person has to die.” In his world no one considers the question, “What if one person died so that everyone could be immortal?” But then that’s not science fiction.