Well, my long-planned series on political psychology has been delayed. I’ve tried tackling the topic and found myself not equal to the task. So while this subject percolates in my brain a little more, I got a fun idea–exploring our possible futures through underrated science fiction movies!
I may get some flack for considering “In Time” to be underrated. It certainly has some of the worst features of a low-brow wanna be blockbuster, including a heavy-handed, politically-charged morality tale aspect that probably accounts for the film bombing at the box office. But for all its technical clumsiness, “In Time’s” premise is so unique, and the dilemmas it poses so relevant, that it absolutely has to have a place among our review of possible futures.
“In Time” takes place in a world where humans have achieved the dream of engineering themselves for immortality. The body’s aging process stops the instant you turn 25, so you can theoretically live at that biological age forever.
The problem might already be obvious: “Everyone can’t live forever. Where would we put them?” In the face of finite natural resources, a system has been developed by which adult members of society must constantly work to earn more time–when their aging process stops, a biological clock starts that must be constantly replenished. If your body’s clock hits zero, every cell in your body stops working. But if you can continue earning more time, there’s no natural limit to how long you can live.
“In Time’s” future society has cut out the middleman between cash and resource consumption altogether–now, time is the currency. The price of a cup of coffee, bus fare, clothes, etc. are all measured in minutes off your life. This is fine, if you can keep earning more time. If you can’t, you may die because a hike in bus fare prevents you from getting to work to pick up your paycheck before your clock runs out.
Things get downright dystopian when it becomes clear that the real reason for this time-based economy is population control. People keep being born, so people have to keep dying. Since nobody dies of old age anymore, the time-based economy makes sure that people die of poverty instead. In this world, prices and wages are determined by how many people need to die today–and the ones who die are literally always the poor.
Yes, the poor. This time-based economy is nearly identical to our own, except for the use of time, the very stuff of life, instead of money as a currency. The movie hits us over the head with references to high-interest loans and billionaire investment bankers who may possess a million years–which they could theoretically live, but are more likely to trade for luxuries.
Despite being heavy-handed in its morality tale about America’s self-perpetuating class system, the movie’s premise provokes some pretty intense thought by carrying many modern dilemmas to their natural conclusion. Modern medicine strives to eliminate death altogether–if we were to get our wish of never having to die of old age, how would we handle it in the face of limited natural resources? For that matter, even without immortality, how will we handle the very real and inevitable problem of an infinitely expanding human population on a planet that is not infinite? And how are the virtues and vices of capitalism tied up in this question?
“In Time” is a profoundly weird movie for reasons that can be summed up just by looking at its cast list: it stars Justin “Sexy Back” Timberlake alongside Cillian “excellent taste in high-brow sci-fi roles” Murphy. The movie repeatedly asks profound questions and introduces moral complications–then ends up completely ignoring them in favor of a “feel-good” ending that makes no sense if you think about it for even two seconds. You can practically hear the arguments between the writer of this subtle and complex premise and the producer who wanted an excuse to put a world-saving Justin Timberlake onscreen with a bunch of gorgeous women.
For all its narrative failings, in a way “In Time’s” decision to ignore its own complicated questions just shows how well it posed them. The dilemmas of a world where humans are immortal could not possibly be solved in one two-hour chunk of screentime–and the movie’s ultimate failing is pretending that they were. If anything, it should have ended on a tragic or bittersweet note–perhaps where nothing has changed, except the individual characters and their understanding of the world they live in.
Without giving too much away, I will say that Cillian Murphy’s character makes this movie. Though billed as an antagonist, he’s the only character who seems to understand the moral dilemmas facing his society, and the only one who manages to surprise the audience. The biography of Murphy’s character seems to perfectly personify the questions this film asks and then forgets about in favor of a happy ending.
And someone in production seems to realize this. Murphy’s name is the first to appear in the credits.