by Gary Westfahl
Science fiction readers will approach Andrew Niccol’s In Time with a particular question in mind: is this film, as Harlan Ellison’s lawsuit contends, in fact an unauthorized adaptation of his classic story “`Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965)? Unschooled in the finer points of copyright law, I cannot offer a definitive answer, but in the unlikely event that the case ever comes to court, I could only serve as an expert witness for the defense, testifying that any alleged similarities can be conveyed solely by means of an extremely careful choice of words: yes, both stories involve a totalitarian society which employs advanced technology to scientifically control the lifespans of citizens, with one feared enforcer assigned to seek out and apprehend those who violate its policies. But even cursory examination of the two works will reveal so many differences between them as to make any connection seem tenuous indeed: in Ellison’s story, individuals are punished for being late by having a corresponding amount of time removed from their otherwise normal lifespans, whereas in Niccol’s screenplay all citizens are “genetically programmed” to die at the age of twenty-six unless they can earn additional time, which has replaced money as society’s currency. Ellison’s Harlequin dresses like a clown and engages in elaborate pranks to disrupt the schedule of his punctuality-obsessed society before he is captured and reprogrammed to be an obedient citizen by the Ticktockman; Niccol’s Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) works earnestly to obtain more time for his fellow plebeians, ultimately defeats the Timekeeper (Cillian Murphy) pursuing him, and seems poised to overturn the entire social order. Do the stories sound identical to you? Frankly, if Ellison has any success at all, I would encourage William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, authors of the novel Logan’s Run (1967), to file their own case against Niccol, since they could employ less carefully chosen language to argue that both stories involve worlds where all people are forced to die at a young age unless they take special action, with the laws enforced by special agents with time-related titles (Timekeepers and Sandmen).
However, it is the broader thematic differences between “`Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” and In Time that will disappoint filmgoers hoping to see a genuine adaptation of Ellison’s story. For despite an opening quotation from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) about the general value of rebelling against society, Ellison’s particular message is that our society has grown too concerned with punctuality at all costs, and he explicitly extrapolates that this growing tendency to “serve time” instead of “let[ting] time serve us” will eventually lead, by the year 2389, to a society in which staying on schedule is considered more important than anything else. In contrast, Niccol’s society evidences no particular interest in being punctual, as it focuses on other issues to be discussed, and offers no explanation as to how this system came about; Salas only says, “I don’t have time to worry about how it happened.” More provocatively, and despite what you may have read elsewhere, In Time, unlike “`Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” does not take place in the future.
The statement might seem absurd, since the film’s premise is based on the posited existence of technology that is well beyond our current capabilities: the ability to biologically impose a limited lifespan on all human beings, as augmented by some sort of implanted machinery that constantly displays the amount of people’s remaining time on their arms and allows for the transfer of time from individual to individual or into and out of special cassettes. Given the amount of time it would logically take to develop such technology and to establish a new sort of government based on its use, one might conclude that Niccol’s story must be set at least fifty or one hundred years in the future. But by that time, humanity will surely have developed other forms of new technology as well; however, except for the machinery specifically associated with the Timekeeper’s activities, such as surveillance cameras and monitoring equipment, and some unusually streamlined cars and pay phones, absolutely no such technology can be seen in the film. True, contemplating a vision of the future that implausibly mixes futuristic superscience with present-day props, one might merely attribute this to authorial laziness, one of Damon Knight’s memorable complaints about A. E. van Vogt’s novel The World of Null-A (1945, 1948). But Niccol’s previous experience of writing and directing Gattaca (1997) demonstrates that he is fully capable of presenting a fully realized future world – when he wants to – and the thoroughness with which the film replaces all references to monetary prices with time prices (one minute for a phone call, four minutes for a cup of coffee, one week for a six-pack of beer, etc., and there is even a “99 Seconds Only” store) hardly suggests a director who is inattentive to detail. Further, the issue is not simply that the film lacks the sorts of advanced technology that one would expect in the years 2061 or 2111; the film actually lacks almost all of the sorts of advanced technology that we already have today. Thus, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception (review here), this is a film in which one must pay attention to what is missing, as well as what is on display.
That is, except for those glowing green numbers on everybody’s arms, most scenes in the film look like they are taking place in the America of the 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s, not the America we live in now. All of the appliances and bathroom fixtures we observe appear to date from that period, as do the run-down buildings in the district where Salas and his mother Rachel (Olivia Wilde) reside, and even the larger and impeccably maintained skyscrapers and mansions in the wealthy district of New Greenwich seem less than ultramodern. Nobody – not even the superrich – has a cell phone, though billionaire Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser) does have a jazzy cordless phone, forcing people to communicate by means of ubiquitous pay phones. While people often play card games, there are no video games or computers in any homes or places of business, and when they have to travel long distances, people take cars or buses, but there are no references to air travel, and no signs that any forms of space travel have been achieved. A flat-screen television briefly shows news reports in Weis’s home, but nobody else seems to have a television, or to ever go to the movies. Nobody even has a radio, and in a band playing in a bar where Salas meets his friend Borel (Johnny Galecki), one person is playing an upright bass, not the electric bass that long ago almost universally supplanted it, suggesting that this world also lacks modern instruments. When Salas checks into a luxury hotel, he is handed a metal key, not the plastic cards that have replaced them at virtually all upscale facilities, and despite the fact that a truly advanced civilization would surely devise a better way to store valuable time, one finds it here in the form of cassettes locked away in old-fashioned bank vaults. People at all social levels drink a lot of alcohol, America’s time-honored intoxicant of choice, but they never indulge in the mind-altering drugs often preferred by contemporary people, either prescription drugs or the illicit varieties. Even the fashions seem out of date, as one wealthy woman signals her status with that ancient symbol of affluence, a fur coat, while Weis wears double-breasted suits – and if you think he looks a little strange, you eventually realize that he has been made up to resemble a character from a 1930s film, just as his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfield) has a hairstyle right out of the Roaring Twenties.
Although one might argue that the extreme poverty of their lives has deprived everyday citizens of modern devices and forced them back into an earlier lifestyle, that cannot explain why even the wealthiest people in this film don’t have most of the amenities that are almost universally enjoyed in twenty-first century America. There is, then, only one explanation that makes sense: that In Time is not a vision of the future, but an example of the subgenre known as the alternate history, based on the premise that some past departure from recorded history – here, the amazingly early development of technology to limit and regulate the human lifespan – has created a different sort of present-day world. It is hard to pin down exact dates in Niccol’s rewritten history, but one might base a theory on the evidence of Weis’s extraordinary fondness for Charles Darwin: he employs his birthdate as a combination to his safe, and he tells Salas that the triumph of his wealthy class represents the successful workings of “Darwinian capitalism,” further suggesting his familiarity with the theories of the nineteenth-century sociologists like Herbert Spencer who employed Darwin’s ideas to justify class divisions within their society as the result of “social Darwinism.” To me, this implies that the big social change occurred sometime in the nineteenth century, immediately benefiting a first generation of capitalists including Weis and Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), the bored playboy who bequeaths a century of time to Salas, so that they are now still-youthful centenarians in an America living in its own version of the middle of the twentieth century. This film’s true soulmate, then, is not the futuristic Gattaca, but William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine (1991), another story of a nineteenth-century world radically transformed by the premature appearance of an advanced technology (in the novel, computers).
Watching the film, I spent some time pondering precisely which period of twentieth-century history this film was modeled on, and concluded that, for the most part, Niccol was offering images of America in the 1930s, or perhaps a little later. Other than the cars and the freeways, the only radical departure from that era I noted was a briefly observed recycling center, a business that did not emerge until the 1970s, though one might argue that the extreme poverty suffered by so many people in this alternate America might have logically brought them into existence much earlier; the film also displays a calm acceptance of racial diversity in all social classes that diverges from the racial segregation of America’s past, surely a necessary element in any contemporary film.
The question then becomes: other than perhaps saving a few million dollars (by not showing a future world’s flying cars, household robots, and so on), what might have motivated Niccol to create a story with such a setting? The answer, I think, lies in the message that the writer/director clearly wished to emphasize: the evils of economic inequality. In his film, the wealthy people like Weis, who have largely inherited centuries of life that lets them stay alive indefinitely and pay for every conceivable pleasure, enjoy leisurely lives of luxury, while the poor people like Salas must fiercely struggle every day to literally earn just one more day of life. As Salas repeatedly argues, the whole system isn’t fair, and to best drive that point home, one might intelligently avoid any efforts to devise a futuristic iconography of wealth and poverty, which might have little emotional impact, to instead rely upon evocative images from America’s past that almost everyone could relate to. Thus, Weis’s elite class enjoys an opulent lifestyle reminiscent of wealthy people in the 1920s, when they were engaged in the practices that would soon lead to a devastating economic collapse, while the humble inhabitants of Salas’s Dayton endure an existence that visually recalls the Great Depression of the 1930s. When they start to rob time from time banks, Salas and Sylvia thus become their world’s equivalents of Bonnie and Clyde, the 1930s bank robbers who were also celebrated as champions of the downtrodden (though Sylvia’s conversion from rich socialite to willing participant in bank robberies might also be designed to recall the story of Patty Hearst, whose misadventures with the Symbionese Liberation Army occurred during the 1970s, a time of milder economic hardship in America). Niccol also draws upon American geography to illustrate the gap between the rich and the poor: the district where Salas lives, Dayton, must refer to Dayton, Ohio, one of the many midwestern cities that have been hit hard by the recent economic downturn; at one point, he and Sylvia are struggling to reach Livingston, probably the New Jersey city that is close to New York City and Wall Street; and the district of the wealthiest citizens, New Greenwich, not only reflects this society’s obsession with time (since Greenwich Mean Time is the basis for the world’s timekeeping) but must also be a version of Greenwich, Connecticut, a center of the financial services industry and home to many rich people.
Yet setting his story in a version of America’s recent past, and not its distant future, also represents a way for Niccol to emphasize the ultimate point he is trying to make: that his film is not some crazy vision of what America might become in the future, but actually represents the way that America already is. We do live in a society where a few people control and exploit almost all of the wealth, while most people struggle to survive on much smaller incomes; and as one documented effect of this disparity, the wealthy, with access to the best possible health care, enjoy longer lives, while the poor often suffer from premature deaths. By literalizing the metaphor “Time is money,” Niccol conveys this injustice with vivid clarity: poor people keep running out of time and immediately dying in the streets, while rich people can live as long as they like, as long as they manage to avoid unfortunate accidents. Though completed well before the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged, then, In Time functions as a powerful argument for its cause.
Still, Niccol also suggests that America’s downtrodden, in the film and real life, may perversely benefit from their mistreatment, because constantly living on the edge makes them stronger than their privileged adversaries. That idea emerges in a conversation between Weis and Salas while they are playing a high-stakes poker game: after noting that “some think what we have is unfair,” Weis argues that “evolution is always unfair,” so that the many advantages of the wealthy are “merely Darwinian capitalism.” Pretending to agree with him, Salas says, “Absolutely – the strong survive,” but the audience knows that he is really referring to himself, not people like Weis, and he proceeds to beat Weis at poker and to say afterwards, “I knew I was going to win.” Salas later explains to Sylvia that his father taught him to win fights by deliberately allowing his time to almost run out, which distracted the opponent and allowed him to surge to victory with the desperate drive of somebody about to die. Indeed, throughout the film, Salas consistently triumphs because he is faster, stronger, and more accurate in his aim than the higher-class people trying to kill him; even the Timekeeper, his most determined and effective foe, is revealed to be a product of Salas’s impoverished district, although he “worked out how to escape” from that environment to become the oppressor of his former comrades. And this is why In Time would be so heartening to protestors against economic injustice: not only does the film vividly portray the enemies and problems they are fighting against, but it also argues that they will ultimately triumph over their more fortunate counterparts because the poor are better and more capable than they are.
This theme is related to another, more overt message in Niccol’s film, rooted in the principle that even when one is merely literalizing a metaphor, a good science fiction writer must also wrestle with the practical consequences of that literalization. That is, it is not enough for the film to maintain that hoarded time is evil because it is morally equivalent to hoarded money; it should also be explaining why hoarded time, in and of itself, is something to abhor. The film offers two explicit arguments against human immortality: first, that it may, as in this society, unfairly require that other people die – “For a few to be immortal, many must die,” a statement made by both Hamilton and Weis. Second, Hamilton suggests that an overly extended life might eventually become boring or wearisome: “The day comes when you’ve had enough. We want to die. We need to.” Yet the film as a whole may be conveying a third argument, that immortality may lead to scientific and social stagnation. When he briefly joins society’s elite class, Salas neatly sums up the problem: “why do today what you can do in a century?” Granted an indefinite amount of time, people may feel absolutely no incentive to accomplish anything noteworthy.
And this might provide another explanation for the peculiar backwardness of Niccol’s technologically transformed world. Consider: if humanity had really perfected computers by the mid-nineteenth century, as in Gibson and Sterling’s novel, one would reasonably expect that by 1940 or so, society would have not only computers, but all sorts of other technology inspired by or facilitated by computers, as is certainly true of the world we live in today. Similarly, if the world had mastered the ability to control and manipulate the human lifespan at that time, the society observed in the film should be enjoying the benefits of other new technologies which would be natural outgrowths of the original breakthrough. Yet that obviously hasn’t occurred – perhaps because the people with the time and resources to develop those technologies have felt no urgent need to do so. A limited lifespan like Salas’s, then, not only improves his survival skills but drives him to make the fullest possible use of them; as he tells Hamilton, if he had more time, he “sure as hell wouldn’t waste it.” This, of course, is a lesson presented in other cautionary tales about human immortality, and it is well understood outside the genre, since the late Steve Jobs made precisely the same point in his 2005 speech at Stanford University: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
If there is any reason at all to criticize In Time, it involves the fact that the film does not attempt to go beyond this conventional disdain for immortality, when the true spirit of science fiction, I believe, involves an effort not to simply replicate long-accepted truths (sorry, George Lucas) but to transcend them. Thus, that most visionary of science fiction writers, Arthur C. Clarke, long ago pondered the same problem and ventured the notion, in The City and the Stars (1956), that a civilization of eternally reborn immortals just might avoid complete stagnation if, every so often, an entirely new person was introduced into the mix. In similar fashion, if this film is successful enough to inspire pressure to produce a sequel, one might advise Niccol to eschew the easy path of generating more conflicts between Salas’s Robin-Hood-like crusaders and a resurgent team of evil Timekeepers, and instead have Salas and his allies achieve control of their world, so they can then ponder the challenge of integrating its ability to control human lifespans, and its possibility of immortality, into a society that is both just and progressive. Sadly, though, while I can envision an excellent science fiction novel along those lines, it is hard to imagine a hard-nosed studio executive greenlighting such a project.
And this brings to mind the only other reason that a science fiction enthusiast might be less than thrilled by In Time, and that is its inevitable surrender to the exigencies of contemporary filmmaking. Again, as in Inception, thought-provoking ideas and dialogue must be accompanied by the requisite quota of car chases and gunfights, along with other convenient absurdities, like the fact that the Timekeeper, despite being supported by a capable team of assistants, keeps rushing off all by himself to confront Salas and Sylvia, making it easier for the pair to keep thwarting his efforts. A film lacking any occasions for such derring-do and contrivances, like my projected sequel, will always be rejected by the powerful people controlling Hollywood because they are convinced that it will never make enough money. So, until the workings of Darwinian capitalism allow energetic, independent filmmakers to overcome a small-minded and decadent elite class, In Time represents the very best sort of science fiction film that one can expect to see in a neighborhood theatre. And if it receives as little support as Niccol’s Gattaca, one can unfortunately expect to see fewer and fewer of them.