Big Brother. Newspeak. Doublethink. Room 101. It’s impossible to overestimate the influence of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which for many is the definitive dystopian sci-fi novel. It established terms that have seeped into our everyday language, and its plot still inspires the writers of novels and movies.
Written in the final years of Orwell’s life, Nineteen Eighty-Four is shot through with an almost ferocious urgency – the oppression of its future state, and the way it utterly crushes the will of protagonist Winston Smith is reflected in the violence of the book’s language. It’s a little wonder that lines like “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” are still so familiar to us – the images they conjure up are simply too aggressive to forget.
And yet, as brilliant as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, it was by no means the first dystopian novel. It owes a certain debt to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), but most of all, it borrows significantly from a lesser-known novel, We, written by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1931.
This is worth bearing mind because, just as the dystopian sci-fi movies of the past 60 or so years have taken inspiration from Nineteen Eighty-Four, so Orwell was inspired by other writers.
Andrew Niccol’s film, In Time, presents a sci-fi dystopia that is both Orwellian and uniquely its own. In the distant future, time has become a currency in the truest sense – science has halted the process of ageing, but in order to slow down the over-population of the planet, each citizen has a digital, neon clock installed in their forearm. At the age of 25, the clock starts ticking down to zero. If they don’t keep the clock topped up by working in tedious jobs, they’ll be dead within a year – and if they’re to eat, they have to exchange a few precious minutes for food and drink.
For the wealthy elite, the thousands of years stored on their forearm clock means that, unless they’re murdered or involved in an accident, they’ll live forever. On the other side of the tracks, the poor are packed into slums, where they’re constantly working to keep the grim reaper at bay.
Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is one such worker whose chance encounter with a disillusioned member of the elite gives him a chance of screwing up the whole system. “We want, we need to die,” the wealthy chap says, before transferring 116 years to Will’s clock, and then promptly killing himself.
So begins Will’s attempts to redress society’s time imbalance, which brings him into contact with steely-eyed millionaire Phillipe (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser), his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) and scariest of all, veteran cop Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy).
In Time’s concept is both clever and muddled. Tiny details, such as the multiple buttons on a wealthy person’s suit being a symbol of how much time they have to burn, are brilliant. But why would time be stored in cartridges that look like metal VHS tapes, particularly when it’s so easy to transfer time by simply holding someone’s hand?
There are problems, too, with In Time’s characters. Will Salas is little more than a cipher, and Sylvia has nothing more to do than rush around in heels and look faintly doll-like. Their central relationship lacks pathos or depth found in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or the other doomed love affairs in the other dystopian novels mentioned earlier.
Partly thanks to Cillian Murphy’s charismatic performance, Raymond Leon is by far the most interesting character in the film, and an alternate version of In Time could have cast him as the protagonist – dystopian fiction is always about a cog within an oppressive system rebelling (usually unsuccessfully), and watching Raymond turn from ruthless Timekeeper to a freedom fighter, and stealing time on behalf of the poor would have made for a far more compelling movie than one about a disgruntled factory worker.
Instead, we follow Will, whose life is full of tragedy, but whose character is difficult to truly connect with. It’s unfortunate, too, that In Time quickly boils down to a fast-paced chase movie, because there are several ideas in here that warrant a story of their own.
And ultimately, it’s these ideas that make In Time worth watching. Andrew Niccol brought some fascinating notions to his other sci-fi films – Gattaca, The Truman Show and S1m0ne – and the ones in In Time are equally thought-provoking.
If everyone stopped ageing at the age of 25, so that a mother looked the same age as her son, what would that do to a family dynamic? This is illustrated to eerie effect in one early scene, where we realise that the woman in Will’s apartment, played by Olivia Wilde, is in fact his mother. Later on, Phillipe enters an opulent cocktail party with his wife and daughter, who look almost identical. A compelling drama could be fashioned from this concept alone.
Or what about the notion that, even if our bodies remained young, our minds continued to age? If we lived for 120 years or so, would we grow weary of our existence, as the wealthy chap does at the start of the film? No matter. The police are on the way. It’s time to move.
Then there’s the film’s Orwellian element, where citizens are literal slaves to the clock – and it’s this aspect that makes In Time quite unusual. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a cautionary tale about totalitarianism, and numerous films that it inspired offer up a quite similar picture of sci-fi fascism – just look at V For Vendetta or Equilibrium, which are clearly modelled after Orwell’s novel, or less obviously, Alien and RoboCop, where the dictator is a gigantic corporation.
In Time, on the other hand, presents us with a capitalist dystopia: in order for the few to be wealthy, the many must suffer in poverty. Unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, which offered a nightmarish possible future, In Time is a thinly-veiled version of the present, where the poor toil and the rich hurtle about in expensive cars. The only solution, Niccol appears to suggest, is a redistribution of wealth – surely making In Time the most left-leaning US film of 2011.
Like Orwell’s novel, In Time deals with contemporary concerns – or in this instance, resentment in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the effects that are still being felt. In Time is a flawed movie, but it’s undoubtedly an unusual, intriguing one.