Old age is a fatal disease. It spares no one, and over the ages we have learned to accept it as inevitability. We have grown to expect, and even praise it as something good – something beneficial. But for all the talk about the benefits of advanced age, and the acceptance of death, all of us dream about eternal youth. Those of you who are reading this and shaking their heads are in denial. Given access to the fountain of eternal youth, would you not be tempted to take a sip? Would you willingly choose feebleness, sickness, and slow deterioration of your mind over an ability to be healthy and able bodied for as long as you choose? Keep in mind the kind of biological immortality I am talking about is not some far fetched Flying Dutchman curse. You can opt out of it at any time, no strings attached. Would you walk away from a chance to prolong your youth for as long as you wish? And if yes, why?
Never mind. Let me guess. You were going to say overpopulation, right? Like you started to care all of a sudden. You are still in denial. You have internalized the inevitability of death so deeply that you don’t even dare to dream. But if you did admit the truth, and did allow yourself to desire immortality you would see that overpopulation is only a problem if you do nothing to counter it. It is painfully obvious that if we found a cure for old age, we would have to do something about population growth. And there are really only two things you can do to fix population size: if no one ever dies of old age, you either prevent new people from being born, or you force some people to die so that others may take their place.
The former is usually considered the more ethical option, and one that’s easier to implement. You make sterilization a prerequisite for the age prolonging procedure and use waiting lists for couples who want to have babies. But that’s just one of many suggestions. It’s just a matter of figuring out what method of population control we would be comfortable with as a society. I’m not sure why people think it would be impossible to find an arrangement that would be fair for everyone.
The 2011 movie In Time explores this very topic by depicting a world which chose a rather drastic, dystopian method of population control – forced euthanasia. People don’t age past 25, but they are only allotted a fixed amount of time to live past that age. Time, functions as currency so you can prolong your life indefinitely, provided you have a steady income and you carefully manage your budget to ensure you never run your clock down to zero. Of course the rich time-barons who run the banks and financial market use price fixing, wage manipulation and taxation to ensure that the death rate among the fast reproducing lower class remains constant.
It is a very intriguing idea in its own right, but the movie loses itself in a half-assed attempt at sociopolitical commentary. It is almost as if the script was specifically written to capitalize on the news buzz surrounding the 99% movement and the recent “Occupy” protests. The plot is so seeped in the “rich vs poor” rhetoric it not only misses a chance to explore some of the more interesting topics surrounding immortality but also fails to add any kind of depth to the conflict it portrays. The entire setup is very black and white. The time wealthy citizens are corrupt, and callous. The poor inhabitants of the ghettos are mostly good hearted and noble people who have fallen on hard times. The movie tries so hard to pull on your heart strings it leaves gaping plot holes left and right.
One of the big problems with the script is that it never explains how did this time based society start. It is never revealed when does the action is supposed to take place, but considering general state of technology it can’t be a distant future. So it seems strange that the near future United States which still seems to be a democracy is completely fine with having this time based regime thrust upon it’s citizens. Present day American’s can’t agree with each other about things like death penalty or abortion so it’s hard to believe than in a decade or two no one will even bat an eye at a concept of poor people dropping dead in the middle of the street on their 26th birthday.
The movie never touched upon politics or explain how does such a system become so entrenched in a supposed democracy. How do elected officials justify this system to their constituents? How do they keep the population so docile. Why aren’t people low on time rioting in the streets? You only have to look to recent events in Egypt to see that something as simple as food price hikes may spark an open revolt against the government. It is silly to think that lower class Americans would not react to steady increase of their cost of living if it actually put them at risk of suddenly running out of time and dying.
But it seems that no one save the protagonist played by Justin Timberlake has ever even considered fighting the unjust system. Even though people in the ghettos “clock-out” and drop dead every day, everyone is just resigned to it. There are dead bodies lining the streets but most people just step over them, and continue with their daily routines. There are no protests, no social movements trying to help the poverty stricken citizens. It is almost hard to believe that in an inner city where most people skirt by on less than 24 hours on their clock there are no free soup kitchens, or homeless shelters run by volunteers, charities or religious organizations. The very fact that the system is specifically designed to prohibit social mobility, and that the aristocratic, immortal upper class balks at the very concept of philanthropy seems fishy.
The entire universe seems contrived, and constructed for the sole purpose of telling a story about a modern day Robin Hood fighting against the evil members of the 1% club. And that in itself wouldn’t be so bad, if the movie at the very least acknowledged the legitimate concerns of the 99% movement. You know, things like corruption, the the effects of lobbying, the aftermath of Citizens United ruling, etc.. But it gracefully skirts the political and systemic issues, and instead builds up an utterly fake, one dimensional, evil corporate straw man it can safely tear down without offending anyone. It never really figures out what it wants to be: a high concept SF or a current-events driven social commentary. It ends up being neither.
It would have been fairly easy to make the concept work by simply painting it in shades of gray instead of the stark black and white contrasts. The time-currency system in the movie is obviously broken, and one-sided but it does not necessarily needs to be. Hannu Rajaniemi developed a very similar idea in his Quantum Thief novel. Instead of having the antagonist spout canned lines about many having to die in order to allow few to live forever, he could actually make a compelling argument for the system – espousing the benefits of eternal youth. Instead of drawing hard lines between the rich and the poor, the movie could show that social mobility is possible – show the characters watching TV that’s saturated with success stories of people who got out of the ghetto and made it big. Instead of giving everyone a year of life past 25, why not give them a little more? Why not substitute the imminent death on clocking out with suspended animation – if you run out of time, they put you in a cryo-pod for a few decades, thus cycling the population in and out in some sort of a shift system.
One could do a lot with this concept, but In Time opted to be a low brow action flick. And as such it works – it is flashy, exciting and it tries to keep you on the edge of the seat by perpetually showing the main characters having less than 5 minutes of time on their clocks, avoiding death by narrow margins. But it could have been so much more: an interesting SF contemplation on nature of immortality and it’s relationship to population control, an insightful socio-political commentary or even both. But it’s neither. It’s a movie with Justin Timberlake running around, driving fast cars and shooting a gun. Underwhelming, disappointing but ultimately quite watchable and entertaining.