BLOG Excuse Me, Your Dystopia Is Broken…
So, I watched Justin Timberlake’s latest film In Time the other day. The basic premise of the film is that money no longer exists. When you turn 25 a clock on your arm, pre-loaded with a year, starts counting down and you have to earn time to stay alive. A cup of coffee costs you three minutes and bus journey around an hour and so on and so on.
Most people in this world live day-to-day with never more that 24 hours on their clock. Our hero (Timberlake) meets a rich man with over 100 years on his clock; this man is tired of living and he donates his time to Timberlakes’ character. This leads to Timberlake getting into all sorts of trouble because nobody believes he didn’t steal the time and he eventually challenges the whole basis of this time society.
All well and good you might think. It’s a different world, it’s a future dystopia of sorts and it’s got an interesting sci-fi concept.
But it just doesn’t work. This world, this society is so flawed it made me wonder how it ever came to be. How the population of this future world ever accepted it. The world concept is just there for our hero to fight, to tear down. There is no logical reason that society would ever become like the one depicted in the film.
It’s just a film you say, a couple of hours entertainment, but for a society to evolve into these concepts there has to be a basic reason, the society has to be seen to work other wise you run the risk of throwing the audience out of your narrative with “hang on…” questions at your world’s lack of internal logic which is what happened with me.
The dystopia theme is a popular one in sci-fi. Setting up a different status quo, our world but twisted in some way. Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the most famous, a totalitarian state run on a constant war footing and controlled by fear and brutality.
There are many others and most have a similar, basic premise: a society that works, or at least has the illusion of working and has a framework that makes it plausible. A world that even if it’s far removed from our norm, you can understand how it came to be and how it works.
Take Logan’s Run: a sealed city with finite resources and, as far as they know, nothing but blasted wasteland outside. Of course they’d have to come up with a way to keep population under control, and they do this by euthanising everyone at age 30. It might be an abhorrent idea but it seems to works as a society. Logan’s Run had a concept that worked because the society was seen to be limited and with limited resources, there was a logical (if brutal) reasoning to how they might control the problem and the reason the society changed was Logan brought back information unknown at the time the society was set up.
The idea seems to be to come up with a society vastly different from our own and then have our hero point out its failings and try to bring it down. It’s when the society set up seems to only be there for the protagonist to tear down that you run into problems. Daybreakers in 2009 had a vampire society which had taken over the world and they were having a food shortage. Well of course they were, they’d turned the whole world in vampires. I wasn’t taken in by the story; I just questioned how it would work and how they hadn’t foreseen the possible problems. If vampires take over the world and most of the current population become vampires of course they’re going to run into food problems. It’s blindingly obvious so, why would they do it?
In Time’s society literally have to work to live. Not run the risk of losing their house and having to move back in with Mum. Die. Not maybe having to eat nothing but Pot Noodles for the last week of the month. Die. Who’d accept that? Why would anyone agree to that?
And to add to the implausibility they make it possible to transfer time to someone else just by holding hands, the other person doesn’t even have to give consent, hell, at one point in the film someone steals time from someone who’s unconscious just by grabbing their hand. So your time isn’t even safe.
“Right, what we’re going to do is abolish money… You’ll each have a clock on your arm and earn time… How do we transfer time? Well, you just have to hold someone else’s hand… What? No… I suppose that isn’t very secure is it…”
The whole premise of Timberlake’s character being given a century of time and not being able to prove it is a gift is ridiculous. How could you have that much currency be able to change hands and not have a record? That just begs for a corrupt society form the get go. Did they do away with receipts the day they burned all the cash? It just doesn’t work.
A third question would be what happens between the ages of 1 and 25? Nobody starts earning time till 25 so what happens to them? Is everything free? Can you earn money to put towards your clock once it starts running? Do your parents have to pay for everything? Because in a society that is shown to be barely able to keep up the addition of having to pay for a child for 25 whole years would definitely push them over the edge. And 25 years of everything free would definitely be a drain on society. Again, it just doesn’t work.
I love a good dystopia me. It’s interesting to see possible societies we may have in the future or find out what could happen after a devastating world war, or a meteor strike, but you’ve got to build a convincing world. You’ve got to work out your back story a hell of a lot better than In Time did or you just run the risk of losing your audience by giving them a world full of holes and then trying to distract them with to many “time” jokes and lots of running about.
Read our In Time DVD review.
Read about more dystopias.