11 December 2011

Time Bandits

I've written before about George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's seminal work, Metaphors We Live By, which was a key text on my semantics and pragmatics course at university. One of the key ways in which language changes, the authors argue, is through metaphors: comparisons of two concepts or objects which share some similarity of meaning and an imaginative or creative--but not real-world--link. The authors then attempt to categorise many of the most common groups of metaphors, which shape our language and the way we think: happy = up, sad = down ("you're in high spirits," "I'm feeling down"); argument = war ("I demolished his claims"); love = war ("I won his affections").

One of the biggest categories is the time = money group, of which there are plenty of examples. "He's on living on borrowed time," "stop wasting my time," "I'm investing my time in...", and so on (TheFreeDictionary has many more). The abundance of this type of metaphor does suggest that the time = money concept is well ingrained in our minds and well codified in our language. But what if it was literally true that time was money? This is the subject of Andrew Niccol's film In Time and Niccol seems to have studied the time = money chapter of Lakoff and Johnson's book at great length given how often the characters in his screenplay speak in these metaphors. Yes, we know that time is the currency in this fictional universe but we're not brain damaged; you don't need to keep beating us over the head with the metaphors (figuratively, of course)!

Linguistics aside, having time literally represent money is an interesting idea. In this alt universe, the good news is that people stop "ageing genetically" at the age of 25 but the bad news is that they only live for one more year unless they can buy themselves more time. But when a bus ride might cost you one hour on one day and, thanks to inflation, two hours the next, many people are quite literally living on borrowed time. On a practical level, introductions can be confusing when everyone looks 25. Justin Timberlake, who plays our hero Will Salas, is actually older than his on-screen mother Rachel (Olivia Wilde). And it's not obvious whether Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) is Pete from Mad Men's mother, wife or daughter.

Due to some very bad timing, Will inherits over 100 years from an old man who is bored of living but despite running to meet his mother, she "times out" seconds before he can transfer some time onto her clock. He's pretty sad for a few minutes but then realises he can finally visit some of the more exclusive "time zones," which would have cost far too much for him to even enter before, and he cheers up a little. He buys some swish wheels (cost: about 70 years) and gambles, winning a time-fortune from Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). But before he has time to enjoy his new-found wealth, he is tracked down by Raymond (Cillian Murphy), a timekeeper, whose job is to make sure time isn't misappropriated and that arrivistes like Will learn their place in the world. If everyone could live forever, you see, why would anyone bother going to work in the factories and how could society function? Will's inheritance/winnings are confiscated by Raymond, leaving him only two hours on his clock. Nonetheless, he kidnaps Sylvia and they speed off in his new sports car, on a quest to buy themselves some time to think. Later, she inevitably comes around to Will's way of thinking and the two of them become a sort of Robin Hood meets Bonnie and Clyde, "redistributing" time in a way that leads to hella crazy hyperinflation not seen since Weimar Germany.

This is all rather silly but sometimes clunky script and the odd plot hole aside, In Time is quite fun. Timberlake and Seyfried are fine, if not outstanding, as the two leads, and most of the best scenes have Cillian Murphy in them. In any case, it definitely wasn't a waste of my time watching the film [That's enough time metaphors. Ed.]

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