In Time Misses a Trick

Spoiler Alert - Yeah, the entire plot of In Time is up for grabs here, and I’d give it a 710 so you might not want to read this before watching it.

The key to great science fiction is crafting a world out of an idea, usually a twist on something we can dream of happening, that illuminates something about us (humans) and what we do. Tweaking the limits of reality to show that they exist, if you will. The quite simple premise of In Time does this (though conspicuously jacking a Harlan Ellison tale, and I swear I’ve seen something on the theme before as well), but fails to carry out its premise to its logical conclusion. What with the 99% and Occupy Wall Street, this could have been a damning indictment of contemporary Capitalism, but because it consciously tries to become this, it kinda flops.

The premise: people are born with a year to spend after they’re 25, time is money and poor people live day to day trying not to die. When the clock runs out, people fall over dead. Despite the fact that there are (sparsely populated) ghettos full of poor people living on (literally) borrowed time, only a couple of people actually clock out the entire time. The plot is poor kid gets given lots of money, impresses rich girl, they become a Robin Hood duo and eventually give all the poor people all the time in the world. There are three bad guys: The rich guy (and dad of the heroine), the law abiding cop (was a poor guy, now defending the system) and the common criminal (you know, because criminals keep poor people in line). The basic thread of the film is that the system is bad, the system kills poor people and the system keeps them poor so rich people can live like kings. Like capitalism, get it? Despite its politics being something of a blunt force trauma to the head, kinda like any given China Mieville book, it does so in such a way that invalidates half of what it argues.

First off: agency. In this film, as in most similar films, capitalism is given agency, in that a select group of mega-rich people control the system in order to control the world. In Time demonstrates this with conference calls and the world divvied up into time zones. This is the basic criticism of capitalism, and it is largely bollocks. The problem is, In Time’s attempts to create a comparative economic system fail miserably. The problems the world is facing at the moment is market failure, y’know, markets not being some Hayekian system of freedom and prosperity and perhaps the fact that Smith’s invisible hand might be picking wrong. There are no equivalent markets in In Time. The economics of In Time is effectively a critique of state capitalism, in other words, Communism, you know, the form of capitalism that kinda flunked the test of time in a very visible fashion in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While Coca Cola might be able to jump the price of its products, there exists no actor in the world that can arbitrarily jump the price of a consumer good such as “cigarettes” overnight. Except states, and the whole point is that, well, the only “government” people we see in In Time (seriously, I hate the film’s title for forcing the double “In”) are the Timekeepers, aka cops. So on the meta-level, as a system comparison/criticism, it kinda flunks.

Interestingly, despite this flunkage, there’s an interesting real-world comparison to the whole Occupy Wall Street thing in that the middle classes are absent. Right after Justin Timberlake scores the jackpot (gets given a century to live by a rich guy who kills himself because he can’t bear the system), he drives straight through four different, steadily increasing in prosperity zones, to arrive at the rich-kid mecca of New Connecticut. So he goes from “the ghetto” (yeah, they called it that), to something akin to Martha’s Vineyard without stopping to look out the window. Because in this film, there are only dirt poor people and stupendously rich people. It’s a bit like the whole 99% vs the 1% thing. The whole point of this is to show that these mega rich live at the expense of the dirt poor. But that turns a blind eye to all the people in between. The “not so mega rich” people in the in between zones that probably enable to society to continue turning. What about all those people? The cop is a poor guy now serving the system, but there’s a lot more people like him. A couple of time-zones in fact. That’s the basic failure of the capitalism critique in the film: it turns a blind eye to everyone who supports the system, but isn’t stupendously rich. Everyone in between the ghetto and the back of a limo basically gets a free-pass on culpability for the state of things. It seems slightly weird to me. As if we should criticise Warren Buffett and “bankers”, but not the vice-president of a company, or their subordinate executives. Here’s another thing: the limo drivers and the body guards in the film, what kind of rate are they on? Are they poor?

As for the ghetto itself? Sheesh. The film is slick Hollywood fare, and this wouldn’t be a criticism, except that it ladles on the moral comparisons thick. The place is possibly the most orderly ghetto in history. Let’s think this one through here: You have a captive population of humans living in a post-industrial wasteland, all of whom are living day to day (literally). Pretty much everything you ever associated with poor areas is entirely absent: crime, drugs, the works. Yeah, they stuck in some bad guys who rob people of their time/money/life, but that’s not enough. Where are the street hustlers? The more I think about it, the more In Time’s “the ghetto” resembles some crazy moralistic white person ghetto vision written by a person who has never left a valley bubble. The poor people might be poor, but they’re not bad. Despite living on the edge of death, day in, day out, for decades, they don’t go crazy. They don’t do drugs. They kind of waft around and be poor. These are good poor people, blue collar poor people, the kind of poor people that a rich person would not really mind if they lived on their door step. Hey, they might be poor, but at least they have jobs. To quote cracked: “Wait, what?”

Okay, so we’ve already established that this is a pseudo-soviet control economy. But yeah, it seems a little crazy in a time of high unemployment that a film bashing “capitalism” and “the system” pays absolutely no attention to joblessness. I suppose, in this world, if you don’t have a job, you die. There’s some crazy priest giving out time as alms, but that’s about it. I’m guessing there is no welfare system (here’s to betting that the producers avoided that particular political hot potato right off the bat). So, you work or you die, you work and work and work, but you die anyway. Maybe its an implicit criticism: no welfare kills. It doesn’t feel like that to me, since everyone seems to have a job. It also seems strange that a command economy that is professed to not give a toss about poor people dying wouldn’t, at some basic level, have unemployment as a method of cleansing excess poor people. Maybe there is a silent holocaust going on that no-one seems to talk about.

But anyways, back to the important bit: saving the people from the forces of the system. Robin Hood and all that. Here, the cop has a point: “You’re killing the people that you’re trying to save”. How? Inflation. It’s clear from the film that there is some barter going on, people giving and lending time/money to each other. Now, as anybody knows, an informal economy is part of any given economic system. So, even if they can control the prices of consumer goods, they can’t really control the price of the informal economy, that is pure market. About halfway through the film, in response to Timberlake and lass robbing stores and giving away time (“Hope”) for free, they make the point that the powers that be just put the price up. Simple, inflationary, response to an excess of liquidity. Except there’s a catch. Mr Timberlake and Ms Seyfried have been giving away cash, but not to everybody, and not in a systematic manner. So in “The Ghetto” there’s now a ton of people walking around with months/years, and a ton of people walking around with an hour to a day. And the prices for everything that they all rely on to stay alive just spiked. Can you see where this is headed? Yeah. The pair of them just wiped out the people that they didn’t reach. So when you think about it, the cop is kinda right. In keeping with the rest of the awkward questions below its surface, this eventuality is not touched upon by the film. I think this is perhaps one of the most important questions though, because for all the “change the system” rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street, there is a big blank void of knowledge as to what happens when you do actually change a system. There’s seven billion people on the planet, thanks to globalisation, they are (almost) all governed by the economic system as it currently stands. No-one has ever tried to systemically alter a system so vast and all-encompassing, it stands to reason that in doing so, there would be a whole load of unforeseen consequences. It strikes me that the Occupy movement lives in the same la-la land as In Time in that they think that the complete overhaul of a system happens without bad things happening and people dying. In Time’s world is structured so that there is near infinite amounts of time and everyone can live happily ever after, ours isn’t. Calls for system change in both the film and the real world are predicated on the fact that “people are dying”, yet there isn’t the slightest assurance that the “better world” won’t end up killing more people, nor that a lot of people won’t die while the systems swap.

There is, also the question of culpability. The cop dies due to job dedication, the criminal from being a criminal and the bad guy at the top, well, he, what does happen to him again? Oh yeah: not much. He gets his money stolen, which prompts him to point out that he has plenty more of that, his daughter leaves him, but he’s still effectively immortal, and, erm, that’s it. So the message of the film is the rich get to carry on regardless. Okay, so there’s all the poor people with a million years between them, but that’s nothing that a few people with guns can’t sort. And there’s a pair of bank robbers stealing time from ever bigger banks. Seriously, does no-one employ armed guards anywhere? In a society where people die all the time and money = life, you’d think that banks might have an armed guard or twenty. Since every rich person is walking around with their own private army, you’d think that a bank would have the means to off a couple of amateur stick-up artists. Possibly the weakest ending of all is Cop 2, as in the cop-with-a-conscience, who does the whole “aah, I have seen enlightenment, let’s stop being meanies and go home” bit at the end of the film. It is an obvious reference to The Lives of Others, but kinda hamfisted, and lacking any bite. The whole point of that film is that they don’t pose the question: all the Stasi know when the system is over, and more to the point, they know _exactly_¬†what that means for them. They all stand up and walk out in silence. Here it is some road to Damascus moment. One that conveniently forgets that they’re the (rightful) object of hatred for a substantial portion of the world’s population, all of whom are currently spreading through the system as speed. Maybe he should have thought twice about leaving his gun on the desk.

In all, it’s a fun action sci-fi film. Some of the characterisation is good, some bad. But after half an hour of hamfisted “capitalism kills” repetitions, the dialogue gets a little monotonous. Above all, if you’re going to criticise stuff, do it smart. The film purports to be a critique of “the system” but the stuff it is critiquing bears little relevance to “the system” as it stands, and all the untidy inconsistencies are neatly swept under the carpet or openly ignored, a bit like the “poor people” that the film purports to champion.