Occupy Hollywood: In Time

10/27/2011 12:00 PM |

In Time
Directed by Andrew Niccol

The latent cultural rage that recently erupted in Occupy Wall Street protests has apparently been percolating within writer-director Andrew Niccol too. His latest sci-fi allegory is essentially one furious attack on the ruling elite and their calculated system of economic inequality—but with much higher stakes and more transparent morality than the grievances aired at Zuccotti. Here, time is currency: thanks to genetic engineering, eternal life as your 25-year-old self is possible, as long as you can afford to buy the time (and don’t get in an accident or murdered). Of course, most people in In Time can’t—they live literally day to day, working no-collar factory jobs in exchange for a few measly hours (moved like modern money in rapid electronic transactions), stepping over the expired bodies that litter the streets. This is an action movie, with skinny dipping, strip poker, car chases, and car crashes. But it’s also as thoughtful as you’d expect from the man behind Gattaca, full of debates about income disparity, the morality of capitalism, and whether human nature would make a different system unsustainable. (The biggest problem is that the plot’s gimmicky artifice, its blatant metaphor, makes its many tragedies clearly manufactured; this is a world in which insufficient bus fare literally becomes a matter of life and death!)

The country has been segregated into “time zones” that require exorbitant amounts of time-currency to cross between—two years of life just to get into the fanciest one, New Greenwich. (The ghettoization concept is underlined by the digital time display on everyone’s forearm, a cross between a watch and a concentration-camp tattoo.) Class (that is, time-zone) mobility isn’t “illegal, it’s just… rare,” says Timekeeper Cillian Murphy. But Justin Timberlake is given the chance to see how the other half lives when a time-wealthy man provides him with a century, making him overnight into a 99-percenter in one-percenter’s clothes, still burning with political rage at systemic economic injustice. He actually suggests to the timekeepers that they arrest the rich people; after all, it’s their price-gouging schemes that keep their own time-banks bursting while others’ go bare. When the timekeepers decline, In Time becomes a bank-robbery movie, Bonnie and Clyde updated to a science-fiction future with a strong undercurrent of Robin Hood-style wealth redistribution. (A repeated line: “is it stealing if it’s already stolen?”)

Niccol, though, also shows a strange sympathy for the idle rich, whose immortality leaves them spiritually dead from fear and risk aversion. Still, In Time vilifies the majority of these Darwinian capitalists and extols their proletariat victims, all while avoiding falling into a common pitfall. Too many movies, from You Can’t Take it With You through Slumdog Millionaire, celebrate the underprivileged by suggesting that it’s their lack of advantages that makes them superior people—as though money is an evil we should feel lucky not to be burdened with. (Being financially well-off is a curse I’ll risk, thanks!) But In Time acknowledges how awful it is to be poor, even if they’re by-and-large the better people—the moment-to-moment uncertainty, the constant fear and rampant death. Niccol insists there’s more than enough “time” for everyone to have a fair share. His movie ends with a system in collapse, citizens in the streets, and a revolution spreading globally. Consider Hollywood’s studio system occupied.

October 28