'In Time': A Hollywood Get-Rich-Quick Tale Disguised as Capitalist Critique

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Justin Timberlake's slick sci-fi tale portrays the rich as evil—even as it covets their wealth

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20th Century Fox

In Time wants to be a critique of capitalism. Instead, it ends up an unintentionally searing satire of America's utter inability to critique capitalism. The tagline should be, "Occupy Wall Street ... enjoy the luxury suites."

The film's central metaphor is so sublimely obvious it feels like it's been stolen from a forgotten Star Trek script. In the future, time has replaced money. Everyone stops aging at 25; after that, you get one year in the bank and then you have to earn every second of your life or you die. People have glowing green counters in their arms (called "watches") which count down the lifespan they have left; scanners debit them a few minutes for a cup of coffee or pay them in time for factory work. The wealthy hoard millennia; everybody else, including our hero Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), scrambles as fast as they can after the elusive seconds they need to keep from dying in the street.

The genius of it, of course, is that money is actually life. Money—beautifully fungible money—is food and medical care and living somewhere other than where they dump the toxic chemicals. When a bus driver refuses to give Will's mother Rachael (Olivia Wilde) a break on her fare, and as a result she and literally dies in the street a split second before Will can lend her some time, it's hyperbolic Hollywood melodrama, but it's not a lie. But people do in fact die in the street from lack of money and indifference. The movie deserves at least some props for noticing that.

Unfortunately, having noticed, In Time backs away nervously, checks its watch, and scuttles quickly back to the safety of Hollywood tropes. Not that it really ventured that far away from them to begin with, of course. While Olivia does die of poverty at the age of 50, for example, she leaves a slim, movie-star hot 25-year-old corpse. This, needless to say, is not generally how the poor go out. But if Hollywood is going to show you the huddled masses, it's going to be a huddled masses which collectively are hot and beautiful and 25. Though, to be fair, someone may have realized that they needed a lot of eye candy to cover up the indifferent acting and gaping plot holes.

Having the poor all look like a million bucks is telling. The film, like most films, isn't so much concerned with feeling the plight of the proles as it is with envying their betters. The movie is set in motion when Will encounters Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) a slumming rich guy who is tired of living. He gives Will a century of life, and, having won the lotto, the protagonist hurries out of the squalid slums and on into upward mobility. Will looks good in a tux, is a wiz at poker, and completes the transformation into James Bond by suavely wowing Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a banker with the inevitably Jewish name of Weis. Uptown girl Sylvia, it turns out, is "suffocated" by her protective father and his money. She needs a downtown man to help her learn the joys of skinny dipping and shooting people.

The film goes out of its way to condemn the rich, turning them into standard-issue Hollywood villains who consciously raise prices in the slums so that people will die. (They don't want too many immortals cluttering up the place, and apparently nobody in the future has heard of vasectomies.) But howsoever it may disapprove of inequity, In Time's romance clichés and libidinal interests tell a different story: Inequality is sexy. Sylvia is sexy because she drips money from on high; Will is sexy because he reeks of the fragrant muck. Without poverty, there wouldn't be the exciting knowledge of the real—the thrilling hint of danger. Without wealth, there wouldn't be that forbidden glamour of decadence and power.

The rich and the poor alike claim they're unhappy, then, but that's only a kind of teasing foreplay. In truth, the film believes that pleasure depends on polarity; without the gap between rich and poor, there is no romance, no danger, and no film. No wonder, then, that when Will and Sylvia decide to upend the system, they do it not by boring old organizing, but through that hoariest of get-rich schemes, the bank robbery. The two become futuristic Robin Hoods, stealing tons of money, then giving away their gains, stealing tons of money, then giving away their gains, in a continual vertiginous, sexy-cool rush up and down the class ladder. Bringing down capitalism is fun and dangerous precisely because it includes the delectable pleasure of lots and lots and lots of money ... I mean time ... running through your fingers.

In Time has an inordinate amount of gambling in it, and Will and Sylvie win because they're better gamblers than the powers that be—more willing to take risks, better at getting money. In Time, then, figures the end of capitalism as an orgy of capitalist pleasures. The evil, thieving bankers are bad because they are personally evil thieves; all will be well, therefore, if you can only fill the banks with good thieves. The notion that the antidote to capitalism might be something structurally other than capitalism—like, say, class solidarity, or communal institutions, or maybe even a faith that allows you to define your life by something other than your death—is unimaginable, and unimagined. In Time presents itself as wanting to bring down the system, but its dreams of rebellion are wholly inside that system. If we buy a confection like this as a radical vision, not much is likely to change, even if we live forever.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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