The Disturbing Truth about “In Time”


To celebrate Veteran’s Day we decided to go see a movie. Since I have a serious thing for both Justin Timberlake and Cillian Murphy, I happily acquiesced when my fiance suggested we go see In Time.

The concept of the movie is fairly simple: in the future, people are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. There’s a catch, however. When you hit 25, you only have a year left of time. That year is currency which you can spend and earn. When you run out of time, you die.

Justin Timberlake is our ghetto-raised protagonist who is given over a century of time. Timberlake is accused of stealing the time by a “time keeper,” and, like any good street rat, decides to run from the police. He takes an at-first-reluctant Amanda Seyfried along for the ride. Timberlake and Seyfried embark on a crusade to steal time from banks and give it to those who need it. Along the way, the pair uncover a worldwide conspiracy to allow a few people to live forever, while many die.

What “In Time” attempts to accomplish is a social commentary about the station of the rich and the poor in our society.  Obvious statements as “For a few to live forever, many must die” and a rich man’s love affair social Darwanism make it clear to the audience that it has ulterior motives.

This movie utterly fails at commentary, but I doubt few will notice. Many of the reviews I’ve seen have praised it as a timely critique. None have seen the gaping holes in the universe that make it a poor match for our world, because this is how many see it.

1. How do the rich get rich?

How do people get rich? Our main Rich Fat Bastard (Vincent Kartheiser) is presumed to be a banker, but what do other people in this society do? We are missing this crucial piece of information, yet we are meant to believe that the rich have stolen time from the poor. Why? There is no evidence to suggest that he stole time from anyone, any more than the super rich steal money from the poor today. We are to take it at face value that the time is stolen, rather than peaceably attained.

We do know a good bit about how the rich get their money in our society, though. 80% of millionaires are the first generation in their family to become rich.  Something less than 15% of the rich in our society were bankers. Most were entrepreneurs of some kind.

This is not the portrayal of the rich that we see in this movie, and such it doesn’t seem to fit as an applicable commentary for us today.

2. Who controls the system?

The police in this movie are portrayed through the amazing Cillian Murphy.  He begins as a simple cop who attempts to catch a thief and then is revealed to be more of a enforcer of the status quo. His enforces the caste-like time zones, but it is not clear where he get this power, and what laws (if any) he is enforcing.

There is also a large controlled attempt to kill off the poor by setting prices and taxes high simultaneously. But who runs this system? What kind of government exists here, and to what extent are the super rich and the government entwined?

Unfortunately, there is not enough here to work with to do a full overlay with our society. There is a system which raises prices — The Federal Reserve — but they do it indirectly through inflation. Prices aren’t raised arbitrarily, and aren’t set by a central system.

3. How do trade, markets, etc. work?

At the end of the movie, the Ultimate Enforcer reveals that he found a way to cheat the system and get ahead. He does not reveal how this is accomplished, but only that he doesn’t want anyone else to follow in his footsteps.

The In Time Universe appears to have strictly quartered-off time zones like castes, but movement between them is free — as long as you have the time. Social mobility is fairly unheard of, but not illegal. However, doing so arises suspicions.

This is fairly unlike markets in the real world. Though there is much de facto class segregation, movement between them is not as difficult as it is in In Life’s world. It is not enforced, at least in the United States, by large walls and toll gates. Some studies suggest that class mobility in the United States is actually fairly fluid, despite what others purport.

The Disturbing Truth

Most disturbing about the so-called “social commentary” of In Time is that it is a reflection of how many people think the world works. People believe that the rich are rich because they steal money from the poor, that this system is either tacitly or actively enforced by the government, and that they have no means for improvement.  There is the supposition that the super rich gain their wealth in isolation, and at the expense of, the poor. None of these things are true.

The world built in In Life was shallow, simple, and incomplete. So too is the view of the world of many who see it as a sharp, accurate, and well-timed social critique. In fact, it is simply the result of an incomplete knowledge and misinformed picture of our world.