Noah Berlatsky is totally right, In Time (2011) wants to be a critique of capitalism but instead it ends up being a “searing satire of America’s utter inability to critique capitalism.” However, what Berlatsky fails to recognize is that the film succeeds precisely by failing. Although it is a collection of anti-capitalist cliches, the film became a box-office success precisely because of that. Should the director had made a more cerebral “critique,” the film would have ended up being a complete flop.
In fact, the film works out precisely because it uses standard Hollywood codes, from “movie-star hot 25-year-old corpse[s]” to “standard-issue Hollywood villains” — such as bankers with “inevitably Jewish name[s].” In that sense, In Time is far from being intellectually pretentious or ideologically bullying. To be crudely honest, the film is full of oxymora. But isn’t it an oxymoron anyway the rationale behind the system it portrays? Aren’t all justifications of our laissez faire, you-are-by-your-own Darwinian capitalist system another example of a big collection of oxymora? By definition, an oxymoron is a “locution that produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect.” And that’s precisely what happens with late capitalism’s neo-utilitarian discourse. So, if the film is plagued by oxymora, it is so because our system is also plagued by them: unfairness is fair, inequality is — in the long run — better than equality, and, the worst of them all, the surviving of the fittest is the only chance the unfit has of surviving. And here it is where Hollywood’s standard codes work beautifully. Their effectiveness consists precisely in their ability to render meaningful that which is at the core absolutely void of meaning. Or, should I say instead, to render meaningful what should in more enlightened circumstances be by itself meaningless?
However, the core of this lack of meaning is far from being unique to our current circumstances. What In Time portrays isn’t simply one of many possible futures but one particular past we pretty much thought gone and superseded. I’m talking about the 19th Century Victorian world.
Yes, truth be told, I think that In Time has a surprisingly Victorian savor. For instance, in a clearly Benthamian gesture, Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) explains to naive Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) that his job is not to be concerned with “justice” but with that he “can measure… seconds, minutes, hours.” Leon, much as the Victorian Bethamites, is not interested in generalities (justice, equality, fairness) but in particulars — that is, things that can be translated into the language of science or, more precisely, the science of measuring time (and here we must remember Benjamin Franklin’s very important law of equivalence: Time is money). Similarly, when Will, after kidnapping Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), asked her father (Vincent Kartheiser) to pay a ransom of a thousand years for his daughter release, and to give the “time” (money) to a charity, the banker only reaction is to look down despairingly, since he’s well aware that the “time” he is about to give away won’t be for his daughter but for them — the poor. In a sense, if he does it he would be violating one of the system’s most important injunctions: do not help the unfit. Of course, Phillip Weis never pays his daughter’s ransom. Such an act would be a terrible blow to the functioning of the system, whose health depends not on creating limitless wealth but on efficiently managing scarcity but, most importantly, it would rock his own symbolic world.
Likewise, Will Salas, the hero, is also unsurprisingly Victorian. As many Victorian heroes, Salas is not much in the business of changing the system but of giving people “hope.” Thus, at the most critical moment in the film, when Phillip Weis reminds the fugitive couple that despite all their efforts to upset the system they would never achieve anything but that — upsetting the balance, maybe for a generation or two, but without ever achieving actual change — Will’s answer never challenges the basic assumption offered by Weis — that changing the system is beyond the realm of real possibilities, beyond reality itself. Instead, he offers a weak moral counterpoint: “no one should be inmortal if even one person has to die.”
In a sense, In Time‘s greatest weakness is similar to that of Charles Dickens’, the most Victorian of all Victorian writers. About him, George Orwell once said that he was never a reformer but a moral critic. His goal never was to change society but to change “human nature.” Similarly, Andrew Niccol’s dystopia has no pretension for reform. That is why the film fails to offer a strong counter-argument against one of Weis’ main arguments—that “everyone wants to live forever.” Isn’t this same argument one of the main premises of modern-day capitalist discourse —that everyone wants to be rich? This simplistic core of egotism is what feeds the logic of the whole system — a system that can never be changed precisely because of this its most fundamental core deeply embedded in humanity’s own nature. And since the only offering made by the film is Will’s weak moral counterpoint, Weis’ ultimate presage goes on unchallenged — that nothing will ever change. Or, does it?
Nonetheless, I insist that by failing the film succeeds. Although Berlatsky is right by pointing out America’s (film industry’s) lack of imagination to offer a real critique of late capitalism, the “searing satire” is effective for bringing forward the repressed desire that such a lack engenders. The films succeeded commercially because most viewers understood that deep inside each one of them there was this abysmal gap — a desire for change, never mind how much effort and violence the system invests to keep it repressed, unconscious. And bringing this to the surface is one thing the movie achieves, despite of, or, precisely, because of its using of Hollywood’s most Hollywoodesque conventions.