When Andrew Niccol’s In Time bowed in cinemas last fall, several critics and commentators were quick to point out the film’s relevance to a national discussion that was moving into the streets from its beginnings across dinner tables, coffee shops, talk radio, and cable news. Orlando Sentinel critic Roger Moore noted the significance pithily, calling the film “a sci-fi parable that plays like ‘Occupy Wall Street: The Movie.’”
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle was one of the film’s most ardent supporters, declaring that “Years from now, when they write about the movies of the Great Recession, In Time will deserve a serious look…You can make all the documentaries you want about the banking crisis, and yet somehow In Time says it all with more force.” Among the negative reviews was a darkly humorous barb from the New York Post’s Kyle Smith, who observed, “The stimulus didn’t work out. Neither did 1917 Russia.”
Although there was no critical consensus on the strength of the film as a whole, nearly every degree of reception noted the timeliness of its plot. That the resonant message came from the mind of Niccol is not surprising. For the past 15 years, his writing and/or directing efforts have been defined by an alarming prescience regarding science (Gattaca), media (The Truman Show and S1m0ne), and the economy (In Time). He’s Cassandra with a development deal.
In Time is the story of Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a poor man living in Dayton—a community of downtrodden people victimized by an exploitative economic system. Through a series of events triggered by a chance meeting with a wealthy (and soon dead) guy caught slumming on the wrong side of the tracks, Salas is moved to investigate and enact vengeance against the upper class. Their territory is called New Greenwich, and its princess Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) is captive to the privileged lifestyle her tycoon father (Vincent Kartheiser) has built. Predictably, Salas and Sylvia Weis transform into The Millennial Generation’s ultimate romantic outlaws: Romeo and Juliet in sync with Bonnie and Clyde.
However, this being a Niccol film, there’s a high concept that twists the familiar narrative. In the world of this story, aging comes to a stop at 25 years. After that point, each individual has only one additional year to live. Each person is born with a clock on his or her arm, and the numbers on this clock are a constant reminder of status. The rich deal with this problem by inheriting time that already exists in the family and/or corporation. The poor, on the other hand, are reduced to begging, borrowing, and stealing time to see another day. Like our world, biological life is measured by time. Unlike our world, time is the sole currency.
The film’s parallels with the Occupy movement are impossible to miss. In an interview with Tommy Cook of Collider, Niccol described his approach to writing as “sort of a Trojan horse” and In Time is no exception: “It’s wrapped in the future, it’s wrapped in action, thriller, and oh look—suddenly an idea popped out.” When questioned by Cook on the subject of the film’s overt redistributionist message, the director goes lukewarm, saying, “I make movies. I’m not in politics. But I think there’s probably enough to go around, if you know what I mean.”
All wrapped up as Niccol describes, In Time is a film in which meaningfulness is derived from contradiction. After all, examination of global financial crises is a tall order for a popcorn movie whose male lead is a pop singer in the beginning stages of his acting career. The film’s message, never fully shrouded, is rather fussily surrounded by sleek design elements and an obsession with youth. So technically, Timberlake is a perfect fit, as nearly everyone in the film (extras included) appears to have stepped out of a fashion advertisement. And Seyfried, in my estimation a very good actress, is vapid by design. Niccol’s aesthetic in this film is to accentuate the superficial, attempting to transform the entire cast’s quarter-life good looks into tragedy.
Never mind that the poster sells the leads’ sharp dressed selves and none of their desperation.
Indeed, the most fascinating aspects of In Time are its unintentional contradictions and ironies. The ethical framework of the film—a direct result of the filmmaker’s and his characters’ idealism and earnestness—collapses on close inspection. Like the Occupy movement itself, the “what if?” of In Time packs a wallop, but the execution is inconsistent, its methods often irreconcilable to its desired outcomes.
One of the most common criticisms of Occupy Wall Street is the lack of a defined goal. This gripe (however accurate in the absence of a single coalescent identity) misses the point, as most movements (political, people’s, and in between) are made up of many goals and perspectives. There’s something reductive about trying to fit these sorts of expressions into one tidy slogan.
Besides, if searching for basic definitions, one needs to look no further than Occupy’s “Statement of Autonomy”, passed by the group’s New York City General Assembly. In it, Occupy Wall Street welcomes “all, who, in good faith, petition for a redress of grievances through non-violence,” provides “a forum for peaceful assembly of individuals to engage in participatory as opposed to partisan debate and democracy,” and “welcome[s] dissent.” By quoting and paraphrasing much of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, this official statement of Occupy Wall Street succeeds in both positioning the group as autonomous, as well as aligning the group with standards that appeal and apply to a wide variety of political persuasions and forms of civic engagement.
Since In Time doesn’t necessarily exist in America as we know it, there’s little use trying to find First Amendment protections in dystopian Dayton. The plot has refreshingly little exposition, but what it does offer about the state of affairs suggests that government’s overreach has reached quite literally into the womb and imprinted the unborn with a prescribed life span. In that kind of world, a First Amendment would hardly be strong enough to grant participatory democracy to its citizens, doomed as they are from the start.
Though a second Occupy document—“Principles of Solidarity”—is very relevant to understanding In Time’s paradoxical perspective on the power of the individual within a state perceived as oppressive. It is also in these principles that cracks begin to appear in the foundation of Occupy Wall Street. Reading more like an emotionally charged manifesto than the decisive “Statement of Autonomy”, the “Principles of Solidarity” outline “points of unity” that were “crafted…through a direct democratic process.” So far, so good—yet some of the points are inconclusive and fail to anticipate the potential crumbling of ideals once reality sets in.
One of these problematic points of unity is “empowering one another against all forms of oppression.” On paper, this sounds ideal, and certainly in keeping with the movement’s self-described engagement “in non-violent civil disobedience.” But in practice, figuring out which oppression to combat becomes a confusingly selective process. Case in point, what to do about the multiple instances of “alleged sexual assaults at Occupy Wall Street camps,” reported by Alyssa Newcomb of ABC News on November 3, 2011?
Newcomb wrote, “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—addressing the allegations of sexual assault today—said the reported practice of chasing perpetrators, rather than reporting them to police, is ‘despicable.’ If the reports are true, he said, the protestors have made the city less safe.” The issue that Bloomberg identifies (also corroborated in the article by a member of the Zuccotti Park security force) reveals a kind of disharmony all too common at the Occupy camps. The stated oppressors against which the movement stands include government and corporate institutions, but when this mistrust of authority extends down to law enforcement officers, then vigilantism is the next option.
What tends to get lost in this growing chain of perceived oppressors and avengers is that the victims of sexual assault and other onsite crimes represent the failed aim of “solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love” promised by the official documents of the movement. Instances of crime in the park (especially criminal activity not reported to official authorities) actively work against solidarity.
As Linette Lopez and Robert Johnson reported for Business Insider on November 8, 2011: “The park now has sides, and the eastern side is the friendliest. Nan, the woman who set up the female-only sleeping tent, told us that there is a “rich” section, a work section (where protesters cook etc), an occupiers section (for daily activity), and a section on the west side that is seedier, to say the least.” The development of a caste system within the parks is interesting from a sociological standpoint. Distressing, though, is the need for segregation of races and genders and other identity groups based on threats from within the camp (see the multiple reports of violence against women and inflammatory Anti-Semitic rhetoric).
These themes of vigilantism and segregation run throughout In Time—a film that does not consider how a freed population of formerly oppressed individuals might itself lapse into segregation based on lawlessness (more on that later). Especially in the context of these not-so-positive Occupy developments (which directly followed the theatrical release of In Time), the character of Will Salas represents the folly of assuming that a single vigilante can solve such social disruptions and divisions, once and for all.
The film’s contemptuous attitude toward law enforcement officers (here called “Timekeepers”) paints them as uniformly bad, sometimes simply by virtue of their trying to keep the peace. The primary activity of the Timekeepers (led by Cillian Murphy in the role of Raymond Leon) is to ensure that time stays in its zones. Within those zones, they also police individual criminal cases involving the theft of time. As in the Occupy camps, Salas nearly always resists working with official authorities, choosing instead to pursue his own brand of individually determined justice.
Despite lacking collective support for revolution (another difference between the film and Occupy Wall Street), Salas “matures” in his rebellion, identifying an increasing number of oppressors without much evidence to support his suspicions. This one-against-many plot strengthens the drama of the film, but it inadvertently spotlights how self-righteous such revolutions can become when goalposts shift. In the beginning of the film, Salas is the poster boy for what the film repeatedly refers to as “ghetto” life. Aside: The film’s concept of the “ghetto” is one of its more puzzling and egregious elements. Only in the dictionary’s tertiary sense of the word does “ghetto” even apply to Dayton or any other zone we see here. Nevertheless, the young “ghetto” boy transforms to curious truth-seeker, and then to kidnapper, bank-robber, and killer.
Throughout this transformation, Salas justifies his actions with a litany of wrongs he feels he and Dayton have suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Salas’ language is rich with generalities: “I’m going to take them for everything they’ve got. I’m going to make them pay.” Instead of decisively targeting specific individuals and corporations for corrupt activity, Salas comes to mistrust wealth on principle. When confronted by the Timekeepers at a ritzy party in New Greenwich, he says, “If you guys are looking for stolen time, maybe you should arrest everyone here.” Later, when his resentment turns to outright theft, he changes his argument again, using rationalizations such as “Don’t think of it as stealing. Think of it as repossession”, and “Is it stealing if it’s already stolen?”—a mantra he passes on to Sylvia Weis, his victim-cum-protégé.
Salas’ behavior corresponds with the list of grievances found in the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”, a document addressed to “the people of the world”. In it, the “New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square” encourages the “right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” Although this set of action points is eloquently articulated and admirably non-violent, the list of facts provided in the document accuses all corporations with the broadest of brushes. These 23 offenses range from “They have sold our privacy as a commodity,” “They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad,” and “They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity,” to other, much more serious allegations of poisoning, torturing, and murdering. To be fair, each bullet point probably began as a response to a specific, likely verifiable, world event. Yet they are collected and presented in such general terms, that the list utterly lacks context. Did one corporation do all of these things? Are a few responsible? All?
But there’s the rub. The mass enthusiasm for Occupy Wall Street likely wouldn’t have accrued if the language of the movement were too specific. As a catchall movement, it promised a home to a specific percentage—99—so large that nearly no grievance fell outside its purview. Henceforth, the concept of “justice” could likewise be defined broadly to be collective action against the combined perceived injustices of that percentage of the population. In Time’s lead Timekeeper Leon says to the film’s revolutionary heroes, “I see. You’re talking about justice,” but the heroes choose not to engage. Going beyond a peaceable pursuit of justice to the point of becoming out-and-out criminals, Salas and Sylvia Weis become the de facto chief executive officers of their own financial system. They rob their way to folk hero status and the film concludes with the setup to a robbery so massive that the bank they target towers almost limitlessly into the sky.
Last year, I talked to Rage Against the Machine guitar virtuoso and Occupy ally Tom Morello about a variety of political and social tensions that had been building throughout the year. He spoke with great satisfaction about the 2011 Wisconsin Protests and the anger against Governor Scott Walker, and he sympathized with what he perceived to be the underlying causes of the explosive 2011 London Riots. Although Occupy Wall Street would occur a month later, Morello might as well have been speaking it into existence as we conversed.
Stating bluntly that “the people who own and control this world don’t deserve to,” he defined his opposition to “illegitimate authority, whether it’s parental or corporate.” For Morello, Governor Walker was emblematic of “illegitimate authority” as a result of his own contradictions, specifically passing “austerity measures” while “high fiving cronies on a yacht”. When I asked him if there was a possibility that the governor had his own idea of justice, Morello conjectured that it would be caring for the “shareholder’s profit margin”—essentially the corruption of government by corporate concerns, at the expense of lower-class laborers. This characterization puts Governor Walker in the same league with In Time’s wealthy arch-villain/bad-dad Philippe Weis, whose unquenchable thirst for time causes him to spit out the phrase, “For a few to be immortal, many must die.”
The ostensible feel-good ending of In Time ousts Philippe Weis from his place atop the economic food chain. He loses his daughter, his money, and his reputation to Salas because Salas was unhappy with the impact of poverty on his family and decided to overreact beyond all reason. Yet any good feeling to be derived from the villain’s undoing is tempered by the unintended effect of the hero’s actions. This is the film’s final, and perhaps most direct, parallel with the Occupy movement.
One of the foremost “points of unity” in Occupy Wall Street’s “Principles of Solidarity” is “redefining how labor is valued.” Labor unions are fundamental to the ideology and activities of the Occupy movement, which aims to improve conditions and ensure rights and benefits for “workers”. The specific redefinition of labor that Occupy Wall Street seeks could likely be described as increasing both the value of the worker and the strength of the worker’s negotiating power. However, none of that can come to fruition if the worker on whose behalf the movement crusades loses his or her job.
When Salas steals one million years from Philippe Weis and redistributes those years to the people of Dayton, the backfire is powerful and instant. News footage explains to the viewer, “There’s so much time in circulation, factories in Dayton lie idle, and now citizens are crossing zones.” Those inclined to root for Salas see this development as an embarrassment of riches—a true victory for his revolution. Consider, though, the effect of Salas’ bypassing intermediate measures and simply robbing the rich to pay the poor: The factories shut down altogether. Salas single-handedly disincentivizes and destroys productivity. The workers of Dayton, formerly on time and orderly, now roam the streets in what looks like a scene from a zombie film. Once this trance wears off and/or their time runs low, there will be no factory to employ them.
Of course, the film doesn’t ask us to consider this likely future. Instead, we’re encouraged to anticipate the next adventurous criminal endeavor of the outlaw lovers.
Likewise, the international news media broadcasts images of streets, parks and public grounds full of occupiers, as if their collective presence is itself a victory. Granted, there’s much symbolic power in the pictures and representations of like-minded individuals working together to improve their society. The picture clouds, though, when the collective activity in question actually does more harm than good.
On 12 December 2011, The Guardian provided a detailed account of an attempted “shutdown of America’s West Coast ports”. Although the protest was declared to be “in solidarity with longshoremen and port truckers’ struggles against EGT and Goldman Sachs”, the very union on whose behalf the shutdown was to take place, disavowed the protest. In the article covering the shutdown, the communications director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is quoted as saying, “[Occupy organisers] have been very disrespectful of the democratic decision-making process in the union and deliberately went around that process to call their own action without consulting workers.” The lost productivity of a “successful” shutdown would in reality jeopardize the very jobs that protesters act to protect.
Raymond Leon, In Time’s top Timekeeper, wonders aloud about Salas, “Doesn’t he understand he’s hurting the people he’s trying to help?” Unfortunately, Salas never reaches that conclusion and neither does the film. To call Occupy Wall Street a self-defeating revolution would be inaccurate. Some real issues are being discussed, citizens are taking their role in the economy seriously, and figures of power and wealth (some of whom were probably formerly complacent) have doubtless heard the resounding complaints against them.
Earlier this month, Bill Maher addressed the problems of the Occupy movement on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. In comments that have since generated a lot of debate online and elsewhere, he remarked, “When you occupy anything for too long people do get pissed off…They did a great job bringing the issue of income inequality to the fore, but now it’s just a bunch of (expletive deleted) who think throwing a chair through the Starbucks window is going to bring on the revolution.” If fiction and reality could merge, I think the hero of In Time would benefit from listening to the host of Real Time, whose perspective succinctly illustrates the importance of using one’s time in the spotlight wisely.