Agitprop to Occupy My Time: 'In Time' for the Revolution

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried in In Time (2011)

If fiction and reality could merge, the hero of the film In Time would benefit from listening to Real Time with Bill Maher, who said to the Occupy movement, "When you occupy anything for too long people do get pissed off."

In Time

Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy
Distributor: Fox
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2011
Release date: 2012-01-31

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).

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