ARTICLE / LONG READ
DESPITE the fact that the effects of neoliberalism permeate every aspect of life, “relatively few studies are devoted to its interface with cinema”, say academics Ewa Mazierska and Lars Kristensen in their 2017 book CONTEMPORARY CINEMA AND NEOLIBERAL IDEOLOGY. They suggest the reason for this neglect could be the failure of academics to see themselves (and the producers of film and television) as products of an ecosystem which is, in itself, a neoliberal construction of managed choices giving a false impression of freedom. Mazierska and Kristensen also draw attention to the fact that, while there have been many film projects that partially engage with neoliberalism by “explaining the system in a way which ordinary people can understand”, these films often take a defeatist approach by characterising that system as too powerful to be beaten and where the population are “intensely vulnerable” in spite of their efforts to overcome.
High-concept science fiction dystopian thriller IN TIME (Andrew Niccol 2011) is an intriguingly on the-nose engagement with the basic principles governing the extreme capitalist mindset. To an extent, the film could be seen as a rallying cry for resistance. Released in 2011, the same year as the Occupy Wall Street protest, the film will have played to some audience members who had already come to understand the existence of an ideological connection between Pinochet’s US backed regime change in Chile and Ronald Reagan’s onslaught on organised labour and state welfare in the United States. Havoc had already been wreaked on the New Deal America that had been built in the wake of the Great Depression. Real people were suffering the consequences of the financial crisis, which had seen Global Reach banks bailed out with tax dollars, pounds and Euros all over the world. Audiences were actually living through and subject to what Noam Chomsky, in REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH AND POWER, calls the “vicious cycle” where “political measures designed to increase concentration of wealth and power… yields more political power to do the same thing”. The scant premise of the film is all we need to grasp the metaphor: people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, at which point they have one year on the clock on their wrist. The only way to survive is to get more time. “Time is now the currency. We earn it and spend it. The rich can live forever”, protagonist Will (Justin Timberlake) tells us as he wakes to face a new day in a state of tension that would be familiar to anyone living at or below subsistence level.
THE SCIENCE FICTION DYSTOPIAN THRILLER COULD BE SEEN AS A RALLYING CRY FOR RESISTANCE.
In his 2007 book A BRIEF HISTORY OF NEOLIBERALISM, economist David Harvey distils the characteristics of neoliberalism into four points: the privatisation of public assets; the financialisation and speculation of those assets; the management and manipulation of crises; and the upward redistribution of wealth. IN TIME illustrates these points by immersing audiences in a futuristic depiction of the endgame of unfettered capitalism, where time has become the surrogate of wealth in an inelegant but perfectly apposite metaphor. There is significant emphasis on the point that preserving what time-thieving Minuteman Fortis (Alex Pettyfer) calls “the natural order” in a political system that only benefits the elite and requires the complicity of those who believe they deserve to be rewarded for having risen above the others.
In an essay “The Chronopolitical Order of Things: Technologies of the Quantified Self in Andrew Niccol’s IN TIME and Michael Anderson’s LOGAN’S RUN”, Sidneyeve Matrix makes reference to philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault’s ideas regarding “disciplinary technologies”. Matrix suggests that the premise of IN TIME offers a profound discussion of the ethics of scientific progress. This reading of the film suggests that what Niccol intended was a further exploration of the ideas he raised around genetic engineering in his earlier film GATTACA (1997). However, Niccol’s own words, quoted by Matrix, could be said to support the idea that the framing of the drama, supposedly in “a response to current high levels of social anxiety and preoccupation with youth” is simply a “Trojan horse approach to ideas” that functions to lure audiences to watch what is on the surface a classic sci-fi dystopia, but is actually a critique of a socio-economic system that bears a close resemblance to our own.
To that end, Niccol wastes no time setting up the world of the film. We are dropped straight into a dystopian 2169, armed only with the scant information given by Will in a short monologue at the start of the film: “I don’t have time to worry about how it happened. It is what it is”. It is significant that the transfer of time from person to person depends on the receiver literally having the upper hand in a form of street gambling called “fighting”, which is essentially an armwrestling battle where the object is to take the other player’s time.
IN TIME'S SOCIOECONOMIC SYSTEM BEARS A CLOSE RESEMBLANCE TO OUR OWN.
At the start of the film, Will saves 105-yearold time-rich resident of New Greenwich Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) from a gang of Minutemen intending to steal the century he has left on his clock. Hamilton reveals the fact that the residents of New Greenwich accumulate and hoard time for themselves while actively manipulating the cost of living to control the rest of the population. He informs Will that there is enough time for everyone to live a long life and shares his belief that death is essential to give meaning to existence. Hamilton transfers all but five minutes of the 116 years of his remaining timefortune onto Will’s clock and allows himself to time-out. In doing so, Timekeeper Raymond Leon wrongly assumes that Hamilton has been killed for his minutes and sets about tracking down Will to bring him to justice. By using language we usually associate with financial crime to discuss this apparent murder, we understand that Raymond’s role is not to preserve the law but to make sure the power of time-wealth is not appropriated by the “wrong people”. Even Raymond is kept on a knife-edge of a limited daily allowance of minutes. He is literally a slave to time.
Determined to discover the truth behind Hamilton’s story, Will uses his time-wealth to hire a limousine and goes to New Greenwich. He checks into a luxurious hotel and takes a seat at a casino run by time banker Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Used to living with the danger of imminent timeout, Will is able to gamble to within moments of death without breaking into a sweat, which gives him an advantage at the table. Eventually, he leaves the game with more than a thousand years on his clock. Weis’s daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) is impressed and invites him to a party at their mansion. Having “followed the time”, Timekeeper Raymond intercepts Will as he is leaving the mansion and confiscates all but two hours. Rather than be taken into custody on a murder charge, Will takes Sylvia hostage and drives back home to Dayton. When Raymond arrives and tries to arrest Will, Sylvia shoots him. Having seen the injustice and suffering caused by her father’s business, she helps Will to steal from Weis’s time banks and they distribute timecapsules to the poor.
Will has the price of a decade on his head so it does not take the Minutemen long to track them down. Fortis, the leader of the Minutemen, challenges Will to “battle to the zero”, a fight that Will wins by remembering his father’s advice to hold his nerve as the numbers fall. It is a direct reference to the machismo of stock-market trading. Realising that the effect of the time they distributed to the poor is being counteracted by the bank’s manipulation of prices on the street, Will and Sylvia kidnap Weis and force him to give them a capsule loaded with a million years, which they distribute amongst the population. The people of Dayton quickly realise they now have choices and they choose not to cooperate. Caught up in his determination to bring Will to justice, Raymond forgets to load up his daily ration of minutes. He manages to get to Raymond's patrol car and take his allowance with only seconds to spare. As the residents of Dayton abandon their jobs and head to New Greenwich for a taste of luxury and freedom, Will and Sylvia head towards a palatial bank, armed and ready to dismantle the system for good.
IN TIME speaks to the fact that - to borrow from Henry Giroux and Imre Szeman in a 2001 chapter “Ikea Boy Fights Back” - it is sometimes “easier to imagine the end of earth and of nature than the end of capitalism”. It presents a world where the inner-city poor is subject to “the structural violence of unemployment, job insecurity, cuts in public spending, and the destruction of institutions capable of defending social provisions and the public good”. However, it is the simplicity of the story that makes the film such a powerful vehicle for the message it carries. We are all familiar with the concept of poverty and intellectually understand the lengths those in its clutches have to go to just to cover the cost of surviving at subsistence level. But when the numbers rolling back to zero are counting down a person’s lifespan rather than their bank balance, it brings the consequences of having absolutely nothing - and the iniquity of a system that allows such inequality - into sharp focus.
While IN TIME paints a bleak picture of the capitalist mindset, it does not leave us feeling the hopelessness of films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Martin Scorsese 2013) or THE BIG SHORT (Adam McKay 2015). Rather than communicate subliminal awe for the audaciousness of the rich and powerful, it depicts the brutal consequences that neoliberal politics can have on communities as a catalyst for heroic leadership and new ways of thinking.