In Andrew Niccol“s 2011 Hollywood film, “In Time”, film-goers were introduced to a peculiar rendition of what traditionally constituted science fiction. The film explores themes such as capitalism, class structures, the human condition, and the very concept of time. It was not a very notable success with regard to its reception and monetary revenue. According to critic reviews and online ratings, the general consensus seems to be that the acting, writing, and pacing of the film range from mediocre to decent at best. There can be a reasonable case made, albeit somewhat ironically, for the passive opposition to the film”s categorization within the sci-fi genre. This is primarily due to the fact that the themes portrayed in the film already concretely exist in the real world in a very deep sense, and the “fictional” narrative slowly dissipates as the nature of some of its fictitious elements can be construed as a mild extrapolation or exaggeration of the modern world. While the film retains a strong aesthetic adherence to traditional science-fiction, it attempts to grapple with problems that plague humankind in the current day by evoking a collective response to certain societal ills such as unbridled capitalism, corruption, and inequality through thematic parallels and reflective storytelling.
The film“s plot is nested within a distant future where some sort of quasi-immortality has been achieved. Conventional monetary currency is replaced with time, and the natural biological process of aging no longer occurs after 25. Time simultaneously serves the function of currency and the remainder of one”s lifespan. The units of time one has to spend and live are essentially fused together to form a techno-biological wallet that directly dictates one“s existence. The more time-currency a person has, the more agency they have to simply exist as a live body in society. Essentially, this system renders the infinitely wealthy, immortal, and the poor, perpetually on the cusp of death with only hours, days, or weeks left to live. It is a situation wherein one”s clock is quite literally ticking away as a countdown to imminent doom. Such a tremendously inegalitarian state of things might seem farfetched, dystopian, and an improbable reality at first, but what we see in the real world is no different from the broader systems at play in the film. The systems that we are a part of and live in today are simply far more insidious and surreptitious in their functioning than what the film depicts. While in the film, it is brutally clear who the poor are and how they are ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of the economic elite, under neoliberal hegemony in real life, this division is actively blurred through (subliminal) corporate messaging and ideological mimetic contagions, most notable of which is perhaps the capitalist “work ethic”. This is not merely a side effect of the system, but rather a necessary tool that ensures the system’s survival.
The film revolves around the character Will Salas, a member of the working poor, who happens upon immense luck, as unbeknownst to him, he is given a century of time-currency by a distraught hundred-year-old man who has decided to end his life through this act of munificent indulgence. With his newly acquired fortune, Salas seeks to exact retributive violence on the ruling class, as he travels to New Greenwich, a city where the aristocratic members of society reside. The film attempts to depict in several scenes how the very mode of being in this “utopia” differs drastically from that of the society outside of it. Life in New Greenwich is one without the everyday restraints of time and the subjugation of imposed labor. People walk, dine, drive, and go about their lives with an uncanny sense of tranquility and indifference, completely unbothered by the worries of death, crime, and tyranny. The socio-economic juxtaposition that is evident in the other sectors of residency outside the upper-crust nightmare can be characterized by a dialogue in the film referring to Dayton — “Around here, they“d kill you for a week”. Dayton is the most impoverished ghetto in this neo-American hellscape, where most people live in destitution and toil every day to essentially add (earn as a wage) a few days to their life-time wallet. The society depicted in the film is a manifestation of the logical extreme of necropolitics. As Mbembe had developed in his theory of necropolitics, certain segments of the populace are designated as expendable bodies in relation to others. The working poor in the film are categorically placed in a state of limbo, wherein the lines between life and death are actively obscured. They”re stripped of their individuality, sovereignty, and agency, rendering them incapacitated in the face of larger exploitative systems.
Right off the bat, the film introduces an almost inconceivable totalitarian state that dictates the lives of millions of people through various means. It is not clear in the film the nature of the state“s structure of governance or conventional political bureaucracy. What is instead highlighted is the power institutions—imbued with the state”s logic—have over the individual. In particular, the film portrays the state’s police apparatus as a strictly authoritarian one. The police themselves are called “timekeepers” and their line of work largely consists of keeping track of time-currency by ensuring the rigid functioning of the overarching economic edifice. This particular institution functions with a sense of bureaucratic indifference towards broader abstractions such as justice, equal protection, and civil service. Its sole purpose is to maintain order by facilitating the carceral and punitive mechanisms that maintain the economic hierarchy embedded within this society. On the surface, the timekeepers appear to be a purely fictional entity, fulfilling an antagonistic role in the film with no apparent connections to the real world. A critical look into the police system in most countries, however, reveals a disturbing parallel that shares a central antagonism — one that is strictly based on class. In the real world, institutions of law enforcement are extensively intertwined with a myriad of other socioeconomic institutions, and it is often the case that law enforcement agencies are explicitly positioned to protect the interests of large corporations and affluent citizenry. Economically underprivileged people also often face the misfortune of not being able to defend themselves in a society that deems their struggles to be less important than the interests of capital. On top of this already grim structure, incarceration has also become a lucrative venture in many places with the advent of private, for-profit prisons. The retention, protection, and continuance of the social order are placed at a higher value than the attainment of justice, be it social or economic.
The portrayal of time with regard to how it is perceived by the working class is perhaps the most brilliant part of the film. It is here where we first see the precarity of lived time, its relation to labor, and how they intertwine to form a unified state of impotence. A system where one“s life is so explicitly dictated by one”s own will to exist is an almost paradoxical state of being. This renders the people experiencing a lack of time qua money, powerless, and deprived of their own lives and autonomy. The film takes the age-old proverbial cliché “time is money” and gives it an ontologically reconfigured meaning — a literal one. The structure of this society seems almost too dystopic and overtly draconian to be believable. An orthodox Marxian analysis would equate the film“s aristocratic elite with the real world”s capitalist class, and the grind-to-survive laborers with the proletariat class. While a tenuous comparison can be made between the bourgeois/proletarian classes in the film and the economic conditions of the global north and global south, it seems a better explanation to equate and identify these similarities within the context of capitalist nation-states in themselves, and how the system constructs certain self-perpetuating mechanisms that ensure its continuance. In the real world, regardless of social welfare programs and other economic concessions made under liberal regimes, a sizable portion of the working class nonetheless remain enthralled in the pursuit of capital, not of want, but of need, a coercion unlike no other. Only the wealthy can afford to actualize their lofty ambitions while the poor are transfixed in a plastic, mind-numbing state of labor for bare subsistence through earned capital, which in turn affords them time to repeat this cycle ad infinitum. The poor exist in an unending, enslaved state of capitalism. In contrast to the film’s conceptualization of temporality and capital, time in reality functions not as capital in-and-of-itself, but as ruthless exchange units in the pursuit of capital, a pre-seized collateral of sorts, fueling the same vicious cycle. When we think of time in relation to labor, it is always viewed as a transactional component that is attached to the primary perceived value of labor, i.e., a constitutive part of a whole.
In the real world, it certainly seems to be the case that wealthy people not only enjoy the material benefits of what their money affords them but also have the opportunity to be free in a conventional and technical sense of the word. There has been a multitude of technological advancements made throughout the history of capitalism and industrial societies across the world, and yet, the reduction in demand for an ever-growing labor force is not anywhere near the horizon. As capitalism expands its reach into larger spaces by permeating all sectors of modern-day life, so do the brutal and machinic processes of production and concomitant labor demands. There exists a tendency amongst most working-class people, however, that the drive and “hustle” towards earning exorbitant amounts of money could perhaps one day allow them to live freely and luxuriously. Here, again, time is only viewed as a part of the transaction itself because, in order to do anything, it only seems rational that one must give up a certain amount of time in exchange. In the film, the upper class justifies their elevated place in society by claiming that their privilege comes from a place of ambition and hard work. One of the central antagonists even explicitly states his support for “Darwinian capitalism”. In adopting repetitive, intensive labor as something of a ritualistic trial towards comfortable lives, modern societies have perhaps codified the rigidness of work qua duty and embraced it as an accepted societal schema for the working class. Even basic things like healthcare that may otherwise be viewed as baseline necessities are now being viewed as positive “perks” that accompany one’s occupation. The capacity to live free of danger and destitution is already bestowed upon those born into positions of power but is locked behind doors for those who are asked to give up all their time to earn it.
The film, released about ten years ago, attempted to delineate a certain sense of precariousness that looms over the working class in modern society. The perpetual cycle of giving up time through labor in exchange for time to live rings true profoundly in a society where the phrase “living paycheck to paycheck” has become an all too common reality for millions; opting out of this vicious cycle could possibly mean signing off on their own demise. Fisher“s conceptualization of capitalist realism as a universally pervasive mode of being, reveals the present day to be stuck in a systematic stagnation of exploitation, while still being geared towards an unending drive towards corporatization and wealth accumulation. In such a system, the situation of the precarious working class, or the precariat (to use the neologism) is, in all apparency, one in which their time will be held hostage in exchange for their survival. The precarity is a consequence of a system that remains utterly insurmountable, and efforts to restructure it could perhaps end up engendering a more sophisticated resilience to its own upheaval. Though we may question the “science” at play, this film subtly departs from any radical notion of “fiction”, and perhaps it isn”t too far off from reality as one might imagine.