Dystopian "In Time" and Inequalities in Our Time

Posted by Emily Beitiks December 1, 2011
Biopolitical Times

Forgive the pun, but the new sci-fi feature In Time is quite a timely film. Against the real-world backdrop of the Occupy movement, In Time forecasts a future in which bankers and other elites are still the bad guys. With the help of power-obsessed police (“time keepers”), they oppress the 99% to protect their excessively comfortable lifestyles.

In this dystopian world, people have been genetically engineered so that they die at age 25 unless they can earn enough time to live another day. Time is the new currency: “I worked overtime last night and earned two days.” Those who live in “time-zone ghettos” move quickly, always aware that each day could be their last unless they can earn another, often taking out high-interest time-loans. In the affluent time-zones, it’s a leisurely life – people have so many years on their clocks that they are effectively immortal, as long as they avoid accidents. To ensure their lock on life and resources, the wealthy engineer inflation to make it harder for the poor to earn more time:  inflation thus functions as population control.

Andrew Niccol, the writer/director of the similarly thought-provoking genetic dystopia Gattaca, has once again mobilized science fiction for incisive social commentary. The time-rich look the other way, avoiding the fact that their immortality relies upon the death of the time-poor. In the words of an extremely time-rich banker who seems to be channeling contemporary transhumanist discourse, “Isn’t this just the most logical step in our evolution?...This is merely Darwinian evolution.”

In Time targets inequality in general; it uses genetic technologies in the service of its critical message but doesn’t explore them in any depth. Many viewers will know that poverty and life expectancy are clearly linked. And as Biopolitical Times readers are aware, today’s elites are already using biotechnologies in efforts to prolong their lives, improve their health, and extend the capabilities of their bodies. Meanwhile, billions across the globe have inadequate access to basic healthcare or treatment. In the midst of a heart attack, a person living in poverty may weigh whether taking the ambulance ride to the hospital is worth the cost. A rich woman can opt for a fertility clinic vacation to Barbados – increasing her chances of conception while enjoying a tropical paradise – yet prenatal care remains out of reach for many others. Whether or not radical anti-aging technologies could ever materialize, the rich and the poor already live in vastly different biological realities.  

In Time tackles current issues of economic injustice head on, but unfortunately erases actually existing racial inequality. It presents a world that is racially diverse both in the time-zone ghettos and amongst the time-rich elite. But by de-linking race and class, it obscures the ways in which both poverty and life expectancy are in fact deeply racialized. And while its premise and its set-up are wonderfully thought-provoking, by the end In Time becomes an action film with a new twist on Robin Hood. I also tired of being reminded over and over that time is literally money, as when the sex workers say, “I’ll give you ten minutes for an hour.” But In Time’s reflections on present inequalities are noteworthy and challenging. 

Previously on Biopolitical Times: