In Time: Where Time Is Money… Literally

In Time was not a movie which gained a lot of attention when it released last year. While it isn’t an amazing movie in terms of its production quality, its theme is one that often comes back to me as a fascinating concept.

The social commentary of In Time is not hard to identify. The future world painted by the movie has had monetary currency replaced by time to live. Each person after birth lives  automatically until 25 years old. From then on, their clock starts ticking and when the clock runs out they die. Everyone is paid for their work in time and you can give time to others as well as, if you’re strong enough, take it away from others by force. The world is also split into zones based on wealth – if you earned enough you could move up to a better zone, but it is costly to move across the borders. In the lower regions, people die in the street because they are unable to make enough time to get through to the next day even when they are working extreme hours. Prices are even changed on a whim with no forward notice to such an extent that people die because the extra 10 minutes cost of a bus ride is the difference between life and death. In the highest zone, on the other hand, people live for hundreds of years without ever having to worry.

In short, all the writers of the movie have done have removed money from the equation. In the real world, money is able to extend your life. It might not be to essentially infinity as in the movie, but it can be far longer than others are able to afford. The parallels of the zones could be drawn on the international scale between the Western world and the third world, or could be drawn within individual societies which often still have dramatic differences. All of the dynamics painted in the movie are true in real life… except that we have the in-between step of “money” instead of jumping straight to the heart of the matter: simply by being born in the right zone, we have the privilege of much more time to live and much more comfort while living.

The Monetary Pursuit of Happiness

Early in the movie, a man named Henry from the highest zone appears at a bar in the lowest zone. He’s throwing away his time in drinks for himself and others, clearly drawing a lot of attention to himself. It isn’t a surprise, then, when a group of time thieves show up to try to relieve him of his obvious fortune. The protagonist Will, played by Justin Timberlake, steps in and saves him, which gets the ball moving on the whole story. He is disturbed to learn that Henry is not happy and ultimately commits suicide; after all, he literally has eternal life because of his riches and he can buy whatever he wants. This is the first crack in the cultural lie that makes the entire society function as they realize that money cannot buy happiness (for the record, this has actually been proved with psychological studies multiple times but everybody still believes the opposite anyway). This realization allows Will to begin questioning the system and looking at ways to make it better. In many ways, then, I think this is analogous to the teachings of Jesus, dismantling our assumptions about the way that things simply have to be. Of course, teachings and ideas are not enough if they aren’t acted upon. But first, let’s look some more at how the system operates.

The Cost of the System

For some to live forever, many must die.

Henry says the above disturbing line to Will not long before committing suicide. Perhaps the eeriest aspect of this line was its delivery. I barely even realized the gravity of what he was saying; it was so matter-of-fact. The line comes up later in the movie from another man, a banker who was largely overseeing the entire time-based system of life, and he says it with the same matter-of-fact nature. There’s no doubt that we approach life in the same way, wiling to sacrifice others in order to improve/lengthen our lives. The difference is that the added step of having currency allows us to feel more detached about it than in the system of In Time. 

If you read the opening paragraph of this blog post or saw the opening of the movie in which the system is explained, you may have already thought of something so obvious it’s easy to miss: if they have the technology for everyone to live forever, why don’t they allow everyone to live forever? On a practical level I suppose it could be seen as population control. That makes it an almost clinical solution to deny people life. But I think an even better solution is a scary aspect of our humanity that we must all face: we like to know we’re better off than others. We like to know that we can manipulate their lives. When pressed about it, we usually switch to doing the opposite, suddenly comparing to those better than us to justify that at least we aren’t as bad as those other people. At the root of our problem, then, is greed: really wanting to make sure we have the best and demonizing those who currently have more even though we’re doing the exact same thing.

As the movie progresses you see more and more from the villains who are trying to maintain the system as it is. Here’s the part of the movie that scared me the most: they actually had giant colour-coded maps of where the time was located across the zones. Their unashamed goal was to make sure that the poor stayed poor and the rich stayed rich. They continued to fight hard all movie to make sure that this uneven distribution stayed that way, but ends with the map changing colours so that they all have approximately-equal amounts of time to live. The looks of absolute panic on the rich men’s (they were almost all men) faces was incredible. Losing their power over others, even though they didn’t actually lose any of their own extremely-long lives, was essentially equivalent to watching the world crumble around them. Once again, we all do this equating of power to life but we do it more subtly.

Dismantling the System

Let’s get back to the story. After Will inherits the huge amount of time from Henry, he embarks to the richest zone. The movie doesn’t divulge exactly why he decides to do this. He may have been wanting to join the rich and live out a few hundred more years in comfort, not having understood his benefactor’s words or why he killed himself. He may have been curious about how the rich lived in order to understand the system. He may have been simply running away, not knowing what else to do after his mother died. In any case, he gets there and falls in love with a woman, Sylvia, before being confronted by cops as a thief. I’m not sure if the cops really thought he was a thief – how else did he come up with all the time that Henry gave him? – or whether they were worried that he was putting too much equalization into the system. In any case, Will and Sylvia are put on the run.

At first they seem to be primarily interested in their own survival, but it doesn’t seem to get them very far. After being robbed by the same time thief who was in the beginning of the movie, they return to living day-to-day, except that now they are also dodging cops who are trying to stop them for challenging the system. At some point they decide that they need to destroy the system instead of just trying to operate and survive within it. They begin on a small scale, robbing fairly small banks. Where it gets really interesting, though, is that they don’t keep very much of what they steal. They give it all away to what is essentially the equivalent of a welfare office who can then distribute it fairly to those who come in need. They only need enough to keep themselves alive for a day, even though this is a radical step of trust for Seyfried who has always had hundreds of years on her clock.

We can clearly learn from this lesson. We live in a world operating on a system that is not as far removed from In Time as we might like to think. Every day we make decisions to either operate within the system or to challenge it. Some of us even think we’re beating the system, working hard in order to move up the ladder, but really we’re just feeding the system by pushing others under our feet on the way to the top. So what we can learn from In Time is simple: we change things by sacrificing our own wealth. The rich man, Henry, early in the movie got the ball rolling. The rich heiress, Sylvia, didn’t initially mean to sacrifice, but she came along quickly when she also realized what it took to challenge the system. Will had always lived day-by-day, but when presented with the opportunity to change that and become comfortable he instead chose to work for the good of those he had always watched struggle around him.

As almost a side-note, this is another valuable lesson: change happens best when we work together across the divisions our society is imposing on us. Will wouldn’t have gotten far without Henry starting his questioning and giving him the time to get into the richest zone or the help of Sylvia which comes in various forms throughout the movie. Sylvia was trapped by her wealth and questioned the system but didn’t know how to change it until she met Will. The rich couldn’t have solved it without the poor just as much as the poor couldn’t have solved it without the rich. This should serve as a check against simply giving charity with an attitude of arrogance. Our best shot at changing our own corrupt system is to engage in personal relationships with those on the other side and figure out together what steps to take.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

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  • Nicolas Iago

    I have a question regarding the map: what are those numbers on the ‘time zones’?

    • Good question. I can’t say I know for sure; don’t remember it being strictly explained in the movie. My first instinct is that they would just be the time zone numbers, but I can’t remember if the different zones were numbered elsewhere in the movie or if they just had different names. The other option is that it could be something to do with the balance of the time. 12 and 4 could be glowing because they have more than they’re supposed to, for example. I really don’t know and am just making a conjecture here.