By Bryan Caplan
Sci-fi thriller In Time has a simple premise: In the future, people become immortal as long as they don’t run out of the crucial tradable commodity: time. Everyone is born with 26 years of life; to live longer, they have to earn – or steal – time from other people. Robin Hanson hates the movie for its “shrill class hatred” and the inconsistency between the story and the message:
[T]his society’s main problem is being over-taxed, via a severely
regressive tax system, with poor law enforcement aside from very well
enforced and extreme penalties for failure to pay taxes. How can the
outcome of such a terrible tax system be a critique of wealth
inequality in our society, where the rich work hard, taxes are
progressive, the poor pay few taxes, and penalties for non-payment of
taxes are mild?
All true, but In Time is still more than worth the price of admission. It’s a fine mix of so-bad-it’s-good and just-plain-good.
1. People with under a day to live still spend precious minutes on wine, coffee, and other luxuries.
2. People hold such low time balances that a surprise increase in cab fare is literally lethal. (Note: In the real world, the poorest residents of the Third World don’t cut things this close).
3. Even though time storage devices exist and mugging is rampant, most people carry their whole lifetime on their persons. Picture a world where everyone walks around with every penny of their net worth in their wallets!
4. The glowing green time clocks don’t include any “low balance warning.”
5. You don’t need a password to get someone’s time – including their last minute of life! It’s easier for muggers in the movie to “clean a person’s clock” than it is for us to check our cell phone messages.
1. The movie is derivative, but it derives its inspiration from great sources. The plot is heavily inspired by Les Miserables, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Patty Hearst affair, all skillfully woven together.
2. In Time is a stark exercise in Victorian ethnography. The poor claim that the rich are “stealing” from them. But that’s mere speculation on the characters’ part. What the movie actually shows us is that the poor are extremely impulsive and irresponsible – and blame everyone but themselves for their plight.
a. Case in point: When the lead character suddenly inherits a century of life under suspicious (though innocent) circumstances, he almost immediately moves to the richest neighborhood, checks into the nicest hotel, eats at the best restaurant, and lavishly tips. Then he goes to a casino and bets everything he has! He never even considers the sensible strategy of waiting for the heat to die down or spending his new-found wealth gradually to avoid suspicion.
b. Another example of Victorian ethnography: When the hero gives his closest friend ten years of life, the friend ignores his struggling wife and child and goes drinking. He consumes a year’s worth of liquor and dies of alcohol poisoning. The inheritance laws are a little vague, but his family probably doesn’t inherit his remaining nine years.
3. The characters make some bizarrely stupid choices, but so what? Drama is about character motivation and conflict, not optimization.