The Thief of Time


On Film

“Moments are the elements of profit,” Karl Marx wrote in Capital, quoting from an 1860 report by one of the British government’s factory inspectors. Marx believed that the uniformity of time underlay the fungibility of money; the time it took to make a commodity was, according to his theory, the basis of its value in the marketplace. If it takes ten hours to make an overcoat and ten to make a wheel of Stilton cheese, the coat and the cheese can be fairly traded. After all, a coat maker’s ten hours mean as much as a cheesewright’s. Or, as Thoreau put it, somewhat more poetically: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Andrew Niccol’s new movie In Time brings the labor theory of value to the big screen with bold literalness. In the future, thanks to genetic engineering, everyone’s physical appearance ceases to develop or decline at age twenty-five, at which moment, with a silent, monitory thump, a stop watch on the left forearm—a cross between an Auschwitz serial number and a lime-green digital alarm clock—begins ticking down from one year. To get more time, one must beg, borrow, steal, or work, and with sufficient wealth, one can live forever. If one’s clock runs out, though, there is a second thump, this time lethal, and the stopwatch fades from digital crispness to a blurry, inky string of thirteen zeroes, somewhat resembling the library due-date stamp of a twentieth-century childhood. In the meantime, time is currency, exchangeable by hand clasps or by chrome bracelets.

The notion of hours as dollars takes some getting used to. In an early scene, the movie’s working-class hero, Will Salas (played by Justin Timberlake), is given thirty minutes by his mother so that he can have a nice lunch for himself. At first I thought that the gift meant that Will would be able to stay away from the assembly line for an extra half hour at midday; in fact his mother expects him to trade the half hour for a sandwich and eat it. One gets the hang of it soon enough. By the time a hotelier announced that “A night here costs two months,” I found myself thinking, Marx would love this shit. Thoreau once famously asserted that he could walk as fast as a locomotive, so long as when you calculated the locomotive’s speed you added to the denominator the time it cost to earn the money for the ticket, and Thoreauvians will particularly enjoy the scene where a character is asked to choose between a bus ride that costs two hours and a walk that will take a hundred and twenty minutes.

The movie makes no effort to imagine how or why all of humanity came to accept such a modification to its genome. Surely, a viewer thinks, it must be obvious, even in a fantasized neoliberal future that has privatized education away, that no biological process, not even a genetically engineered one that produces immortality, could possibly require regular influxes of money, which is only an idea? It isn’t obvious to them, though. Somewhat improbably, it comes as a revelation to Will that the austerity built into this system isn’t really necessary. “The truth is, there’s more than enough,” reveals Henry Hamilton (played by Matt Bomer), a depressive 105-year-old who looks like a mildly sloshed J. Crew model. (Ages in the movie are given in a form that brings to mind cricket scores: Will is 25 for 3; his love interest, Sylvia [played by Amanda Seyfried] is 25 for 2.) But even though there’s more than enough, some dark authority has been at pains to keep it from being spread around, for reasons that seem a bit nebulous. “Everyone can’t live forever. Where would we put them?” Henry intones, just before surreptitiously donating to Will a century or so.

Neither Henry nor the movie quite seems to believe in the overpopulation objection, nor seems to expect Will to, and a further motive for things-as-they-are is also thrown in: Henry explains that the powers-that-be keep deliberately raising the cost of living to ensure that a sufficient number of people keep dying—thereby encouraging, or so the viewer infers, a sufficient number of others to keep working. “Four minutes for a cup of coffee,” a character complains. “Yesterday it was three.” If this movie were an economist, in other words, it would be the sort of economist who believes that the lower classes only take jobs when threatened with starvation, and that recessions and depressions occur because workers have been spoiled by welfare and have come to think of themselves as morally superior to the unpleasantness of toil. Is this movie Marxist or isnt it? I began petulantly to wonder. After all, Marx believed that “the determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is … a secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities.” That is, if it takes three minutes to make a cup of coffee, the value of the cup of coffee will always be equivalent to three minutes of labor-time. (Periodically The Economist magazine takes advantage of this principle and checks currency strengths against what it calls the Big Mac index—the cost of a Big Mac, a uniform product around the world, in dollars, pounds, yen, renminbi, and so on.) If Marx is right, then if time were a currency, the cost of a cup of coffee in time shouldn’t fluctuate, unless a productivity breakthrough were somehow to reduce the amount of time needed to brew a cup. In fact Marx gets very sniffy about economists who think that the value of an item has anything to do with the amount of money in circulation. On the other hand, though, Marx does also say that “price may diverge from the magnitude of value,” so maybe if labor-time were itself to become fetishized as a money-form, it could diverge from … itself?

Fortunately, whenever such speculation is provoked in the viewer’s mind, a car chase supervenes. The cars look to be of 1950s vintage—black muscle cars for the police, who are known as “timekeepers,” and boxy black limousines for the wealthy—except for a curvy silver item purchased by Will, which, to the flummoxing of a salesman, he declines to have shipped to a car collectors’ storage facility and instead drives out of the showroom. (Shades of the red Ferrari of Ferris Buellers Day Off? ) As in his debut movie, Gattaca, Niccol has the wit to represent the future through style rather than mere CGI. Even in the slums, which are filled with empty but refuse-free postindustrial warehouses that Williamsburg would envy, one may find a cocktail dress of crushed velvet in a sort of auburn-plum color if one rummages through the right closet.

Niccol has imagined his conceit thoroughly enough to realize that if currency could be stored on one’s person, there would be no banks in the poorer parts of town. Accordingly, when Will and Sylvia set out to rob from the rich and give to the poor, they don’t knock over banks. They knock over lending shops—imagined as check-cashing storefronts run by a sort of credit-card-slash-subprime-loan conglomerate—which are ubiquitous. We see a character make a loan payment, but the movie is a little elliptical about the economics of this lending. I briefly found myself wishing it had been more fully explained. After all, even in a world where people die when broke, the real money wouldn’t be made by hiring people desperate for a job. It would be made by offering credit at usurious rates to the same workers. So long as indebted workers keep making their minimum monthly payments, they’re worth far more alive than dead, even if their net, off-the-forearm balances are negative—in fact, they’re excellent investments, thanks to the backstop of their lethal stopwatches. Once I thought this through, though, it seemed that maybe this didn’t really need to be explained at any great length to a contemporary movie audience: it’s how we live now.

By the end of the movie, Will and Sylvia are being pursued by the police across rooftops—like figures out of The Matrix? like figures out of Dickens?—for stealing time from the usurers and distributing it to the workers, in an economic stimulus package as privatized by a high-fashion Bonnie and Clyde, as it were. Alas, it isn’t clear if the movie has confidence in the revolution they propose. Once the stolen time begins to leak out to the masses, factories idle. Suddenly people have enough time on their hands to stand around, and they do. (“If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist,” Marx wrote.) “Too much time in the wrong hands can crash the market,” warns the disembodied voice of an investor in the conglomerate behind the lending shops—is it the voice of one of Paul Krugman’s “bond vigilantes”? The prices of bread and milk start to rise. In response, the hero and the heroine vow to steal and redistribute more and yet more, but will their campaign merely lead to a vicious circle? “In the end nothing will change,” warns one of the bad guys. He explains that it’s “because everyone wants to live forever,” but the viewer nearly expects to hear the word “stagflation.”

Caleb Crain is a writer living in Brooklyn.