At a cultural moment when Occupy Wall Street has income inequality squarely in the public eye, last weekend’s flop of In Time seems hard to fathom. Rarely does a movie intersect so deftly with the immediate preoccupations of the day: New Regency’s sci-fi thriller is set in a world where time is literally money, with society structured so that the rich can live forever while the poor die young as they run out of time. One would think that the subject material might have brought in big audiences, but the movie was a huge disappointment at the box office, opening in third with a weekend gross of only $12 million. What went wrong? Was the entire potential audience camped out on Wall Street? Was it wrong to bet on Justin Timberlake as a box office draw? Has the tide turned against science fiction in cinema?
‘No,’ ‘probably,’ and ‘definitely not’ are the short answers to those questions, but In Time’s problems run deeper than questions of marketing or audience genre interests. I’m pretty sure that this movie would have flopped even more dramatically had it not been released in the midst of the media madness about the Occupy movement; most of what makes it interesting right now is its veneer of topicality. The fact is, though, that beneath its fortuitous relevance to current events, In Time is, in Hollywood terms, a highly conventional dystopian narrative. As it turns out, movies made on that narrative model are almost universally bad, because the model itself is inherently flawed.
Dystopian narratives can be pretty fairly characterized as the ‘serious’ side of science fiction. Most of the genre is concerned either with creating sprawling, fantastic universes (Star Wars, Avatar) or imagining how technology could enable people to gain capabilities of action or awareness that are otherwise inaccessible (Inception, many superhero movies). In general, such stories have an optimistic bent: though there are exceptions, most are based on the idea that things will get better and that good will triumph over evil. The dystopia, on the other hand, envisions a world wherein technology has improved, but is responsible, directly or indirectly, for a society that has somehow gone grimly wrong. Done well, dystopian narratives use science fiction as a speculative lens through which to examine questions about human morality, man’s relationship to technology, and the darker facets of human socialization. That’s why we all read Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 in high school.
What we may term the ‘Hollywood dystopia,’ by contrast, represents a distinct genre of dystopian narratives that are remarkable only in how identical they all are. This is the plotline of In Time: a marginally differentiated dystopian setting (in this case, a world where time is literally money) is introduced, along with the story’s main character (Justin Timberlake’s Will Salas). This character, by some interaction or semi-transgressive act (Will’s accidental encounter with the century-old Henry Hamilton), becomes privy to a forbidden secret or item or both (that the system is deliberately weighted against the poor), which opens his eyes to the corruption of the system he lives in. He sets out to destroy it, pursued by an agent of that system (here, a black-coated Cillian Murphy). This culminates in a showdown with the law agent and the successful ‘liberation’ of the world from dystopia.
Yes, I’ve left out a lot details – nowhere in my summary have I made any reference to Amanda Seyfried’s little-rich-girl-gone-rogue, for instance, and it is these little variations that separate In Time from others of its kind. Still, the specifics of the story can be swapped out almost seamlessly with any other movies in this subgenre. Turn it into a world where emotions are outlawed and you get Equilibrium, with all the pieces fitting together just as easily. In that case, the ‘forbidden knowledge’ is emotion-stimulating art and a similarly black-coated Taye Diggs is the enforcement agent. Make it a world where organs can be grown artificially for transplant but can also be reclaimed by debtors and you get Repo Men, with Jude Law’s titular repo man turning against his system when he himself is given an artificial organ. (Astute viewers will point to the tacked-on ending twist as breaking from the model; unfortunately, that twist only makes the movie worse, and happens after Repo Men has already gone through the full model).
In looking at this paradigm, I think it’s hard for any movie following it to end up being good. It isn’t to do with these movies being unoriginal – The Lion King has the same plot as Hamlet, after all, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s that they want to force a traditional monomythical science fiction narrative into a form that can’t accommodate it. Titanic struggles of good against evil work very well in space opera, where the universe is designed for it: we know that the Empire is bad from the moment we first see Darth Vader, so we can accept Lucas painting in broad strokes. Dystopian settings, however, have to resemble our own world, because we have to believe that we somehow arrived there from here. On the one hand, the deck is stacked so that we have to sympathize with Will Salas and his short-on-time compatriots in the ghetto. Yet we never understand why his society has become the way it is.
This great unanswered question is one that hangs over all Hollywood dystopias. Nothing is even remotely hinted at in In Time beyond some initial mumbo-jumbo about genetic engineering. In the case of Equilibrium, it has something to do with a nuclear war, which I feel like often ends up being the motivation – yet the people on top, the ones who presumably felt that this change needed to be made, are invariably portrayed not as people who have made a hard decision but as evil avatars for their system. That, of course, is another problem: Hollywood dystopias turn their primary antagonist into a system rather than a person. Sure, Cillian Murphy (what is he doing in this movie, anyways?) and Vincent Kartheiser stand in to represent that system in In Time, as Forest Whitaker does in Repo Men and Taye Diggs does in Equilibrium. As representatives of a system, though, they are more like bureaucrats than villains. When Will faces off with Murphy’s Leon at the end of In Time, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for their conflict; we might not like what Leon is defending, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with him. Darth Vader, on the other hand, isn’t a representative of his system but an embodiment of it, evil made manifest.
Still, even if these movies are flawed from conception, there’s not an obvious reason that that should condemn them to being flops. We live, after all, in a world where Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides each earned over a billion dollars worldwide. One well-taken point may be that the movies I’ve referenced here lack true movie stars – the headliner of In Time is Justin Timberlake, who at this point may be officially designated ‘a famous person who appears in movies,’ while Equilibrium starred Christian Bale before he was Batman. Then again, having both Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker didn’t save Repo Men from irrelevance, just as Charlize Theron, then at the height of her bombshell powers, couldn’t get Aeon Flux to recoup its budget.
The answer, I think, lies in the fact that Hollywood dystopias present an unappetizing product. After all, no one expects Transformers or Pirates to be good, but it doesn’t matter as long as they’re entertaining; their lack of cinematic merit doesn’t affect their profitability because no one’s going to see them on cinematic grounds. Hollywood dystopias, however, promise the same sort of good-vs-evil narrative paradigm as those other movies, but without the gloss. They try to have it both ways, but, really, they don’t give audiences a reason to watch. In presenting themselves as dystopian narratives, they declare themselves to be dark, gritty, ‘serious’ entertainment. That isn’t appealing, though. If I want to see a movie purely to be amused, the Hollywood dystopia would never be my choice, because what I want is a movie that’s easy on the eyes and doesn’t demand too much of me. Of course, the niche that the Hollywood dystopia is aiming for is moviegoers that want to see something entertaining that is also intelligent and complex. It can’t appeal there either, though, because it still ends up painting in broad, black-and-white strokes when we’re looking for something more sophisticated.
That lack of sophistication is what sets apart the Hollywood dystopia from the number of truly great movies that have dystopian settings. Blade Runner, The Matrix, A Clockwork Orange – these are dystopian narratives as well, but successful ones. What sets them apart is that they are ultimately unconcerned with setting up simplistic dualistic systems of heroes against a system; their narratives are about exploring the worlds they reside in and examining the moral questions that they raise. The Matrix is a particularly interesting case because, on the surface, it appears to bear so many of the hallmarks of the Hollywood dystopia: an unknowing hero who becomes privy to secret knowledge (made manifest in the famous red pill) and who is opposed by an agent of the system (Hugo Weaving), leading to an ultimate showdown between them. Crucially, though, The Matrix isn’t about the battle between Morpheus’s crew and the machines that have enslaved humanity. That conflict is a major part of the movie, yes, but the heart of the story is the personal journey that Neo goes on from beginning to end – a major part of which is an inquiry into the nature of truth.
Dystopian narratives, in other words, succeed when they craft themselves as inquiries and explorations of the questions that their worlds pose. The most interesting character in In Time is Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), the wealthy man who gives Will a hundred years off his own clock, but the movie doesn’t let him stick around long enough to make an impression. He becomes a plot device because In Time so desperately wants to be conventional and give Will a reason to try to bring down the system. In killing him off so easily, director Andrew Niccol also kills off the movie’s opportunity to be what our glimpse of Hamilton suggests it could be: a meditation on what it would mean to be immortal, and an exploration of the moral consequences of living in a world where some can live forever but many must die young. Niccol, unfortunately, is content to let these questions become catchphrases.
Catchphrases, though, can’t stand in for quality, not when you’re working in a genre that promises sophistication. So (if we can reduce this down to its own catchphrase) that’s why the Hollywood dystopia fails: it promises genuine sophistication but delivers only reductive simplicity. If I want simple narratives, though, there are plenty of movies that promise them – and which almost universally look more fun. If I’m going to take in a grim dystopia, it had better have something to say beyond claiming to have a cool premise. In Time and its ilk do not.