11/06/2011 03:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2012

In Time and Tower Heist : Can Robbing the Rich Solve Inequality?

A pair of new films this week offers a critique of capitalism sure to gladden the heart of any Occupy Wall Street protester. This weekend's Tower Heist depicts a group of employees who plot to rob a Madoff-style financier who cheated them, while the new sci-fi film In Time portrays a dystopian future in which time is literally money.

In Time in particular implies that time and nature are sources of tyranny equivalent to the capitalist system. The film depicts its hero, Justin Timberlake, as a proletarian Prometheus who robs the financial gods in order to redistribute their ill-gotten gains to an oppressed humanity. In In Time's near-future dystopia, human beings have been genetically-engineered to stop aging at 25, after which biological 'clocks' on their arms determine how long they have to live. Time on these clocks is spent like currency; people pay with hours or days of their lives for everything from a cup of coffee to their monthly rent. The wealthy store up hundreds if not thousands of extra years, while the poor live with only a few extra hours at any time. If they run out of time before they can earn more, the clock runs down to zero and they die.

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a young man from the ghetto, teams up with Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) - the disaffected daughter of wealthy banker Philippe Weis - to rob her father's time banks and redistribute the time stored there to the poor. They justify this by telling themselves "it isn't stealing if it is already stolen." And given the exaggeratedly cruel and unjust world that In Time portrays, who could disagree?

In its desire to equate time with money and denounce capitalism, however, In Time ignores the basic fact that in the real world money is malleable, time is not. Money can be earned, stored up, and passed on to others; by providing a portable form of wealth, it frees people from the barter system and feudal economies of centuries past when human beings were tied to the land like slaves. In short, money offers us a chance at freedom and self-sufficiency, depending on one's willingness to work and the opportunities one is given.

We have no such chance with time. Time is the ultimate leveler, flowing over all equally and waiting for no-one, whether they be rich or poor, young or old. No matter how hard one works or how healthy one may be, there is no surefire way to increase one's time nor determine in advance how much time one may have.

As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said of time in his famous essay On the Shortness of Life:

"It will not lengthen itself for a king's command or a people's favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside." (Trans. C.D.N. Costa)

The limits of time and human mortality have been subjects of some of our greatest science-fiction films. Stanley Kubrick's 2001 contrasts the brevity of human existence with the vastness of time, as represented by the alien monoliths. In Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, the hero is tormented by the 'eternal recurrence' of his beloved who continually returns to him and is lost again to a time-bending cosmic ocean. In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, artificial human 'replicants' are granted only a few years to live. As the character Roy Batty poignantly says of the brief, vivid life he experiences as a replicant: "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain."

Such films depict the tragedy of a human consciousness that is aware of the brevity of its own existence, and of the vastness of time that threatens to overwhelm it.

In Time isn't interested in any of this. It crassly defines time as a commercial conspiracy imposed from above, which is also how the film defines the capitalist system. In Time rails against life's limits and proposes that they can be overcome by ameliorative acts like robbing banks. According to the film, all people who have excess 'time' (i.e., money) must have stolen it. No-one is capable of earning it honestly. Banks, businesses, the millions of average people who work hard and have savings accounts - all are ultimately thieves. In combatting this thievery, the film advocates the redistribution of wealth - an easy, political answer to intractable existential questions. Ironically, of course, the Hollywood millionaires who make films like In Time and the capitalists-as-thieves comedy Tower Heist make no effort to redistribute their own fortunes - or to make their films available for free to the public.

Movies like In Time and Tower Heist offer simplistic solutions to the problem of inequality. The limits of time, and the inequality with which nature grants human beings varying degrees of talent, intelligence, beauty, strength, or luck, are tragedies every human being must confront. We can mitigate them with compassion, and work for greater equality of opportunity - but we are not gods and we cannot determine equality of outcome.