Every good dystopian story needs a villain responsible for bringing about the sad state of affairs. Half the interest in the plot concerns how the despotic conditions developed and are maintained. This is precisely why almost all dystopian stories tend toward a libertarian bent, or at least a theme of human liberation from some coercive arrangement.
The Hunger Games is a great case in point. The premise is brilliant. The central state manufactures a high-stakes national tradition that does double duty: First, it extracts a penance from the people for their past rebellion, and second, it gives them an outlet for entertainment, sport and the creation of heroes and martyrs.
It’s all about control, and control stems from a complex mixture of compulsion and propaganda. Both are necessary to any political system. The results grind down and corrupt the people and feed the parasitic power elite. The drama stems from the dawning of consciousness and the plot to throw off the oppressors.
In thinking through why the 2011 film In Time (written and directed by Andrew Niccol and starring Justin Timberlake and Cillian Murphy) ultimately fails, one has to focus on its utter failure to conjure up a compelling villain. And this is despite the wonderful premise on which the movie is based.
As a result of some genetic engineering, every person in society is slated to live one year after turning 25, unless a person collects extra time by some means. Time is the currency in this world. You spend it to buy anything and everything, from a bus ride to a cup of coffee, and you earn it by doing work or being gifted extra time units by someone. It can also be gained through violence, such as a mugging. Once you have time added beyond your allotment, you stop aging.
This is a zero-sum world. The time taken from some is given to others. The geographic areas are strictly divided by how much time the residents possess. The range of castes goes from those who have only one year up to those who are effectively immortal — the richest of the rich.
This is an enormously intriguing premise. How would people behave if they could buy and sell time this way? Sadly, beyond showing how the poorest people tend to run places and otherwise rush around — leisure time is not for the time-impoverished — the cultural implications of this are never really explored in any depth.
And how would the economy actually work in this world? Would it be a hand-to-mouth existence, or could a genuinely complex division of labor actually emerge?
I’m not entirely sure of the answers here. But neither is the film, since none of these questions are even explored. All we see is people exchanging time back and forth through a kind of locked-armed embrace. It is creepy to watch, and we are shown this operation repeatedly, but there is no depth beyond this simple operation.
When the viewer finally gets to see the richest of the rich, the disappointment sets in. The top dog in this world turns out to be the leading corporate time banker. He lends time at interest (which is, of course, paid in time, too!) and has managed to monopolize the vast majority of time available in the world.
It is left to the hero and heroine to plot a massive redistribution scheme that causes the immortals to die and the poor to live much longer.
The intriguing premise, then, is completely wasted on what becomes a highly conventional political saga rooted in a socialist fantasy of a zero-sum world in which the capitalist elite thrive at everyone else’s expense. There are a few police here and there (underpaid “timekeepers”) who work for the upper class, but there is no state in the normal sense. The bad guy is a boyish-looking banker, and not a very scary one.
The whole film ends up being oddly boring, preachy and uncaptivating. Such is the fate of a dystopian novel that tries to make the money matrix the cause of all human woe. Adding to the disappointment, the premise is very good and could have been the foundation of a great novel or film by someone who actually understands economics. But now that the film is out, a second attempt to make something robust emerge from the basic fabric wouldn’t go anywhere, sadly.
Another criticism I would make of this film applies to most dystopian stories, including The Hunger Games. In the city where the rich live, there is vast technological progress. The people live exceptionally well, the transportation systems are amazing, the cars are zippy and pretty and the buildings gleam.
If you think about it, the only kind of system that produces such cities is one rooted in freedom. People own their own stuff and trade with each other. New ideas are given flight through entrepreneurship. The rewards of economic success are conferred on the individuals who make it happen. A complex and extended division of labor, along with a complex structure of production in a stable legal environment, allows for maximum productivity of capital.
There is no other way to create vast prosperity and gleaming cities. Despotic systems can’t do it, no matter how hard the dictator tries. Look at Romania under Ceausescu or North Korea today. These regimes would love to create gleaming cities. They can’t. Only freedom does that. So it is hard to make sense of where all this prosperity even comes from in these dystopian movies.
By wonderful contrast, consider Ayn Rand’s wonderful novella Anthem. Here we find the truth about society and economics. The despots hate technology, new ideas and individualism and, of course, they have made for themselves the disgusting dump that they fully deserve. Rand lived under Russian socialism and knew this truth that even George Orwell never really grasped.