A tightrope walk between inspired high-concept storytelling and near-agonizing obviousness, Andrew Niccol’s “In Time” takes place in a retro dimension where everyone is 25 ’til the day they die. Time is money as the rich measure their wealth in centuries while the poor scrape by for a few extra minutes, all painfully aware that life ends the second their accounts run empty. It’s a fascinating philosophical conceit delivered as a slick, hyper-stylized conspiracy yarn, juicy enough to deliver on both fronts, provided you don’t ask too many questions. Interest should sync with that of recent sci-fiers “The Adjustment Bureau” and “Source Code.”
In a return to the elegant, streamlined view of the future presented in “Gattaca” and “The Truman Show” — or perhaps some parallel universe, where the continents are shaped like ours and no matter where you go, everything looks like Los Angeles — writer-director Niccol turns back the clock a dozen years, effectively erasing the disappointment of his intervening efforts, “Simone” and “Lord of War.”
The way it works, citizens are divided into time zones according to class. In the ghetto, guys like Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) live hour-to-hour, keeping a careful eye on the bright green life-expectancy timers embedded in their forearms. The most reliable way to buy themselves more time is to spend some it on the job, though renegades (such as Alex Pettyfer’s dandy-dressing, English-accented gangster) run around robbing people for a few hours.
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Nobody walks in the ghetto; time is far too precious. In the more upscale time zones, however, it’s a different story: Leisure is a way of life, bought at the expense of the working poor — a lesson Will learns when a suicidal chap (Matt Bomer) with a century on his clock whispers a few big secrets before taking a tumble off the nearest bridge. In true Hitchcockian fashion, innocent Will has no way to explain how he acquired 100-plus years, a situation that puts him on the lam from a squad of officious time keepers led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy).
As science fiction goes, “In Time” is the type that alters a few intriguing variables while otherwise preserving enough of the real world to illuminate aspects of our current system we don’t normally consider. Niccol’s intriguing concept hinges on the ability to stop aging at the quarter-century mark and to sustain the body in mint condition as long as its owner can “afford” it.
But the idea of time as money has real currency at a moment when world events have shaken the foundations of a paper-based banking system, just as the film’s central inequity — which finds Philippe Weis (“Mad Men’s” boyishly smarmy Vincent Kartheiser) exploiting the poor to feed his own immortality — echoes the sentiments of the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
Thanks to a stellar below-the-line team that includes d.p. Roger Deakins, production designer Alex McDowell and costume designer Colleen Atwood, “In Time” looks like “Gattaca,” though the story is far more intricate and the action considerably more complex. With a major assist from second-unit action guru David M. Leitch, Niccol stages shootouts and chase scenes that take full advantage of Timberlake’s action-hero potential, pairing him with red-wigged Amanda Seyfried as Weis’ daughter, Sylvia, a hostage-turned-accomplice in Will’s efforts to upset the system.
But the helmer is too much in love with his own ideas, indulging every little play on words (Pettyfer: “I’d say your money or your life, but your money is your life”). He’s incredibly surface-oriented, which makes for meticulous compositions amid beautiful environments, but causes problems in casting, especially since Niccol doesn’t handle actors well, however perfect their cheekbones may be.
A rugged 30, Timberlake deepens his usually reedy voice, suggesting that time is harder on those in the working class. For the most part, side players fare less convincingly. Olivia Wilde is particularly ill-used, except to guarantee a laugh at the film’s opening line (“Hi, Mom”), while model-looking extras are left to flail awkwardly on the sidelines.
Still, the premise is rich enough to engage, making it easy to forgive Niccol’s indulgences. What other studio director would have the nerve to counter Ayn Rand on her own turf, packaging a sure-footed lefty parable as genre entertainment? Though not exactly a rallying cry for the cause, “In Time” serves as two hours well spent for those bullied by the system and looking to let off some steam.