Silver Screen: In Time **1/2
To enjoy writer/director Andrew Niccol's socially conscious sci-fi thriller In Time, you've got to swallow a big pill. Not the literal big pill you have to swallow to enjoy, say, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, a vicodin the size of a tennis ball encrusted with percocet and ecstasy, but a metaphorical pill. Niccol's film opens with a premise, and you're just going to have to go with it.
In the future, scientists have genetically engineered humans to have the capacity to live forever, but they've also got a literal ticking clock on their arm. When people turn twenty-five, they stop aging, but they also get only one more year to live. From here they must earn or inherit more time, and minutes and seconds become a currency on the open market. Time literally is money.
How could you possibly genetically engineer something so astonishingly elaborate, and how is it that people can literally pass these minutes and hours like cash by simply holding hands, extending their lives for centuries or draining them to an instant death? Don't dwell on it, or all you'll do is spend your time dwelling. Niccol is as wise not to try to explain it as he was unwise hitching his movie to such an illogical concept.
But the metaphor does make for some good, Philip K. Dick-inspired fun, as ghetto boy Will (Justin Timberlake) is given more than one-hundred years by a suicidal millionaire. The police, known as Timekeepers, suspect that Will stole the time and killed the rich guy, or so they say, and they launch a search for him. The real truth is that the game is rigged, and the rich people who occupy the lavish and most desirable Time Zones don't want so many spare hours floating around the slums, so they send ice-cold Timekeeper Ray (Cillian Murphy) to recover it.
Will, meanwhile, newly aware of the intense disparity from the class system, becomes a kind of sci-fi Marxist avenger, establishing himself with a high-roller (Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser) and then kidnapping his daughter (Amanda Seyfried). His plan is to ransom the girl for a thousand years and then rain time down on the ghetto, but that threatens the very system established to keep a handful of immortal rich people alive, and so Will and his new lady pal become America's most wanted.
In Time is both brilliant and kind of dumb. The metaphor of time and money is almost perfect, with the notion that the poor are literally sacrificing the hours and days of their own lives so that the rich might live in absolute comfort. It's a perfect analogy for modern-day America, where wealth distribution really is this astonishingly one-sided. On the other hand, the metaphor is barely functional as a component of a story and needs constant maintenance. Every time the movie starts gaining momentum, the silliness and impracticality of the premise render it absurd. It's clumsy and obvious and too agenda-driven to be fun, but too dunderheaded to make for a compelling argument.
The actors keep it zippy, from Murphy's stoic, conflicted cop to Seyfried's sexpot runaway. Her transition from private-sector princess to sci-fi Bonnie (to Timberlake's hunky Clyde) happens way too quickly and easily, but damned if the two don't make a fun and awfully attractive pair of outlaws. The more it plays like Gun Crazy and the less it plays like an economics lecture the better, but the latter seems to consistently win out.
Niccol is good at this thinky sci-fi stuff; his genetic-engineering fable Gattaca is a superior genre flick, and he dealt nicely with big social issues in the very cool Lord of War. But he overreaches a little here, too eager to make a point too loudly, even if it is a good one. In Time aims to be the movie for the Occupy Wall Street crowd, but it fails to first occupy the realm of logic.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.