A timely premise about rich and poor, dumbed down

Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia's famous multitasker, coined the phrase "time is money."

And Andrew Niccol, famous screenwriter (The Truman Show) and director (Gattaca), has taken Ben's old saw as literally as he possibly can.

In the near-futuristic thriller In Time, people are engineered to stop aging at 25. You can live on - and on and on - but time is the currency, and so only the very rich manage to extend their lives through the decades. Some have logged more than a century in their bodies, but they still look like robust twentysomethings.

Meanwhile, the underclass toils in grim factories, earning barely enough to keep them alive for another day.

"For a few to be immortal," observes a smug, super-wealthy gent, "many must die."

Apparently, some studio genius was concerned that audiences wouldn't quite grasp this concept, and so In Time begins with a pasted-on voice-over from Justin Timberlake, explaining the premise. Which is too bad, because a few minutes later when Timberlake's Will Salas walks into his kitchen and greets Olivia Wilde with a groggy "Hi, Mom," the surprise that exchange would have had - the what the hey? Olivia Wilde is Justin Timberlake's mom?! - has been thwarted, pre-empted, kiboshed.

In Time is that kind of movie: Philip K. Dick for knuckleheads.

What happens next? Well, Will, a working stiff, saves a guy in a snappy suit from being mugged. Muggings in In Time mean stealing the minutes, hours, days, and years that are ticking off a digital readout embedded in your arm.

This guy, though, had wanted to be mugged and killed - after 105 years, he had had enough. And so he gives his time to Will while Will is fast asleep. Will awakes, like some fairy-tale hero, a new man: a chronological millionaire.

Niccol is kicking at a couple of interesting themes here, but he's kicking at them like they're tin cans on a curb. One is our culture's obsession with youth, with the quest to stay young and stave off inevitable deterioration and decrepitude. The other has to do with class warfare. It's the reason those Occupy Wall Streeters are occupying Wall Street: The wealthiest one percent keep getting wealthier, while the divide between the rich and the poor grows and poverty rates climb.

But In Time doesn't really know where to go with these ideas, falling back on the obvious and the repetitive, and on the creakier conventions of the thriller genre. Will crosses the border from shabby Dayton, a cinegenic ghetto, to New Greenwich, a community of glitzy mansions and opulent hotels, running off with a mogul's daughter - Amanda Seyfried, in a redhead bob and a black minidress. The cops, led by Cillian Murphy - they're called timekeepers - are after Will. They think he's a killer and a thief, and it's not long before the on-the-lam duo turn into a kind of dystopian Bonnie and Clyde, gunning a vintage Jaguar around town, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

"We look cute together," Seyfried says to Timberlake, catching their "Wanted" images on a news screen. And they may look cute, but they aren't firing off any sparks. Chemistry-wise, Timberlake and Seyfried are a failed experiment.

Maybe with a little more time . . . oh, never mind.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/


In Time

Directed by Andrew Niccol. With Alex Pettyfer, Vincent Kartheiser, Justin Timberlake, Matthew Bomer, Olivia Wilde, Cillian Murphy, Amanda Seyfried, Elena Satine, Ethan Peck. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hours, 49 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for violence, some sexuality and partial nudity, and brief strong language).