- - Thursday, October 27, 2011

In his debut film, the minor cult-classic “Gattaca,” writer-director Andrew Niccol served up a sci-fi parable about inequality set in a genetically stratified world. With the new “In Time,” also about genetically blessed haves and have-nots, Mr. Niccol has essentially made the same movie again - just worse.

“Gattaca” was a thriller premised on a world dominated by preprogrammed genetic gifts, where the children of the affluent are made to order - perfect athletes, musicians, and scientists - and the comparatively weak natural-born are treated like second-class citizens.

“In Time” revolves around a world infused with a different sort of genetic determinism, based not on talent but on time. In this alternate reality, humans have been genetically engineered to live just 25 years.

But there’s a catch: They can live longer - while continuing to look 25 - if they earn, steal, trade or otherwise acquire additional time. The rich live forever and never grow old, while the poor die young and wanting.

Indeed, time forms the foundation of the world’s currency system, with each individual’s store of saved-up days and years glowing across their wrist, like a tattooed stopwatch that also serves as a bank account.

The narrative gimmick - taking the idea that “time is money” literally - is different from “Gattaca’s,” but the underlying shape of the story is the same. Like Mr. Niccol’s first film, “In Time” follows an underprivileged young man (Justin Timberlake) who finds a way to beat the system while attempting to outrun a sympathetic, highly competent detective (Cillian Murphy).

The movie discourages viewers from thinking too deeply about its genetically imposed time-based system. Which may be for the best, because it doesn’t make much sense. Even the cruelest capitalist overlords would want to take advantage of the additional productive life years lost by engineering individuals to live to just 25. But the system does make a certain sort of Hollywood sense: What producer wouldn’t be thrilled by the prospect of a world - and a cast - where everyone looks perpetually 25? That includes Mr. Timberlake’s mother, played by Olivia Wilde (in real life three years his junior), as well as wealthy octogenarian Phillipe Weis (“Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser) and his genuinely young daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).

A rich time banker, Weis is the film’s villain, a monologizing capitalist caricature and a symbol of the story’s time-based economic inequality. Mr. Timberlake and Ms. Seyfried spend most of the second act trading off between “Bonnie and Clyde”-style robberies of Weis’ time banks and tedious diatribes about the injustice of their world’s unequal outcomes.

Mr. Niccol remains a competent visual stylist, obsessed with both tiny fashion details - a crew of gangsters who appear throughout looking like boy-band backup dancers - and the glories of monument-sized infrastructure - his characters are frequently framed against imposing dams and bridges, as if to suggest the size of their struggles.

In the end, the movie’s problems are too big to overcome. Despite its novel concept, its anti-capitalism is too generic to be stirring. Like so many contemporary demonstrations against fat cat bankers, it comes across as vague and uninformed - call it “Occupy Timex.” And the question the movie raises about its filmmakers is the same one often asked of the protesters in Zuccotti Park: Didn’t they have anything better to do with their time?


TITLE: “In Time”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

RATING: PG-13 for violence, sexual situation, very mean bankers

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes


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