1. The idea behind "In Time" is such a terrific one that the fact that the movie that surrounds it is half-baked and clearly compromised is almost beside the point. It takes place in a "not-too-distant" future in which all humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at the age of 25, at which time a clock appears on their arm, starting at one year and ticking down the seconds. You can add to the time on your clock by working, the same way you earn a paycheck now, and you can purchase goods and services with time subtracted (a pay phone call costs one minute, plus whatever time it takes you to actually make the call; this future exists in a cellphone-less universe, which might be the only good thing about this future). The rich figure out ways to expand their time on earth into the eons; the poor live in ghettos and are a few minutes from death on a daily basis. This is one of those Big Metaphors that writer/director Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca," "S1m0ne") specializes in, and even he doesn't seem to have the creative control on this one that he did on those, he's such an interesting thinker that his ideas glide you through the dumb-dumb action scenes and clumsy narrative.
2. Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a poverty-stricken factory worker who lives in the slums of this future land with his mother, played, amusingly, by Olivia Wilde. (The revelation that Wilde, whose character is in her fifties, is Timberlake's mother gets the movie's first sustained laugh, particularly because it's played so straight.) One night, he saves a "wealthy" loner (with centuries of time left) from a group of bandits, and when he wakes up the next morning, the loner has given him all his time, killed himself (because he'd decided that a century on earth was enough for him) and written "Spend My Time Wisely" on the wall. Thanks to a silly plot contrivance, Will takes his newfound wealth and uses it to leave the ghetto for "New Greenwich," the richest area of town (it cost him a year of his life just to transfer from the ghetto to the other side of the fence). Chaos then predictably ensues.
3. A lot of this is a bit dull. Salas meets a super-wealthy businessman (played, in an extremely clever touch, by Vincent Kartheiser of "Mad Men;" his petulant, entitled facial structure really does look like that of an old rich white man) who is (understandably) overprotective of his delicate daughter, played by Amanda Seyfried, who is a far more interesting actress than she is in this film. They end up on the run, fall in love and start holding up banks Bonnie and Clyde style to resolve the income gap while being chased by a dispassionate "timekeeper" cop played by Cillian Murphy. Their love story is not compelling and many of the action scenes are by-the-numbers and even nonsensical. There's also a subplot involving Salas' father that feels truncated, like it was originally a larger part of the story but excised at the last minute. And ... about Justin Timberlake. This is probably the most I've liked him in a performance, but you should know that isn't saying much. He's physically striking and has the faux intensity of a low-grade action star, but you can never shake the sense that he is play-acting in a way that the other actors are not. You can see the gears whirring, the "I am now acting! Look!" He's not bad exactly, but a movie this ambitious needs an actor who understands this is more than just a pose or a career movie. I remain unconvinced that Timberlake does.
4. That's OK, though, because the movie keeps you thinking throughout. Niccol's device brings up all kinds of fascinating questions, questions that we struggle with daily. Basically, he has made the arguments of the Occupy Wall Street crowd -- that big business feeds off the labor of the poor, that the system is stacked against those on the bottom and fixed for those at the top -- and makes them literal. Any time the people in New Greenwich decide they would like to add a few more years, they simply raise the prices of good and the taxes in the ghetto; more for them, less for you. That we're talking about actual seconds on earth rather than dollars raises the stakes, but those in the theoretical 99 percent might argue those stakes are already raised quite enough, thank you. When Salas bolts out of the ghetto for New Greenwich, a timekeeper physically states "time can't leave like that; time has to stay in its place." This is an entire sociological structure based on income inequality; social crusaders -- and Niccol is clearly one of them -- would argue that's the world we live in, right now. When Salas and his lady companion start robbing to spread the wealth around, their crime is not theft; their crime is destabilizing the system. By turning ephemeral macroeconomic concepts into vivid reality, Niccol makes them more relatable, and more urgent. It's an ingenious switch.
5. So, yes, the movie that you occasionally have to sit through to get to these points is often not so great. But it's not terrible, if just because of the work of Murphy, who gives a sad, focused performance as the workaday cop -- timekeepers are only given enough time each day to make their rounds -- who understands what Salas is doing, even if he knows it's his sworn duty to stop it. And there is a certain fun to be had in a film in which every single character is 25 years old and at the peak of their physical attractiveness; every character in the film looks like he/she just stepped out of a catalog. (Funny: I remember some ugly looking 25-year-olds, in my time.) But the movie, again, is a sideshow to its own ideas, which imbue every frame with importance and vitality. This isn't a great movie -- I wish the "In Time" Niccol had as much creative power as the "Gattaca" Niccol did -- but don't let the ads fool you: It has a lot on its mind.