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MOVIE REVIEW: Thriller 'In Time' sets itself apart from drama-filled fall

In Time

(PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Easily one of the Hollywood's most underrated and overlooked filmmakers New Zealander Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca," "S1m0ne," "Lord of War"), who received a well-deserved Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for "The Truman Show," has now written and directed his fourth consecutive very good movie.

Always juggling high-concept with mainstream presentation, Niccol can please eggheads and the popcorn crowd equally.

"In Time" is by far Niccol's most commercial effort to date and, in a fall season littered with low-budget, ultra-depressing, award-seeking dramas couldn't have come along at a better time. It's sexy, funny, action-packed, politically symbolic and ominously prophetic.

As with all of Niccol's stories, the premise is original, eminently engaging and to-the-point. In the future, all humans stop physically aging at 25. At that point they're given a year's worth of free time to live and a lime green LED clock imbedded at birth into their forearm begins counting down. If they do nothing they die. Anyone can get more time added by simply working for it. Or they can gamble, fight, steal and kill to get more. There is no money anymore; time is the world's sole currency.

Living in the least desirable of all time zones, Will (Justin Timberlake) and those around him never have more than a month of reserves and live mostly hand to mouth. At the other end of the spectrum in time zone 12, there are people with centuries of built-up time who have no problem spending 59 years for a top-of-the-line sports car or betting 1,000 years on a hand of poker. One dude has more than 1 million years in storage.

Will's life does a major about-face when he saves the life of a zone 12 lounge lizard slumming it up in zone 1, aka the ghetto. After a major philosophical and metaphysical exchange and a night hiding from thugs, Will wakes up alone with 100 years added to his clock and he decides he'd like to move up a rung or 10 on the social ladder.

Believing he's made it into zone 12 undetected, Will's first order of business is hitting a high-end casino to parlay his century into multi-millenniums. There he crosses paths and shares come-hither glances with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried in a red bob-cut wig), a spoiled little rich girl in desperate need of some blue-collar thrills.

What Will doesn't know but soon finds out is that he's been tailed from the ghetto by timekeeper Leon (Cillian Murphy), an ethically impenetrable detective looking to arrest him for murder. Will takes Sylvia hostage, narrowly escapes and goes on the lam.

This is the point where Niccol largely abandons the dystopian drama and turns "In Time" into a full-blown road flick, which would work far better if not for all of the not-so-subtle, socio-politico left wing commentary. Words and phrases like "redistribution," "haves and have nots" and their like get tossed into the mix which sours and taints the otherwise favorable adrenaline-fueled flow of the story. The overtones continue with some "steal from the rich" "Robin Hood" metaphors which are offset by the more favorable and apropos "Bonnie & Clyde" similes.

Niccol's films have all contained unmistakable political undercurrents but never more so than "In Time." Luckily he makes up for it with the many restrained gunfire and chase sequences and brilliant set and costume designs that are futuristic without going overboard.

The pairing of Timberlake and Seyfried generates sparks-a-plenty and not since, well "Bonnie & Clyde" have two outlaw characters been able to garner this much empathy and good will from the audience. After a long drought, Seyfried has finally taken on a role that utilizes both her beauty and sizable acting skills. As for Timberlake ... the guy continues to impress and stretch. In the past year he's done drama ("The Social Network"), comedy ("Friends with Benefits") and now action and has pulled all of them off effortlessly. He might just become the finest singer-turned-actor Hollywood has ever produced.

Niccol and Fox studios get a strong half star deduction with their obvious sequel-seeking ending, but this may be one of those ultra-rare instances where a sequel might be justified. (Fox)