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If time was our eternal currency, the new money, would you be a hog who wants to live forever, or instead spend each day as if it were the precious last? In Time coils those options into a bravura concept that rises above some plot banalities.

The writer and director is Andrew Niccol, a Kiwi-born Brit whose elegantly styled films include Gattaca and S1m0ne. No Britisher since John Boorman (Point Blank, 1967) has been more excited visually by Los Angeles. Here it is L.A. in the near-future (but isn’t L.A. almost always near-future?). People only live to age 25, after which the coded numbers on their left forearms light up for one last, free year in which they must buy, bargain, gamble or steal more time to survive beyond 26.

Their features stop aging, and time is the only money. The big rich pile up eons of it, living in a swank zone protected by cops and a vast surveillance system. Lower ranks exist in more dangerous precincts, and when people who can’t game the system suddenly fall dead, it’s freaky because they look around 25. Will (Justin Timberlake) has a gorgeous mother (Olivia Wilde) who looks his own age, and time billionaire Philippe (Vincent Kartheiser) is like a suave, boyish hunk from a French magazine, seeming barely older than his doe-eyed daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).

The city has only young-looking, mostly beautiful people, even if some are over 100 (and don’t like to admit it). This is an amusing gloss on Hollywood’s youth fixation, its buffed studio honchos and plastically reinforced stars who preen like test-tube darlings from Brave New World. This is realized in an almost absurdly effective and surreal way by Niccol and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Kundun, The Village, No Country for Old Men).

The city’s old industrial sections, grand storm canals, and overpasses, are shot with an almost regal austerity. The poor and desperate live in retro areas that have a nostalgic hangover of actual living and dying. The immortal, often immoral rich bunker into sleek high-rises and mansions that seem downright cryogenic. Of course, the poor but fierce rebel Will and spoiled but morally awakening princess Sylvia will link up. The action scenes involving a cruel time thief (Alex Pettyfer) and a leather-fascist cop (Cillian Murphy) are generic noir laced with echoes of Bonnie and Clyde and Breathless and heiress Patricia Hearst’s radicalizing abduction.

Not much dramatic heft is at stake, but Seyfried and Timberlake work above their past prettiness. They anchor the streamlined settings, which in color have some of the L.A. purity photographed long ago in black and white by John Alton. The bio-mechanics and economics of “time capitalism” are fairly vague, but do we deeply understand our current economy? Niccol’s concept has the bold aura of an indictment of our festering disorder, in which the smug rich lord over struggling millions. In Time feels contemporary, and while it might not “clean your clock,” you won’t be looking at your watch.

Reader rating; Three stars

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