by John Woo
Review by Ernest Lilley
Paramount Pictures Media ISBN/ITEM#: B0001NBNDY
Date: 25 December 2003 List Price 0.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Philip K. Dick's short stories have been a gold mine for Hollywood, making him the SF author most brought to the screen in films like Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), (Minority Report ), and more. He's so bankable that there never seems to be a shortage of top name talent to play the leading men - from Harrison Ford to Tom Cruise and even the current Actor/Governor of California. Likewise, the directors are hot properties: Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott.
So it's easy to imagine that Director John Woo and Actor Ben Affleck (who's name sounds like an insurance commercial character) were reasonably assured of a pretty good paycheck for the making of this film. Unfortunately, the memory erasure technology used in this film isn't available, or audiences might have flocked to docs to have the two hours they spent watching it blotted from their minds forever. All gold mines eventually play out, and it may be time to hang a danger sign on this one and keep kids out before the roof caves in.
Ben Affleck plays a reverse design engineer, who works in secret corporate labs figuring out how to do what somebody else has already done, only better, and then letting the corporation scrub his brain clean to preserve security, confidentiality, and the legal fiction that no one knows anything about the design. He signs up for the biggest job of his life, which actually doesn't involve reverse engineering, and agrees to forget several years of his life to come to build something wonderful for a high tech company with an obligatorily unlikable nerd at the head. When he wakes up after he's done the job he finds that his memory has been erased as expected, but he's stunned to find that he signed away his hefty paycheck. All he's left with are a collection of mundane objects that he evidentially left himself as clues to why.
If it was a mystery that he had to put together, the story might have been more interesting, but we quickly discern that the project he was have been working on was a way to look into the future, and every useless item in the package winds up saving his life or advancing the story at a critical juncture. For the most part they fall into his hand at the right time, so no thought is actually required on his part. There are lots of interesting questions about the mutability of the future that aren't answered here, and the only one that we're left with is whether the dream sequence he has of seeing himself killed will come true. Tragically, I found that I really didn't care. I wanted him to save the world, which the technology had again put at risk, though breaking the machine is always a short term fix. Not only didn't I care if he survived, but Uma Thurman, his leading lady, failed to quicken my pulse as well. I liked her much better in her recent Kill Bill where she was at least quirky. In Paycheck, she was badly upstaged by Affleck's prettiness.
The one thing I liked was the way they used contemporary objects to create a sense of the not too distant future. By filtering the present to show only edgy design objects (though the edge was about 10 minutes ago) like Honda Elements as Taxis and Herman Miller Aeron Chairs in the boardroom, the film manages to convey a real sense of happening a few years from now. Nice trick and having paid for the brand name talent, it probably helped save a bit on sets.
Ultimately, Paycheck fails to be clever, attractive, or even useful as a thought exercise. Best to forget it, if you can.