PaycheckPaycheck (2003)

by John Bruni

Paycheck, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, is a twist on the classic “man with amnesia being pursued by people trying to kill him for reasons he can’t remember” screenplay, only in this case Michael Jennings, played by Ben Affleck, is trying to remember his future. Jennings is a reverse-engineering specialist who takes complex electronic equipment apart to copy the product. He rents his services out to the highest bidder, with one catch. After the job is done his memory has to be wiped clean of any recollection of the job he performed.

At the opening of Paycheck, Jennings works two months to reverse engineer a 3-D video display his employer is stealing from their competition. When the job is done his memory is erased in a risky procedure that heats his brain to dangerous levels. An executive then presents him with a six-figure check, clearly showing relief on her face. She’s twice relieved: once, because Jennings won’t remember incriminating details from the theft of intellectual property, and second, because he won’t remember the affair she had with him. Paul Giamatti plays a likeable role as Shorty, Jennings’ very-concerned friend who is, in this case, also the deprogrammer who vacuums out his memories.

Director John Woo isn’t going for Oscar material here; many have criticized the film as one of his lesser efforts. Affleck does remind one of a friendly next-door neighbor more than he does a brilliant scientist. Woo originally wanted to cast Matt Damon for the lead, but there were too many similarities to Damon’s previous role in The Bourne Identity. Affleck did earn a Razzie Award for worst actor in this film, but let’s get one thing clear. This movie is meant to be fun. Don’t take it for serious fare, just grab some popcorn and enjoy. You’ll find whatever you look for in Paycheck, be it fun or flaws.

This film is more thriller than sci-fi, more action than future fiction. Having said that, it’s also true that Woo aimed for a Cary Grant North by Northwest feel, purposely emulating a Technicolor look in some of his filming. Woo, known in the industry as “one-take Woo,” chafed under budgetary constraints. Shot in Vancouver over a four-month period, the film’s setting is meant to be Seattle. It’s part romance, too, featuring an amnesia-punctuated love between Affleck and Uma Thurman’s character, Rachel. Affleck is no Cary Grant, but he’s acceptable in the role as Jennings.

Aaron Eckhart portrays James Rethrick, a corporate head who actively recruits Jennings for an unprecedented three-year commitment. Rethrick is the classic corporate executive gone bad, tainted by the lure of money and power beyond measure. His clean-cut, good boy image fools Jennings into trusting him. Jennings meets Rachel at this point; she is an innocent employee of Rethrick’s. She falls in love with Jennings and, as seen later, will do anything for him, even when he can no longer remember her.

To hew more closely to Dick’s original story, Paycheck might have delved into the implications of giving up three years of one’s life for worldly gain. Really giving it up, that is, for when the job is done Jennings won’t remember a thing. Letting others mess with one’s psyche was anathema to Philip K. Dick and good grist for a movie, but the film bends to action scenes rather than psychodrama. One wonders what a director like Werner Herzog would have made of the script. Still, any director who, like John Woo, cried when he first saw Blade Runner must have some sensitivity to a Philip K. Dick story.

Woo tips his hat thematically to other films. There’s a scene where Jennings uses a holographic display to edit software, a direct visual reference to a similar scene in Minority Report, another Philip K. Dick screenplay. When Jennings’ memory is erased Woo uses a fast-rewind montage of scenes in Jennings’ life as they delete, a technique Woo credits to Kubrick’s fast-forward scene in 2001. Woo, an avowed Hitchcock fan, even throws in a taxi marked “Northwest” in one scene, presumably as an inside gag.

So what motivates Jennings to voluntarily sacrifice three years of his life? A paycheck. Specifically, a $90 million dollar paycheck. As he begins his three years of labor, he sees Rachel just before the doors slam shut in a scene that harkens back to The Godfather. Once those doors close, the lighting goes from warm to cold, dimming momentarily to suggest a cloud going across Jennings’ face. He’s now the property of the Allcon Corporation, and from this moment on his life veers to the dark side.

Moments later, from the standpoint of both Jennings and the viewer, he is seen leaving Allcon. For him, only minutes have passed. In reality, three years of his life are gone, erased forever. Back at his apartment he exults as he checks his financial situation and finds over $90 million dollars in his account. But there’s Hitchcock-style punch to the jaw coming. Jennings visits an attorney to wrap up the last details of his departure from Allcon and discovers that he has agreed – in a transaction he no longer recalls – to sign away the $90 million in return for an envelope full of what appear to be worthless trinkets. Jennings has, in beanstalk fashion, traded $90 million dollars for a handful of proverbial magic beans. It’s a huge “What the ....” moment for Jennings; he leaves in stunned disbelief that he could have done something so foolish. He’s made a jigsaw puzzle out of his life, and he now has to figure out why.

To quote from Dick’s original story notes, “...there are times in our lives when having a dime to make a phone call spells the difference between life and death....All I had to do was link this idea up with time travel to see how the small and useless, under the wise eyes of a time traveler, might signify a great deal more.” And, in essence, time travel is what Jennings worked on for those three years, developing a machine that can see into the future. Dick’s original story allowed for more; the machine enabled Jennings to reach his hand into the future and pluck objects from it.

Ben AIn another nod to Hitchcock, Jennings returns to his apartment and senses someone hiding there. Attacked, he loses the fight and awakens to find himself in the clutches of federal agents. Joe Morton is excellent in his too-brief appearance as Agent Dodge, a fed who later proves to be a good guy. Interrogating Jennings, he reveals that Jennings, Rethrick and Allcon are suspected of treason. The secrets Jennings used to develop the machine were bought from a renegade government physicist who turned up dead. The feds give Jennings a choice, talk or spend life in prison, and they attempt to scan his brain. Agent Dodge tries to stop them when this threatens to cause Jennings’ death, but it is clear the others could care less.

Here, serendipity kicks in with a capitol “S.” The agents have Jennings’ manila envelope. In it is a pack of cigarettes. One must assume that in this slightly future-tense world, cigarettes have been made smokeless. Agent Dodge takes one, lights it, and is startled to see a cloud of smoke when he exhales. The smoke sets off fire extinguishers meant to put out conflagrations in the electronic interrogation room. Jennings stumbles loose in the thick fog and, using more items from his envelope, makes good his escape.

Themes from Philip K. Dick do resound, albeit softly, in this film. Future vision enables Jennings to insert serendipity (defined as the accidental discovery of something valuable or useful) into key moments of his life. But there’s a paradox here. The future is created by those who have seen it. It’s the age-old question of the chicken vs. the egg. Which came first?

Sitting in a restaurant with his friend Shorty, Jennings watches as a Powerball spin on TV matches the numbers on a fortune cookie slip in his envelope. Jennings realizes, in an epiphany, what he labored upon for the last three years. In a scene with Rachel he also discovers microdot images hidden in his trinkets that show the end of the world. The country’s leaders use his machine and, having seen the future, decide they must fire off nuclear weapons in a preemptive first-strike. Jennings in turn concludes he must destroy the machine to prevent this from happening. Actually, he is now deciding this for the second time, having already come to this decision before his memory was wiped. It was then that he arranged to leave the bag of trinkets for his amnesiac-self to find.

Rethrick has by now figured out that Jennings, who Rethrick foresaw via the machine, dying at the hands of the interrogators, is actually not dead. Rethrick’s murderous henchmen, led by the ever-capable John Wolfe as played by Colm Feore, join the feds in pursuit of Jennings and Rachel. Woo fills the screen with his trademarks: “Mexican” stand-offs, a motorcycle chase, a footrace in front of a pursuing subway train, even a dove that flies on screen at an opportune time. Things go boom and incandesce; Jennings does hand-to-hand combat using a stave, abetted by Rachel. As to the end of the film, well, that’s going to remain a mystery for viewers to resolve for themselves. It’s quite different from Dick’s original story, but Paycheck still spins a Philip K. Dick paradox. Can Jennings change fate, or will he and the world be irrevocably stuck in the deadly groove he foresaw? The question boils down to which will trump the other...

       Serendipity...

          or Predestination?

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