Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
As mentioned in my previous columns, with CONvergence coming up in July and running with their theme of dystopian visions, I thought I’d delve into the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick. I will try to stay away from comparisons to his novels and short stories as much as possible and aim to focus specifically on the films themselves.
This week I’m diving into the sci-fi extravaganza Paycheck (2003)—John Woo (dir.)
It’s easy to dismiss John Woo’s output over the past two decades since he had such an amazing track record between 1989’s The Killer and 1992’s Hard Boiled. It is true his English films have suffered, and there could be a strong argument that his glory days are behind him. Paycheck falls somewhere in the middle of his work. Not brilliant, but not necessarily horrible. This film came out in 2003, when so many people were jumping on the “I Hate Affleck” bandwagon that it’s a good exercise to try to re-evaluate this film in 2015.
Set in the “near” future, Paycheck (based on the short story of the same name) sees Ben Affleck takes on the role of Michael Jennings, a gifted reverse engineer who is hired by companies to take competitors’ cutting-edge products to reverse engineer and improve on them. Which isn’t so odd in the real world—companies do this all the time to get a leg up on the competition. What makes this the near future is that after Jennings has completed each project, his memory is erased of the time he spent working for that company. His friend Shorty (Paul Giamatti) is the man in charge of the tech that accomplishes this. There is a minor subplot centering on how Jennings has been doing this so long that it’s harder and harder to keep him safe during these memory wipes. We’re also shown that he is also a very gifted fighter (because of course he is).
Jennings decides to take on an incredibly well paying three-year contract for his friend Rethrick (a delightfully smarmy Aaron Eckhart), at the end of which his mind is once again wiped. After his memory is wiped of these three years, however, he finds out he gave up his pay and only had delivered to himself a collection of random objects. The film follows his attempts to piece the puzzle together and use all the items he sent to himself.
There are some great ideas in here. Would you give up your memory for a payday? If you know what is going to happen, can you change it? (Additional attempts in the world of Philip K. Dick at dealing with fate.) But the film misses the boat on a lot of things. With all of the talk about trademarks and patents, I was surprised more time wasn’t spent on the tech of the memory wipes. In showing Shorty going through the paces to get Jennings back up to speed on things after his long project, you see other people also going through this process. So it’s a known technology, but when the government interrogates Jennings, because of course they are—it’s a dystopic future—they are somehow completely unwilling to believe him when he says he doesn’t remember anything. So, that’s impossible, but a machine that predicts the future . . . got to get our hands on that.
I’m ragging on the plot a little bit, and there are some huge plot holes, but if you just go with the flow of the film and focus on Jennings putting the pieces of the last three years together, it can be a fun film. There’s an obligatory John Woo standoff, but alas, no slow-mo pigeons.
Woo has admitted that he wanted Matt Damon for the role, but Damon was unable take it to and recommended Affleck. There’s nothing wrong with Affleck here. He plays a little standoffish and a little holier than thou, which is what the part calls for, but it does feel like he’s going through the motions. He has very little chemistry with Uma Thurman, who plays his love interest Rachel Porter, but at least the fight scenes she’s involved with are well choreographed (if a little odd considering she’s supposed to “only” be a botanist).
Another plot hole I had a problem with was the relationship between Jennings and Porter. If he knew his mind was going to be erased, why not just tell her? Instead, it’s “I’m going to get into a three-year relationship with someone knowing I’m going to forget all about them.” Instead, you’re just going to break her heart? Bad Affleck. Naughty, naughty.
There’s a great motorbike chase scene that is fun to watch and causes a lot of destruction. The choreography of this chase is very well done, you know exactly where everyone is, and there are a lot of longer takes (something that, in my opinion, a lot of modern films miss the mark on).
Hollywood really likes to tack on happy endings when it’s dealing with Philip K. Dick, and this is no exception. Eschewing a dark and cynical human-nature ending, this relies on the trope of the guy getting the girl and living in comfort with her—and his best friend. Because if you’re going to pay for Giamatti, you want him in as much screen time as possible.
Paycheck is an enjoyable film if you leave logic at the door and try not to focus on the plot as if it were the real world. Enjoy it as a lesser entry in the John Woo canon, but it is largely forgettable.
Shoot. Did my memory just get wiped?
Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
Check out the previous installments of Dystopian Dick: