The stories of science fiction writer and philosopher Philip K. Dick often asked the same questions. What is reality? What is really human? These grand themes permeated the majority of his two hundred novels and short stories written during his prolific forty year career. Like the novels of Vladimir Nabakov, many of Dick’s stories would be nearly impossible to film as written. Depending on your personal viewpoint, some would say it was thankful Dick died before he could see the cannibalization of his stories into mindless pabulum like “Total Recall,” “Screamers” and the truly frightful “Impostor.” Even the two best screen adaptations of his work thus far barely resembled the original works. These two, unlike the other films, featured two of the top actors working with two of the top directors of the past twenty five years: Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”), and Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg (“Minority Report”).
With this formula in mind (threadbare adaptation, A-list actor and A-list director), Paramount and DreamWorks are teaming up to bring cinemagoers what the bean counters are certain will be one of the biggest films of 2004, a year already filled with a number of gargantuan films. From a screenplay by Tomb Raider 2 scribe Dean Georgaris, Ben Affleck and John Woo will team to tell the story of one Michael Jennings, an engineer who allows his employers to wipe his memory of his work with them in exchange for a hefty paycheck.
We first meet Jennings, almost always referred to solely by his last name, as he is completing his work replicating one hi-tech company’s newest servers for one of their rivals, minus any dummy circuits or other parts that might give away the forgery, to help his current employer stay competitive. This task completed, the previous eight weeks of Jennings’s employ is wiped away thanks to his partner Shorty doing the honors. The last date Jennings remembers is October 19th, and the Knicks had just made the playoffs. Now it is December 22nd and he is a quarter million dollars richer.
Returning home, Jennings finds a video message from his longtime friend James Rethrick, the founder and CEO of Allcom. Rethrick has tried unsuccessfully for many years to get Jennings to come work for him. This time, Jennings gets an offer he cannot refuse. Partial ownership in Allcom. Three million shares of stock (noted to roughly have a present market value the size of Portugal’s GNP). However, the cost to work on this secret project would be two years of Jennings’s life. Rethrick assures Jennings that, despite there never having been a successful wipe of more than eight weeks, his company’s methods are more sophisticated than the rudimentary machines people like Shorty use. Jennings is flown to Allcom’s corporate campus, where he packs all his stuff up, gets a preparatory shot which will mark the spot in his memory they’ll want to erase back to and gets the grand tour of where he will be working. As he enters what will be his lab, he is hit with a flash of white light. In mid sentence, five years of his life have passed, and he has completed his work for Allcom.
The project, it seems, took substantially longer than anyone thought, which apparently succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. As Jennings leaves the Allcom corporate campus, he has a vague sense of loss, which is soon replaced by joy when, upon arriving home, he learns his three million shares of stock are worth more than four billion dollars. The following morning, Jennings is shocked to learn, when he goes to collect his paycheck from his escrow broker, that he apparently signed away his rights to his shares four weeks previously. Instead, he has left himself only a manila envelope full of strange items like a matchbook, a remote to a BMW and a pair of toenail clippers.
And then his life REALLY goes to hell.
Pursued by both Rethrick’s men and a group of Federal agents, Jennings finds that, whenever he is in a tough jam he will most definitely not get out of, something in that manila envelope will get him out of that situation.
So what do the Feds want with a man who can’t remember anything? (They think they can still extract his erased memories.)
Did Rethrick set Jennings up? (Yes… and no.)
What did Jennings do at Allcom that was so damn important that people want him dead even though he doesn’t know what he did? (It’s not a time machine, but that isn’t too far from the truth.)
And what about the girl? There always seems to be a girl in these situations, right? Of course there is a girl. There’s always a girl in these situations. Her name is Rachel. (Yes, I found this to be amusing as well.) Rachel has a Ph.D. in biology and heads the biomedical division at Allcom. Alhough Rachel rebuffs Jennings’s initial come-on at a party, it’s obvious there is a mutual attraction. They later hook up during the five years that Michael works at Allcom, though she has no idea about the real nature of his secret project. When he suddenly vanishes from their shared home at the end of his contract, she is confused and hurt.
But that’s all I’m going to tell you for now about the story. After all, this is supposed to be a review, not a synopsis.
Paycheck is the prototypical sci-fi movie of the new millennia. The main characters, both heroes and villains, are as dimension as the pages they are written on. The major action set pieces are equally spaced out to keep you from getting too bored when the perfunctory but much needed exposition drags on. And little thought seems to have been given to try and at least relieve the viewer of some of their mind-boggling suspension of disbelief.
Yet, somehow, the story breezes by so quickly, so effortlessly, I can’t help but want to see the finished product, faults and all. One example: Jennings is a huge Knicks fan. He loves his team. The fact that he is a Knicks fan even saves his life during one precarious moment. Earlier, I mentioned that his last memory was of the Knicks making the playoffs. Now, I’m not the biggest basketball fan in the world, but I do know that the NBA Finals happen in June, not in October. A simple switch to the Yankees, or Mets or any other baseball team for that matter, would make more sense, as the World Series does occur every October.
I can see why Ben Affleck would take this role. Like Jennings, Affleck will be cashing a huge paycheck when it’s all over. The role requires little more than his reacting to what is going on around him. Some running here, some motorcycle riding there. As for John Woo, with his planned Chow Yun-Fat/Nicolas Cage film “Men of Destiny” on hold due to budgetary woes, I can only imagine his taking this film because he needs a big hit after the tanking of his last film “Windtalkers.” Being a huge fan of his Hong Kong work, it continually saddens me to see Mr. Woo’s work as a director venture further away from the work that made him the artist he is in the first place. At least Luc Besson is staying in France, writing and producing the movies he once made himself for other filmmakers.
Like a hamburger from McDonald’s, “Paycheck” is a good thing going down but will leave you empty shortly after you’ve finished. It will definitely entertain millions of filmgoers worldwide, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just would be nice to see a little extra thought put into the process at the development stage once in a while. I give this screenplay an overall grade of B-, balanced by my excitement to see some juicy eye candy and my disgust for such a thoughtless work.
Shooting begins in Vancouver March 24.
Director: John Woo
Producers: Terence Chang, John Davis, Michael Hackett, John Woo
Screenwriters: Dean Georgaris, based on the short shory by Philip K. Dick
US Distributor: Paramount
Adaptation by Dean Georgaris, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick
Screenplay Dated: August 20, 2002Rating: B-