Posted: Monday, December 29, 2003

We've all been in this situation, haven't we? You are trapped down on the subway tracks with a train bearing down fast. You've just escaped from an evil corporation for whom you've spent the last three years developing an awesome machine, and now they want you dead. If only you had a paperclip. This, and innumerable other everyday conundrums are solved in the promising, yet wholly unbelievable sci-fi failure, Paycheck.

As stated, the film had potential. It's an interesting premise, at its heart. Ben Affleck is Michael Jennings, a brilliant computer technician clandestinely employed by the aforementioned evil corporation. His skill lies in his ability to take other people's ideas or products and take and improve on them for his company. It's called reverse engineering, and it's not only unethical, it's illegal. In order to protect their interests, the company requires that, in return for a substantial paycheck, Jennings submit to having selective parts of his memory erased. Essentially, the time spent on the reverse engineering project, be it two days or two months, is simply deleted from his mind. This is the interesting part of the movie, and this is also where things start to break down. The assertion is made, if not through word then certainly through deed, that Jennings is the best at what he does - a master. Unfortunately, the movie also asserts that we are the sum of our experiences. How, then, can Jennings be the best at a skill he has no memory of perfecting? It's an intriguing question, and I, at this point, am still with the movie, invested in the characters and interested in the plot. Ah, but wait.

Rather than focus on the implications of having your memory constantly erased, Paycheck hurries along to its central device. Michael undertakes a top secret project, at the end of which, he is promised a ninety-million dollar payoff, contingent, of course, on the memory wipe. However, when he awakens from the final procedure, Michael finds the money gone and in its place, twenty very strange, yet very ordinary objects. Hairspray, a lighter, the aforementioned paperclip, and a host of others. The premise is (ridiculous, by the way) that somehow Jennings found out about the horrors of the machine he created, and wanted to stop it from controlling the world. So, he refused the money, and instead, mailed his future self twenty different ordinary objects, each having to be used in a precisely timed situation. He somehow knows exactly how and why some little thing would make all the difference right at that one single moment. The paperclip, for example, is used to short out the circuit board for the train, and voila! He is saved. Unfortunately, it just doesn't wash. If he had the power to see through time and space to the danger he will inevitably find himself in, you'd think he'd do more than send trinkets. Instead, he leaves himself twenty items that must be used in increasingly intricate, complicated, and preposterous ways to get him out of whatever spot he's in.

A note about the acting. Affleck is fine as the star, and, at times, almost channels a Hitchcock character. Aaron Eckhart plays the evil head of production, and doesn't embarrass himself or anything. Uma Thurman is, however, miscast, I think. After all, we are really seeing her in the midst of an ultraviolent double feature, Kill Bill, and I think, this colors whatever you do.

Though Paycheck is interesting on the surface, it is killed by Hong Kong auteur John Woo. So much of Woo's films are action shots, and since, typically, action movies owe so much to the production department and so little to story, the crux of the film begins to feel like a game of one-up-manship. Idiotic car chases, ridiculous fortune telling, and the need for massive suspension of belief sink this movie long before it can pay off. Grade: C-

Paycheck is rated PG-13 for violence and mild sexual contact.

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