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Paycheck (2003)


What are your memories worth? Are they worth a nine-figure salary? Are they worth three years of your life? Are they worth the potential destruction of the world? What if you had to reverse-engineer your own future based on knowledge you no longer had?

Paycheck is a sci fi action film, based on the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick, and directed by John Woo. It stars Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, and Aaron Eckhart.

Mike Jennings has an awesome job. Companies hire him to reverse-engineer new technology created by rival companies to figure out how it works, and maybe improve on it. In exchange, he agrees to have his memories of the time he spent hammering away at the project, to prevent any security leaks. He’s not concerned by the gaps in his memory, believing that his memories are immaterial, and besides, he’s getting paid too much to argue. This latest job is for Allcom, and whereas his previous jobs were only for a month or two at a time, this job will take three years, necessitating the use of a special memory-wiping technology engineered for long-term use. In exchange, his salary will come in the form of company stock – a handsome reward indeed for three years of his life. No problem. He takes residence in the highly secure Allcom facility, where he meets and falls in love with biologist Dr. Rachel Porter. Three years later, the project is done, and his memory is wiped. No problem. Except now he can’t remember why he forfeited his huge paycheck for an envelope full of odds and ends, and he can’t figure out why lots of people now want to kill him. It might have something to do with the project he was working on, and it would be great if he could remember that, too, but his only clues to his continued survival are the random items in the envelope. Now he has to reverse engineer his own future before it’s too late…

Philip K. Dick has written some good stories that have been turned into movies. Blade Runner kicked ass and almost single-handedly jumpstarted the cyberpunk movement, but some of his lesser-known films were well-done too. Paycheck is one of his better films, with its engaging puzzle-plot that stretches the protagonist’s analytic skills to the utter limit as he tries to MacGyver a solution to his current problem on the fly with just a bunch of innocuous items. It’s like a two-day-long pop quiz for reverse engineers, except if he gets a question wrong he could lose his life. As the plot unfolds and he teases out the mystery of what exactly he did over the last three years to make so many people desperate to kill him, the viewer is hurtled along by the twists and turns, eager to see what new problem his magic envelope will help him solve next.

The casting was a bit esoteric in this film. Of the central characters, Ben Affleck was the biggest name (at the time; Aaron Eckhart has since risen to fame as well), but Uma Thurman seemed to have the most talent. The construction of the overarching plot was clever and thrilling, but some of the dialogue was a bit… odd. While the explanations and exposition given was just enough to a taste of the mystery to keep me interested, the delivery could have been better, and if you’re going to delete a scene, don’t include a later scene with dialogue that directly refers back to it, or else it just sounds goofy and shoehorned. I don’t blame the actors for this, though, just the writers and editors.

If you enjoy engaging, cerebral thrillers, and don’t absolutely hate Ben Affleck, you will probably enjoy Paycheck. It’s a decent little sci fi action flick with enough twist and turns to keep you guessing.

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