Seems a little early for a remake of Minority Report, but when your movie's all about seeing and forgetting the future, who's gonna remember Paycheck anyway? Like Steven Spielberg's film of long-ago 2002, in which Tom Cruise sees the future and goes on the run to change it, John Woo's latest Hollywood offering, in which Ben Affleck sees the future and goes on the run to change it, is based on a Philip K. Dick short story written in the '50s. They share other attributes, among them a holographic keypad operated with orchestral hand gestures, several chase scenes and showdowns (visceral moments the cerebral Dick didn't necessarily subscribe to) and the belief that just because something's supposed to happen doesn't mean it has to. The latter should cheer film critics, somewhat: Just because Ben Affleck's a movie star now doesn't mean he'll be one forever.
And they both share attributes on loan from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who put average men (with square jaws and tailored suits, granted) in dire straits from which they must extricate themselves lest they be captured and killed. But this being a Woo movie, without the standard woo-hoo, there are also scenes in which men stare each other down with loaded pistols, not to mention the occasional flying dove, whose presence indicates gunplay and bloodshed and elicits at this late date knowing titters from audience members who recognize the flourishes of a filmmaker who can't resist signing his name.
Dick's writings are heavy with paranoia; you read them and swear someone's peering over your shoulder. They also toy with the notion of destiny and memory, filled as they are with images of things that may not have happened to people who may not have existed. It's little wonder they've become the playthings of moviemakers, creators of unreal visions that often come to replace our own recollections; how often have you thought you experienced something that took place only on a movie screen? It's only appropriate that the future seen by Affleck and others in Paycheck takes place on what looks like an enormous flat-screen television. We watch him watch himself doing things he doesn't recall doing in a point in time that hasn't yet happened. It's mighty meta.
Having Affleck play Michael Jennings, an engineer who will happily have years zapped from his memory if the price is right, is a brilliant bit of casting, and not only because Affleck's one dude who would surely love to have 2003 erased from his brain pan. (J. Wha?) He's always possessed this blank, contented look of someone who's not quite sure where he is or how he wound up with all this money in his pocket; he's happy to have it and smart enough not to ask questions. The audience doesn't need to be told just what kind of a man sells his memory to the highest bidder (in this case, corporations for whom he creates top-secret inventions); the blank fills in his own blank. Affleck is one of the few things in Paycheck that make much sense.
Uma Thurman is here, too, as the biologist with whom Michael falls in love while working on a secret project for his old pal Jimmy (Aaron Eckhart) -- and whom he forgets when Jimmy, bud turned villain for no apparent reason, wipes clean his memory once Michael has created a machine that allows its user to see into the future. Thurman doesn't do much, but she does complete the link -- from Quentin Tarantino to Woo, to whom Tarantino owes almost everything. Sadly wasted is Paul Giamatti as Michael's friend and brain-washer; he's Harvey Pekar again, the nobody shoved into a closet, literally, and forgotten about for a good 90 minutes.
Paycheck (and how unfortunate the title) is a terribly muddled mess, a Hitchcock homage (with generous, obvious nods to The Birds, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest) by a great filmmaker trying to say a great deal with so very little. Woo treats the whole film as though it's a video game, with Affleck (and the viewer, sadly bereft of a joystick) using an envelope of everyday items -- among them a paper clip, a magnifying glass, a key and a lighter -- to navigate a world populated by people Michael knows but has forgotten. Michael sent the items to himself after he saw the future but before he had his brain cleansed, so he doesn't know what the items are for -- which doesn't stop him from remembering when and how to use them. It works on the page, where we're allowed in on the thought process; but not on screen, where it all seems like so many lucky guesses.
Woo, like Spielberg, seems to buy Dick's notion that we're all doomed to live in a world where everything we believe in is a fraud or mirage, but he ultimately suffers the same fate that befell Spielberg -- he's too much the optimist to linger for long in a world of pessimism and paranoia. He envisions his not as a story about suspicion and betrayal, but about restored faith and renewed love. The movie goes soft too often to keep us interested; we've seen the future, and it's just that old Star Trek episode with Joan Collins from the 1960s.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.