(John Woo, USA, 2003)


“Experience is the product less of facts firmly anchored in memory than of accumulated and frequently unconscious data that flow together in memory”. Walter Benjamin wrote that long ago in 1940 (“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Selected Writings Volume 4), but science-fiction storytellers have never wished to take note.


It is far handier to imagine that the brain contains isolatable parcels of memory which, when accessed, can be played back and forward just like a movie, complete with camera angles, editing and special effects.


Welcome to the nutty world of John Woo’s Paycheck, which is beefed up from a short story by the great Philip K. Dick. Michael (Ben Affleck) is a cynical, indifferent, amoral guy willing to work in shady corporations for very large sums of money, on the condition that, each time, a portion of his memory (to the exact second!) is erased.


The story proper begins after a big blackout of three years. Michael, much to his own surprise, discovers he has forfeited his paycheck and posted himself an envelope stuffed with 20 seemingly banal items (including a key, a paperclip, and a string of lotto numbers).


Suddenly people are trying to kill Michael. And each time, lo and behold, something in that envelope (such as the key to open a security door or an answer hidden in a crossword puzzle) helps him to miraculously escape the oncoming bullets, bombs or trains. Could it be that, in those lost three years, he actually devised a way to see into his – and the whole world’s – future?


What Raúl Ruiz could have done with this crazy premise! It makes nonsense of traditional narrative engagement: the hero barely fights to understand or achieve anything, every obstacle has already been cleared for him by his future, thoughtful self. There is a niggling discrepancy between the blockbuster nature of the explosive clinches and the mundanity of the objects in the envelope: an inadvertent meeting of the quotidian and the fantastic.


Because of its mad premise, Paycheck is a film utterly bereft of any tension and suspense. The narrative mechanism resembles nothing so much as a banal video game, with the ever-frantic Michael finding an ingenious way to get to the next level of the story.


The romantic subplot fares no better. In the blackout, it seems, Michael and fellow scientist Rachel (Uma Thurman) became very close. But since even his tenderest sense-memory has been wiped, Michael can only gaze helplessly at videos of his past happiness while Rachel pouts in the corner, understandably hurt and confused.


It’s certainly true that, when you watch a bad movie, your mind tends to wander. You find yourself rewriting the spectacle before you as comedy: what if Michael’s paper clip didn’t open a trap door or stop that oncoming train, what if it was actually meant to simply hold some papers together? What if the visionary, unseen Michael was a devil or a gremlin, deliberately giving his gormless double false clues and dodgy tools? What if the hero’s repressed love story with Rachel was just a dream, or a lie, or another malign manipulation of the individual by the corporation? (That would be truer to the vertigo of Dick’s stories.) A very pleasurable kind of hysteria grips the errant viewer at moments like these.


Paycheck does, of its own accord, manage to touch upon one issue which very few time-travel films dare tackle: the fate of the globe, projected from current trends in world politics (and especially American foreign policy). What would our governments do if they had the technology to see into the future?


But, as soon as someone utters the dark words pre-emptive strike, the film drops the subject like a hot potato and reverts to its barrage of mystifications. Isn’t it strange that the mad scientists in such tales are so rarely in the employ of the State, and that these malign corporations are so easily put down by the heroes?


Woo – who, a decade previously, was among the world’s most impressive filmmakers – should have done something about the title of this amusing but rather dire movie. We can only contemplate the size of his own Hollywood paycheck these days, and what it has meant for his once-vigorous and authentically popular art.

MORE Woo: Broken Arrow, Windtalkers, Hard Boiled, Face/Off, Hard Target

© Adrian Martin March/May 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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