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#1 Peter T Chattaway

Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 23 December 2003 - 05:03 PM

Paycheck is a sci-fi movie directed by an action-movie director who doesn't like sci-fi. So said producer Terrence Chang, apparently, in a recent TV interview; he said they got the complete script and looked for ways to action-ize it. And it shows. (Chang's remark is interesting, BTW, given that my favorite John Woo movie since he went Hollywood is easily Face/Off.)

The thing is, despite the gratuitous shattering windows and motorcycle chases, etc., Woo can't hide the fact that this is basically a would-be Hitchcockian thriller about a guy whose memory has been wiped, and who is running for his life while trying to figure out what went wrong during that portion of his life that he can't remember. The action scenes are necessarily scaled down, and so, too, is the drama -- Ben Affleck is one of the blandest leading men working today (the best description I have ever heard of his onscreen charisma is "balsa: wooden, but light"), Uma Thurman is one of the blandest leading ladies, and while Aaron Eckhart is a good actor and can handle the sort of subtle psychological cruelty that we saw in In the Company of Men, he simply doesn't have the scenery-chewing moxie that a good screen villain requires. Only American Splendor's Paul Giamatti, in a very very tiny role as Affleck's best friend, livens up the screen to any significant degree.

The film's basic premise is very Minority Report -- once again, it's a Philip K. Dick story about looking into the future -- and the film probably gives this away much earlier than it should. Affleck plays a guy who specializes in doing illegal work for companies that want to steal other companies' technology, and every time he finishes a job, he gets a memory wipe; this means there are huge, two-month portions of his life of which he simply has no recollection. Now, he gets the biggest assignment of all -- three years of his life in exchange for a $90 million paycheck so that he'll never have to work and wipe his memory again -- but when the three years are up and his memory has been wiped, he discovers that there's no money waiting for him, and the feds want him, and his former employers are trying to kill him. Plus, he has apparently sent himself an envelope full of "innocuous" and "everyday" items that were designed to get past the lab's intense security -- though some of these items, such as a single bullet, don't seem so innocuous or everyday to me (then again, this IS the United States?), and others, such as the key to a staff-only door at a shopping mall, you might think would have been hard to come by, especially if you spent all your time locked in the lab.

So why do I say that the film gives its premise away too early? Because it doesn't take long for Affleck to figure out that he sent himself these items because the pre-memory-wipe him could apparently see into the future and see that the post-memory-wipe him would need these items to survive. Aha, that must mean the the big secret three-year project involved seeing the future. So the post-memory-wipe Affleck spends the rest of the movie basically following the pattern that the pre-memory-wipe Affleck mapped out for himself. And in a strange way, this means there is no real tension throughout the film, because we know that, whatever happens, the pre-memory-wipe Affleck has foreseen it all and planned for every contingency; indeed, it seemed to me that the bad guys take a bit too long to cease their efforts to stop Affleck after they figure out what he's up to -- surely, since they hired Affleck to build their high-tech crystal ball in the first place, THEY must know that everything they do is also part of Affleck's fated plan, too, right?

If I thought this was the sort of movie that would reward concentrated thought, I might put the same effort into looking for plot holes that I put into Minority Report, but suffice to say that, for now, this film doesn't seem to have the temporal-mechanical inconsistencies or baffling technobabble or convenient-but-dumb coincidences that Spielberg's film had; OTOH, there is nothing remotely 'visionary' about this film, whereas Spielberg's film at least had some brilliant (if bleak) things to say about our future, plus it had atmosphere -- oh, so much atmosphere. As a friend of mine remarked after the screening, Paycheck is a very "ordinary" film. Heck, even in terms of spot-the-Vancouver-location, this was a very "ordinary" film -- it was fun to see Affleck get chased through a SkyTrain station, but there was nothing truly memorable like the sight of the public library's central branch getting blown up at the end of the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick The 6th Day.

So, not an actively bad movie, but a passively bad movie, by which I mean it's an okay film except for the fact that it gives you almost no reason to watch it. There is a puzzle at the heart of it that is kind of interesting, but it is the sort of puzzle that solves itself, and it does not really push you towards considering some of the bigger puzzles of life, as it were.

My prediction: of Affleck's three movies this year, this will be bigger than Gigli, but smaller than Daredevil. But I guess anyone could have predicted that.

#2 mrmando


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Posted 13 May 2004 - 01:05 PM

QUOTE (Peter T Chattaway @ Dec 23 2003, 06:02 PM)
Heck, even in terms of spot-the-Vancouver-location, this was a very "ordinary" film -- it was fun to see Affleck get chased through a SkyTrain station, but there was nothing truly memorable...

Ah, so that's where it was filmed.

The envelope in which Affleck sends himself the innocuous items bears a Seattle ZIP code (98117 -- the Ballard neighborhood). The suburbs announced on the intercom in the train-station scene are Seattle suburbs.

But nearly every other detail is wrong for Seattle -- the name of the station, the way the buses look, the urban train system (we don't have one). No recognizable Seattle landmarks in the exterior shots (at least now I know why). Sure it's a futuristic film, but it will be a long time in the future before Seattle looks like Vancouver. Who knows, perhaps establishing a sense of place would have helped the film (it didn't hurt The Fugitive, a film about Chicago with some actual Chicago exteriors).

I think the premise of the "memory wipe" itself constitutes a plot hole. The character is supposed to be a cutting-edge software engineer; that's a line of work with a learning curve that's steep and swiftly moving. If he has his memory erased every time he does a job, he loses everything he learned in the process of doing the job. A few years of that and he'll be a Win95 mind in an XP world.

I just saw the film recently. International plane flights are a great way to catch up on movies that didn't look promising enough to see at the cinema.

#3 Peter T Chattaway

Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 13 May 2004 - 05:39 PM

Interesting point about the software. I imagine the people who eradicate bits of his memory know how to target his memories of EVENTS as opposed to his knowledge of software, which may be partly procedural (and thus in a different section of the brain). Just a guess, though.

#4 mrmando


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Posted 13 May 2004 - 06:04 PM

That is a conceivable explanation. It might also account for his knowing how to operate the future-predicting machine once he saw it again -- including his knowledge of how often the pistons fired and what material (liquid hydrogen) was in the cooling tank.

Of course, then he'd have a head full of procedures and details but wouldn't have the time/space context to know how he acquired those bits of knowledge. I'd find that very disorienting.

But why do I suspect that you and I have already given this matter more thought than the people who worked on the film did?

#5 hikingking



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Posted 13 May 2004 - 08:45 PM

I downloaded it yesterday,but i have not watched it yet.

#6 J.R.



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Posted 13 May 2004 - 11:35 PM

Its in my Netflix queue. I'm not expecting much, John Woo's American films have been a letdown for the most part.

#7 mrmando


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Posted 14 May 2004 - 02:07 PM

Well, it's not so bad that you'll wish that there really was such a thing as a memory wipe. You should be able to forget about it all on your own.

#8 SDG


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Posted 14 May 2004 - 02:49 PM

Didn't anyone look at the title of this movie and say, "Let's not make it so easy for critics to write such things as, "Paycheck was one for its director and star," etc.?

#9 DanBuck


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Posted 23 June 2004 - 07:18 AM

UGH!! Conceded to get a popcorn flick for the Mrs. (considering the current Netflix parade has been a bit heavy with films like The Conversation, Elephant, Ikiru, and Monster) and this is what we got.

What a dog. The dialogue was Star-Warsian in its rediculousness and the plot was was rediculously far-fetched. Everything from the action moves the very premise pushed suspension of disbelief to the level of "moron". How could anyone watch this movie and not look at the person next to them repeatedly and say, "What?!" My wife and I laughed out loud at the sequences, and when (spoilers1.gif but this film deserves it) Uma threw her motorcycle helmet at the bad guy and knocked him out cold I asked my wife to turn it off. Alas, we did not, and wasted thirty more minutes of our lives with the typical Way Woo Long chase/fight sequence with the dove tossed on to show the film is deep.

I hated, hated, hated this film.

Edited by DanBuck, 23 June 2004 - 07:18 AM.