Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a prolific science fiction writer with a pulp fiction style, a futurist’s imagination and a satirist’s wit. He worked more with ideas than with characterization, but his projections of current trends and technology into a not-too-distant future provided the basis for action plotting that transcends the usual output of the genre.
The first–and still best–of the films based on Dick’s work was the classic Blade Runner in which the nature of androids (he called them "replicants"–artificial human beings, extremely advanced robots) was explored against the background of a radiation contaminated, overpopulated planet. Total Recallwas an Arnold Schwartzenegger vehicle in which the hero is caught up in questions of what is real and what is illusion, a pervasive Dick theme that surely influenced the popular Matrix series. Spielberg’s Minority Report mixed the crime genre in with the sci fi, positing a police force that could anticipate and stop crimes before they happen.
Now action director John Woo (Mission Impossible II, Windtalkers) gets his Philip Dick moment in Paycheck, where time again is of the essence.A fiercely competitive corporation headed by megalomaniac Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) has developed a machine that enables the user to see the future. They hire brilliant consultant Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) for an eight-figure fee to go on a three-year junket with the goal of bringing back technology from the future. One condition is that Jennings’ memory is wiped clear, so that he personally is not privy to the information obtained.
But when Jennings returns, things seem awry. In his own absence he has signed away his fortune and the personal effects that are returned to him are not those he turned over before departure. All of a sudden the FBI is after him and it turns out Rethrick is trying to assassinate him, too. He realizes that the personal effects he now has are items he sent back to himself from the future–clues to help him figure out what happened/is happening/will happen.
So it’s a setup for a combination of detective work and the chase. No one does the latter better than John Wooand there are several extended, adrenaline-churning action sequences. But the "detective" side of the script is a bit opaque; the clues become logical enough as Jennings pieces them through, but the audience isn’t included in the game as it would be in a good detective story.
Where Paycheck really disappoints is in the complete absence of characterization. Affleck is a cipher; outside of smart and physically in shape, there’s no clue at all as to what Jennings is about. The same is true of Rethrick, a one-dimensional villain if ever there was one. Uma Thurman is thrown into the hopper as Affleck’s love interest; her character, too, is flat as yesterday’s champagne. There’s a kiss or two but no sex, which is just as well since there’s not even a hint of screen chemistry between these two stars.
What interesting speculation Dick might have provided in the story about time horizons is reduced to one somewhat treacly quote:"If you show someone their future, they have no future. They have no hope…" Readers, your future is to pass up this Paycheck, which operates at the level of a Game Boy shoot-‘em-up: all action, bells and whistles, but no substance.