We’re back in Philip K. Dick pulp-sci-fi territory in Paycheck, questioning definitions of reality, selfhood, and human autonomy in a futuristic machine-assisted age of mind messing. (”Blade Runner,” ”Total Recall,” and ”Minority Report” hail from the same frontier.) We’re also back in John Woo territory, or at least in the Hong Kong director’s steely, impersonal semblance of his own famous style, in which moments of existential import are marked with a flapping of dove wings, a crossing of weapons, and a choreography of action tied to an appreciation of moral crisis.
Mostly, though, we’re in a confounding, deep-winter movie twilight in which every image instantly vanishes from our memory. The story tells of a sharky tech genius, Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), who regularly hires himself out to steal the inventions of competing companies, then glibly submits his brain to a neo-Frankensteinian neural scouring that erases all consciousness of the dirty work he has done. (Paul Giamatti plays a backroom scrubber with more soul and scruples than the rest of his colleagues, made manifest in his little loser beard and squashy Woody Allen hat.) A yuppie of the dotcom-boom variety, Michael is in it for the bucks — the title refers to the only aspect of the deal that interests him, signified early on, anachronistically, with the passing of a paper check, so early 20th century, to the freelancer.
And when an equally lizardy pal, Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), offers a jumbo payoff for a particularly dangerous, change-the-world project, Michael coolly signs on. Except that when he signs out, three years later, he finds he has forfeited his eight-figure payment for an envelope filled with doodads — a paper clip, a matchbook, a crossword puzzle, etc. — assembled to point him in the direction of a tomorrow he can’t remember seeing but which, clearly, he must stop before he himself is terminated.
Also, by the by, Michael has acquired a girlfriend, Rachel (Uma Thurman), a company biologist (growing hydroponic magic beans, for all we can tell) who loves her hunkalunka guy more than even the coolest Titanium G4 laptop a design-conscious futurist can covet. And that’s a lot.
Were ”Paycheck”’s blankness presented more convincingly as a brilliant scheme to echo Dick’s story (adapted by screenwriter Dean Georgaris), the movie would qualify as a marvel — the first of its kind to scientifically erase audience memory in aid of repeat ticket sales. But nothing in the sleek, affectless unspooling suggests such genius. Instead, the director’s well-tuned, assembly-line approach reflects the limitations the project held for him — Woo took the job in place of Brett Ratner — as well as the restrictions imposed by the alloy-metal composition of the cast.
The icy fire that Thurman uncovered within herself in ”Kill Bill” is sealed over by the triteness of her job as a kind of ethics Tinker Bell, keeping her dazed man on the heroic path of good conscience. And as for Affleck and Eckhart, rarely have two cleft chins faced off with such thrust — or absence of consequence. The actors’ instincts to take the roles were good ones, since both come most alive playing men whose handsomeness covers reserves of nastiness. But with no punch left in this repetition of the sci-fi mantra that puny human memory is what makes us human, those jaws read like nothing more than cartoon Woo weapons themselves.