Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Paycheck: An Insult to A Great Writer

Last summer I began collecting and reading short stories by two well-known science fiction authors: Ray Bradbury and Phillip K. Dick. I had already heard of Dick before, having seen Blade Runner, but while reading through a collection of his stories I happened upon Paycheck. When I realized it had been made into a movie, I was curious to see it. I did not have high expectations but I hoped to be pleasantly surprised. I was not.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film or the short story that inspired it, the plot centers around a character named Jennings (given the first name Michael in the film). Jennings is living in a futuristic society where he has just completed a job for a shady corporation run by a man named Rethrick, but the nature of thew work has required his memory be wiped upon completion. When he goes to collect his paycheck, he finds that before his mind was wiped, he forfeited his salary in favor of a collection of seemingly worthless trinkets. Understandably he is confused but no sooner has he left than he ends up getting pulled over by the cops, which proves to be the first in a series of problems that are each solved by one of the trinkets in his paycheck.

To the film's credit, it does keep true to the idea at first. As it is an adaptation, I could forgive some of the changes, such as adding in a bit more action and somewhat modernizing it (at least as far as dealing with technological advancements Phillip K. Dick didn't anticipate when he wrote it in 1952). I was a bit surprised in the change of the love interest (a secretary named Kelly in the short story, a biologist named Rachel in the film) but with more recent social changes I think I can see why they made that choice. The items in Jennings' paycheck are also somewhat different from the short stories, likely also due to technological advancements not anticipated by Dick.

The part where this movie really got me angry was the ending. In both the film and the short story, we find out that Jennings was working on an advanced machine that could see into the future (and in the story actually be used to collect items from the future as well). The reason Jennings forfeited his money in favor of this collection of items is because he saw everything that was going to happen after his mind was wiped, and so he left himself a series of trinkets that he could use to get out of each problem he would face as a result. It's a neat idea and the movie seemed to run with it okay at first, but while the story goes in interesting directions, the movie messes it up.

You see, in the short story, Jennings has carefully crafted a plan for himself. He is in trouble with the law because of the illegal machine he was working on, and he has no way to prove he does not know anything, meaning the only thing he can do is try to get back to Rethrick. Each of the items helps him sneak into the business, photograph the illegal device, and then blackmail his way back into the corporation but working as a partner this time rather than just a hired worker with hints that he may even go on to take over running the company.

So how does the movie mess this up? Well, for starters Rethrick is turned into the bad guy now who for some reason wants Jennings dead. When Jennings finally figures out what the machine is, he concludes that it is dangerous and has to be destroyed, and along with his girlfriend proceed to sneak into the company's headquarters to sabotage it in the most unsubtle way possible (whereas in the short story he suck around alone and just photographed the illegal device, his girlfriend just held on to the evidence afterwards). The result is that it takes an intelligent, complicated climax and turns it into a generic action scene where everything explodes. Now, in the short story Jennings becomes a partner to Rethrick and is hinted to be a successor, in the movie, he ends up with his girlfriend running a flower shop.

So yeah, Paycheck is not a very good movie. As an action movie you might be able to enjoy the first half or so, but everything after is just a bunch of unnecessary explosions. As an adaptation of one of Phillip K. Dick's stories it fails even worse, sort of running with some elements but completely missing the point of others. If you want an intelligent and well-executed treatment of one of his stories you'd be better off just sticking to Blade Runner or maybe Total Recall. Don't bother with this one.

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