The law of diminishing returns appears to have caught up with Hollywood’s Philip K. Dick infatuation. The man was a literary workhorse, so it’s not as if there’s nothing left to adapt; it’s more that the diversity of his vision has been so diluted by well-meaning dilettantes and profit-hungry bandwagoneers that it now has the unmistakable rigidity of formula. Paycheck, the latest big-dollar cinematic Dickwork, flogs that formula mercilessly.
Directed with verve, if not heart, by last-minute stand-in John Woo (Brett Ratner was originally set to helm), Paycheck taps all the Dickian themes made familiar by Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report: An unwitting drone stumbles upon a nefarious, identity-warping conspiracy that forces him to question the very nature of reality itself—not unlike Al Gore and Florida 2000, really. Here, hotshot engineer Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), who’s in the habit of renting himself out to high-tech outfits for the purposes of ripping off other high-tech outfits, pairs up with a filthy-rich college chum (Aaron Eckhart) to crack a hush-hush government time-travel gadget. The insouciant Jennings also allows his memory to be wiped clean after each assignment—a characteristic Affleck seems particularly suited to convey—and the latest is no exception. This time, however, instead of collecting a fat pay envelope for his troubles, he receives a confusing mix of everyday objects that point to some future catastrophe. With the help of his onetime love interest (Uma Thurman) and a shlubby chum (Paul Giamatti), Jennings assembles the clues along with the wreckage of his psyche.
Paycheck is largely faithful to the 1953 story from which it is drawn, but as with earlier Dick adaptations, the author’s verbal/ cerebral acrobatics don’t exactly translate to visual dynamite. Woo and screenwriter Dean Georgaris, like their predecessors, rely instead on decidedly non-Dickian brawls, car chases, and bullet-play (and no small amount of expository malarkey), but they thankfully manage to keep things light: Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg approached their respective PKD projects like Classics Illustrated versions of the Old Testament. Woo’s film is in some ways closer to Dick’s—and his own—pulp roots, and if he lazily quotes himself (and, inexplicably, Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly) once too often, he at least gets loose, spirited performances from his cast—Uma’s post-Kill Bill gravitas notwithstanding.
Still, a truly Dickian screen adaptation would require a director as around-the-bend as Dick himself. As a for-instance, David Lynch’s Lost Highway is more evocative of the writer’s euphoric existential panic than anything Spielberg or Woo has achieved, and there’s not a running gun battle to be found in that film. Such vision, it seems, requires more incentive than a nice, big paycheck waiting at the end of the shoot.