Philip K. Dick vs. Hollywood, Part 2: Paycheck

A blockbuster movie directed by John Woo and starring no less than four A-list actors at the height of their popularity, in a movie based on Philip K. Dick’s short story.  What could go possibly wrong?  Well, a lot of things.  When the dust settled, the movie may have recouped its costs thanks to the international box office, but that didn’t save it from being savaged by the critics.  In the current cultural climate, the critical response may be common for both the movie and the short story, but other than that and the basic premise they aren’t much alike.

The story, just like the movie, revolves around an engineer, Jennings, who after completing a lengthy job has the memories of his employment wiped clean.  However, instead of a hefty paycheck as agreed upon before, he gets an envelope with random trinkets, such as a piece of wire and a bus token, and he is duly informed that it was his decision to exchange his paycheck for these items.  As soon as he leaves his former employer, he is nabbed by the security police and subjected to a grueling interrogation about his last job.  Not capable of remembering anything, he uses the wire and the token to escape from his jailers.  He soon realizes that he somehow knew what would happen to him and prepared the trinkets ahead of time to escape.  Jennings lives in an oppressive society, where individual freedoms had gone away, and only the government and corporations remain.  He understands that his only chance at survival from the secret police is to return to his former employer and assumes that the rest of his items serve as a way to blackmail the company owner to make Jennings a partner instead of an employee.

Jennings realizes that he had worked on a highly illegal piece of technology, which allows users to peek into the future, and to collect small objects and bring them to the present.  That’s how he procured the items he had given himself.  He enlists the help of the company’s clerk to break into the facility and obtain enough compromising material to blackmail the owner, lest he gives the evidence over to the police.  When he confronts the owner, however, he finds out that the clerk to whom he had given the photographs and plans for safekeeping is the owner’s daughter, and the owner is not willing to transfer his control outside his family.  Having lost the evidence, Jennings manages to pull one last trump card and blackmails the daughter into marrying him.

The movie differs from the onset.  Jennings is a reverse engineer who does a number of jobs that require his mind to be wiped, which is done by his sidekick.  His billionaire friend convinces him to do a lengthy job for him, and just like in the short story, Jennings receives a bag of trinkets, which he uses to escape the FBI.  The FBI is not the only one who’s after him: his former employer sent killers to take him down.  He reunites with his former love interest from the time of his employment and together they break into the facility he’d been working in.  Jennings finds that he built a monitor that can see into the future, and which the company will try to monetize.  Through some convoluted reasoning he comes to the conclusion that the device is flawed: by displaying certain events, people and countries will prepare to face these events, which somehow will lead to an arms race and a world war.  He sets on to destroy the device, as well as prevent his own death, which he glimpsed in the future monitor.  He succeeds in both, and they all live happily ever after.

Dick’s work is uncharacteristically action-oriented, but even so it pales in comparison with the movie.  Jennings in his short story is forced to take action, and shows initiative, but he’s still more comfortable running away, and the only time he draws a gun he is completely ineffective.  By contrast, Jennings in the movie knows how to fight, shoot, ride motorcycles and more.  But this is just the surface difference.  My real problem with the movie is how it misrepresented the source material.

In the short story, Jennings is two people.  One is the present one: on the run from the authorities, and usually reactive to his changing circumstances.  The other is his past self, who peeked into the future and grabbed items that he would need to succeed.  Jennings actually refers to his past self as a totally different human.  And he places his full trust in this person.  He realizes that the future is unchanging, and that he was given the right item for the right time.  In this sense, he is the Chosen One, and as long as he shows faith, he cannot fail.

Jennings in the movie doesn’t even think of his past self.  He is limited to treating the trinkets as pieces of a puzzle (to the extent that the final scene actually features a riddle he left to himself, to find the hidden treasure).  He doesn’t act as if his future was already set, and in fact, the entire movie’s premise hinges on the fact that he believes the future can be changed.  As with many other attempts to film Dick’s work, this undermines the wonderful bleakness of his stories.  This one may superficially be about a totalitarian society where individuals have to rights, but deep down it’s about the solid nature of the future.  This future may still be manipulated by those who have the technological means to view it, but once it’s set up, nothing can change it.  Jennings viewed his future and with a few minor tweaks (in the form of a few trinkets) he set up a path from which he wouldn’t be able to deviate even if he tried to.  The movie Jennings was the opposite: a romantic hero, who despite knowing his tragic future, is trying to change it and succeeds.  The movie gives hope to the viewer, while the short story takes it away.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there is one significant similarity between the story and the short story: both deserve some criticism.  Dick’s story telegraphs most of the twists well ahead of their time, thus taking away any sense of suspense.  In the current cultural climate, the idea of blackmailing a woman into marrying the main character will also be frowned upon.  The movie version is simply bad.  The characters are extremely one-dimensional and formulaic, and the way the director introduced Uma Thurman’s character as Jennings’ love interest made me cringe so hard that I almost popped my vein in my forehead.

Even with some similarities and a shared concept, the movie version of Paycheck is not only missing the point of the short story, it accidentally subverts it.  This is very common for Hollywood productions, but I would expect better from anybody who chose to tackle a story by Philip K. Dick.

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