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by Kathi Maio

They Know Action, But They Don't Know Dick

OVER THE past twenty years, the works of Philip K. Dick have become the hottest sf based-upons in Hollywood. Many have speculated on the reason. True believers think it's the cosmic inevitability of PKD's epistemological genius, which has the power to reach even the soul-dead executives of the major studios. (But these folks are, conversely, so outraged by how the holy writ has been distorted and defiled by movie makers that they wish the current and planned screen adaptations would just go away.) Others simply see the late great author's themes as highly relevant, and then some.

Dickian "paranoia" about corporate and government iniquity certainly speaks even more eloquently to a society faced with a steady stream of news stories about Enrons, Halliburtons, and the frightening examples of governmental surveillance and detentions that have occurred since 9-11 and the passage of the PATRIOT Act. But Philip K. Dick isn't the only sf author to explore such issues. Nor is he the only author to ruminate on the nature of reality and humanity.

As talented and timely a writer as Mr. Dick is, his Hollywood hot property status probably has less to do with him or his literary executors than it does with a gentleman named Ridley Scott. The film industry leeches on literature, it's true. But it absolutely feasts upon itself. Blade Runner (1982), a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based upon PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was directed with such style and verve by Scott that Hollywood took notice. That, despite the fact that the film did less than booming box office when it was first released.

The full screen potential of science fiction could not be denied after Blade Runner (and Scott's previous space creature feature, Alien). Visual flair, philosophical substance, and kick-ass action can come together to make an entertaining and artistically compelling movie. Blade Runner proved that. Unfortunately, although major and minor studios as well as independent and international filmmakers have gone back to the well of Dickian fact and fiction again and again since 1982, none of the resulting films have equaled Scott's influential masterwork.

But that doesn't keep them from trying.

Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) is the most recent high-profile entry. It's a handsome film—certainly better than A.I.—but ultimately rather tedious and falsely sentimental, as Spielberg films have a tendency to be. And now we have another PKD adaptation. A much, much different film that, while not a complete offense against the viewing public, manages to lose the wonder of its Dickian story in the pyrotechnics of conventional filmmaking.

Paycheck, based on the 1953 Dick short story by the same name, features a screenplay by Dean Georgaris. And the adaptation isn't half bad. In some ways—sacrilege alert to all PKD devotees—it actually improves on the source material. My own feeling about Dick's original "Paycheck" is that it presents a dandy story concept but that the narrative collapses at the end.

The basic conceit, as most of you probably remember, is that an electrical "mechanic" named Jen–nings does a top secret job for a mysterious company. Upon leaving the job, he learns that his authoritarian government is acutely interested in his work. However, even if our hero were interested in betraying his former employer, he cannot. To protect the company, Jennings's memory of his work had been erased before he left his job. And in even more bad news, when he goes to pick up his pay, Jennings learns to his shock that he has forfeited his salary for a handful of trinkets. Things are not looking good for the poor schmo. But soon, Jennings realizes that the seemingly worthless bits and pieces he possesses are actually the key to his successful navigation of his perilous immediate future.

Like I say, it's one corker of a story idea. It's the way it played out that left me less than thrilled.

I was never convinced that Rethrick Construction and its autocratic CEO were any more benign than the government with its Security Police. And Jennings, the ingenious yet naïve hero of the story, has an inflated sense of his own sex appeal if he thinks that the female office manager at Rethrick would be the best choice as an ally in skullduggery against the company she's worked for for years. At the tale's end, we are left with the strangest possible happy ending: A new family is formed from an uppity blackmailer, a tired yet faintly megalomanaical magnate, and a dutiful daughter. Even without the future-capturing mirror and "scoop" of the plot, I could predict something less than domestic and corporate bliss for Dick's characters.

Mr. Georgaris retains PKD's basic story idea, but (as all those pesky Dickian adaptors are wont to do) changes and updates at will. Some of the changes are made to reflect the current cultural Zeitgeist. Americans distrust the government, but—at the moment—not as much as they distrust Big Business. Therefore, the police, as represented by FBI agents Dodge (Joe Morton) and Klein (Michael C. Hall), are actually portrayed as a lesser evil than the nefarious industrialist, Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), and his many associates and goons.

Mr. Georgaris also deep-sixes the time "scoop" idea—good choice, that—in favor of a time machine that simply views the future. He also throws in the standard modern movie "buddy." In this case, he is a well-intentioned memory-erasure technician, Shorty, played with his standard offbeat charm by Paul Giamatti. (Is the Shorty character necessary? Nah! But since Giamatti is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film, I can't complain about him being there.)

As for the role of the girl, as befits twenty-first-century movie sensibilities, she has been promoted from the secretarial pool and transformed into a research biologist who can kickbox with the best of them. But, of course, she is still a babe. Here, named Rachel, and played by Uma Thurman.

The screenplay isn't without its time paradox violations and its not-so-little absurdities, but the biggest problem I have with Paycheck has little to do with its plot or character development. It largely fails as a movie because it too forcefully tries to identify itself as an action (and I do mean ACTION) film. I could blame this mindless pursuit of the conventions of a hackneyed formula on the screenwriter, but something tells me it has more to do with the director helming the project. In this case, that director would be the brilliant Hong Kong hyper-violence auteur, John Woo.

Mr. Woo's career has generally floundered since he arrived in Hollywood. His talents simply do not superimpose well upon the kinds of movie properties with which he has been entrusted. Paycheck is not as explosively miserable as Windtalkers, Woo's earlier mangling of the story of the Navajo code-talkers of WWII, but it is clearly a bad match between material and director.

Yes, Paycheck should have been a thriller. But it was meant to be a suspenseful yarn with subtle twists and frequent surprises. Its storyline is poorly served by the kind of over-the-top shootouts, chases, and shattering sets that are the stock in trade of John Woo. If the hero needs to get away from both corporate baddies and the feds, he is forced to lead a ten-minute motorcycle chase through city streets, causing vehicles to careen and crash endlessly, before he ends up in a stockyard where gravel flies, and so does he, through a very convenient but highly improbable tunnel made up of countless box trailers, all handily open on both ends.

Want a clichéd almost-run-down-by-a-train scene? Why not? Perhaps, when forced to defend himself, the hero should turn out to be an expert at kung-fu stick fighting. Sounds like a plan! And in the movie's conclusion, why not blow everything in sight to kingdom come, with fire and showering glass shards kerplewing in every direction. Destroy everything and everyone—except the hero and his girl, of course—both of whom come out looking like they've suffered nothing more than a rough day at the office.

I have heard a good bit of grumbling about the fact that Paycheck's hero, updated as a high-tech reverse engineer, is played by Ben Affleck. But I really don't think that Affleck is the worst of this film's worries. As I have commented before (when I recently reviewed Daredevil), dear Ben is certainly not the greatest thespian of his generation. And with his very sleek good looks, he is hardly my idea of a believable techie nerd, either. (Wouldn't it be fun to reshoot this movie with Paul Giamatti in the lead?)

However, cocky and tense are two emotions that Ben Affleck just about has mastered. He doesn't need much more than that to pull off the role of Michael Jennings. And, really, folks, he is no more unbelievable as a research scientist than the even more beauteous Greg Peck was as a psychiatrist in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Affleck is a Hollywood leading man. He is capable of holding our attention and our sympathies at least as well as Minority Report's Tom Cruise (who has always made my skin crawl and is also no virtuoso in the acting department). Ben can't, however, make Paycheck into the good movie it might have been. That would have required a director more interested in ideas and less interested in things that go boom.

John Woo is not that director.

Gary Fleder, on the other hand, might be.

Best known for this past autumn's Runaway Jury, the director actually helmed a PKD movie adaptation a few years back that few people have seen. Impostor, based on the story of the same name, was originally meant as a movie short for a trilogy feature. It was expanded to full-length for Dimension films, but then shelved by the studio for two years. It was thereafter quietly dumped onto the market, surfacing on late night cable and the back shelves of video stores.

Let me suggest that you dust off a copy and bring it home. For Impostor is a much better movie than Paycheck could ever hope to be.

True, Impostor has a small budget that sometimes shows, and Fleder's direction seems a bit shaky, at times. (But when a movie is expanded from short to feature, and written by a committee of screenwriters, I am inclined to give a guy the benefit of the doubt.) The film also sometimes substitutes darkness for true atmosphere. This is less of an issue on a large screen, but since you will probably be viewing it on a smallish TV screen, a certain amount of viewer frustration may result.

Yet despite its shortcomings, Impostor is a solid science fiction film. Not as elegant as Blade Runner, certainly. But a heck of a lot better than most of the other PKD screen conversions of the last two decades. One crucial difference is that the film relies on real acting instead of star turns. The hero of the movie, a defense research scientist named Spencer Olham, is played by Gary Sinise. One day, Olham is accused of not being who he believes himself to be by a ruthless security agent, Major Hathaway (Vincent D'Onofrio). Hathaway claims that Olham is actually a replicant smart bomb designed to do maximum damage. The major hopes to murder Olham before he can attack a beleaguered Earth. Olham hopes to stay alive long enough to prove his innocence.

With Sinise and D'Onofrio in the principal leads, you should already be heading for the video store. But this movie has more than solid acting to recommend it. It actually seems more interested in Dickian ruminations into the nature of reality and human identity than it does in blowing things up. Although guns are fired and explosions do occur, Impostor isn't afraid to slow things down a bit and substitute a bit of old-fashioned suspense for some of the standard-issue Hollywood violence. This movie is even brave enough to end on a very disquieting note.

No wonder the studio abandoned it!

Hollywood may be in love with the idea of adapting PKD. But only so it can say (as Paramount exclaims in its publicity squibs for Paycheck) that its movie comes from "the author who brought you Minority Report and Blade Runner."

Forget about Paycheck, and instead seek out Impostor. It's the genuine article.

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