A Tale of Two Films

Steve Roby reflected briefly upon last year’s film Paycheck in his blog yesterday. He wrote, “Paycheck had everything it needed to be a much better film than it ultimately turned out to be. Another disappointing movie based on a Philip K. Dick story? Who’d’ve guessed? (Well, Blade Runner and Minority Report turned out okay, even if they weren’t completely faithful to the source material.)”

It pains me, but Steve, I disagree. I liked Paycheck. Minority Report had its moments, but in the end I didn’t care for it.

The films share a similar premise–the main character has insight into his future, and attempts to change that future. In Minority Report Tom Cruise’s Pre-Crime detective has to unravel a murder he has been predicted to commit. In Paycheck Ben Affleck’s brain-wiped industrial spy has to unravel the mystery of an envelope he mailed to himself of random items, each item having becoming important at precisely the right moment in the character’s journey.

I wouldn’t call Paycheck a great film, though it’s far from being the worst of the Philip K. Dick film adaptations. Paycheck was fun. Paycheck made me think. It had some nice action pieces and some intriguing character development. The acting was mostly competent. Ben Affleck was nothing special in the lead. Uma Thurman had some good moments as the film progressed, though her first few appearances verged upon the dreadful. Aaron Eckhart, on the other hand, was consistently strong throughout and oozed sliminess at every opportunity.

Paycheck captured the near-future that was so common to PKD’s work quite well–the future is just like today, only grimier and with strange tech. Blade Runner got that right. Total Recall got that right. Minority Report didn’t. Paycheck had a “ripped from tomorrow’s headlines” feel to it. I liked that feeling.

So, why didn’t Minority Report hit those marks with me?

Two reasons come to mind.

First, the direction. The first hour and a half of Minority Report is taut. But when Tom Cruise’s character kills the man in his vision and the story spins, the dramatic tension of the film collapses. The story had reached its natural ending–the character struggles against his pre-ordained fate, and loses–and the film decides to lurch forward until it can find a happy ending. This is the same problem I had with A.I.–the film had multiple endings, each one sapping the strength of the one that came before. Steven Spielberg is capable of making miracles, but in Minority Report he saddled the film with the unnecessary baggage of an upbeat ending. Did Paycheck have a happy ending? It did, but in Paycheck the ending arose naturally from the preceding events. Because John Woo didn’t need to extend his film beyond its natural end, Paycheck‘s tension doesn’t deflate as Minority Report did.

Second, the grime factor. Minority Report took place in Washington, DC, some forty years in the future. The city was clean. Crime, especially violent crime, was virtually non-existent. A city that in our time has one of the highest crime rates in the nation becomes scant two generations into the future a veritable utopia. Paycheck, however, takes place in the near future, in a west coast city. (Seattle? Los Angeles? I confess I cannot recall.) The cities of Paycheck‘s future are much like the cities of today–urban blight, industrial detritus.

Something I took away from reading Philip K. Dick was the idea that the future isn’t a utopian paradise. Slums will exist in the future. Slums will move into space. There will be poverty. Robots will be broken, missing eyes, arms. Paycheck reflected that vision. Total Recall and Blade Runner reflected that. Minority Report, however, presented a sanitized world, the opposite of the phildickian ethos.

I have both films in my DVD collection. I have to admire Spielberg for taking a chance on the material, but I feel that his take on Dick’s world came up short. Woo’s take on the material made for a fine action film.I don’t know if I’ll watch either again anytime soon. Both will have a place in my DVD collection for a long time to come.

One thought on “A Tale of Two Films

  1. Fair comment, Allyn, and it’s entirely possible that in another year or two I’ll agree with you. I’ve only watched each movie once and it’s been over a year and a half since I saw Minority Report. They’d make for an interesting double feature.

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