The more things change, the more they stay mundane. As surely as you can't get through a Christmas without spying at least a scene from "It's a Wonderful Life," every holiday season now brings another crappy sci-fi flick, usually one based on a novel or short story by Philip K. Dick. Two years ago, Gary Sinise suffered through "Impostor;" last winter, it was Christian Bale's turn to squirm in the instantly forgotten "Equilibrium." The new "Paycheck," another Dick byproduct, may get more attention than its predecessors, but only because of the participation of high-profile star Ben Affleck and director John Woo. Otherwise, it's just more of the same old, lame old.
Change over time, ironically, is the leitmotif of this futuristic turkey, which casts Affleck as Mike Jennings, an engineer who gives up whole chunks of his life to the corporate cause. Working on contract, he spends weeks developing software that will help his employers stay ahead of their competition. Whenever a particular job is done, his memory of the entire affair is erased, guaranteeing security and deniability. (The obvious similarities to "Total Recall" may indicate that the Dick well is running dry.)
Things start to go awry when Mike accepts a new assignment from a tycoon (Aaron Eckhart) he's already chummy with. The supersecret job, he's told, will consume an entire three years of his life, but the eight-figure reward will be well worth it. Mike signs off on the deal, the essential memory-placeholding gizmo is implanted in his brain, and BAM! We're suddenly three years in the future, as disoriented as our hero as he wakes up to a round of kudos for a job well done. Whatever he's accomplished, he learns shortly thereafter, has made him a cool $92 million richer. (Affleck, ever the master thespian, plays this discovery with all the exultation of a man who's just won a medium-sized shake in a McDonald's "scratch off and win" promotion.)
But when Mike goes to collect, he receives the stunning news that he forfeited his hefty paycheck just before he was subjected to the "memory wipe." All that's left in its stead is an envelope full of seemingly useless items -- like hairspray, a pair of sunglasses and a DVD copy of "Daredevil." (OK, I made that last one up.) Adding injury to insult, an attempt is made on Mike's life, and he's forced to go on the run while trying to piece together the missing chapter of his past.
What follows should be a brain-teasing game of Total Recap, but Woo regards it mostly as an excuse for an extended chase, with cars and motorcycles tearing after each other at a tiresome clip. Ten years ago, before the Wachowski brothers and Peter Jackson totally rewrote the program, this sort of action was considered over-the-top; now, it rests somewhere just below the top. Ultimately, the drawn-out pursuit sequences just get in the way of our desire to find out what the hell Mike was doing during those vanished three years. As it turns out, he was working on a project so grandiose and potentially life-altering that its very description makes Ed Wood's explanation of the "solarmanite" in "Plan 9 From Outer Space" sound plausible. The ominous implications of Mike's mysterious work also inspire a lot of word-drool about second chances, which is what everybody involved in the making of this movie should be counting on right about now.
As he strives to escape his pursuers, Mike discovers the true uses for the aforementioned, deceptively routine trinkets, which he may have bequeathed to himself in a moment of heroic foresight. Yet each new revelation feels like a deus ex machina, a cop-out application of MacGyveresque household science. Oh, and there's also a subplot about a romance Mike may have experienced with a giggly biologist (Uma Thurman) whose face he can't quite remember -- but should, since we saw the two of them meet a good while before the memory-masking operation began. Real quality control going on in this movie.
For a story that's supposed to impress us with the sweeping alterations a few short years can bring, "Paycheck" actually feels like an argument for stasis. The look is trad-schlock futurism, with sets that appear to be left over from (you guessed it) "Total Recall" and stocked with props from The Sharper Image. Paul Giamatti, having given the most far-ranging performance of 2003 in "American Splendor," is back to playing unfunny comic-relief characters -- here, a techie buddy of Mike's who only appears when it's time to rock out some plot explication, baby! It's harder to locate a precedent for Thurman's woeful girly-girl postures; she's always been above this sort of junk, right? The epiphany doesn't come until a scene near the very end of the film, when she's shown surrounded by plants in a hothouse. Got it. "Batman and Robin."
Affleck, meanwhile, gets to indulge his own peculiar brand of nostalgia. During the movie's heated climax, he suddenly begins speaking in a Brooklyn accent that his character has heretofore shown no trace of. Oh, Ben: If life really is about second chances, why fritter away yours reminding the world that you were in "Gigli?" Some guys just don't deserve the breaks they get.