Set in a slick, computerized future, PAYCHECK explores the depths of mankind’s destructive pride while making some interesting comments on the importance of remembering. The plot, however interesting, takes a back seat to the relentless action scenes, which give us star Ben Affleck running, punching, and shooting his way out of trouble. Also, plenty of corporate espionage-style twists mark the transitions between dialogue and action scenes.
Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a supremely talented computer programmer. His projects are so valuable that not even the companies for whom he works trust him to keep the new technology a secret. To protect their investments, the companies erase his memory of the project once he has completed it. Jennings grows accustomed to keeping only part of his memories, once remarking, “I only remember the highlights. . . . the small stuff doesn’t matter.” The audience sees him flirting at a party and assume that he is the playboy type who takes life casually, working for little other than pleasure and riches.
When Jennings’ largest job to date finishes, a three-year period that will be erased from his recollection, he resumes his normal life only to find that he did not receive the huge paycheck he was promised. Soon after, FBI agents swarm his apartment and interrogate him about the project he has developed but cannot remember. Armed with only an envelope full of small, household items such as hairspray and a paperclip, Jennings escapes from several groups out to get him.
At this point in the movie, it is unclear whether he is struggling for his safety, his comfort, or a higher ideal. Gradually, Jennings realizes that his project was a machine that can look into the future, and at this point the moral message becomes a little clearer. The company president Rethrick, played with usual slimy charm by Aaron Eckhart, wants to use the machine to increase his wealth and power, not unlike the Babylonians trying to build a tower to Heaven. Theirs was an act of pride and greed that resulted in their destruction. Similarly, Jennings foresees nuclear war and the end of the earth if Rethrick continues his plan of reading and profiting on the future. The movie is vague about how such a war would happen, but Christians know that life focused on earthly gains and isolated from God’s wisdom can lead only to darkness. Jennings peremptorily stopped the project and that this is the reason he is now a wanted, endangered man. The audience may admire his strength in the face of extreme wealth, an example of choosing principle over temptation, righteousness over sin.
The fight is not solely a principled one, however, as Affleck spends most of the movie physically battling the goons that Rethrick sends after him. Most fight scenes are also chase scenes, stopping for the occasional gunshot, punch, or broken window. The action is fast-paced but also relatively bloodless. Only a few men are fatally shot, and mostly in those cases, the viewer simply understands that the men have died, instead of having to see a gory spectacle. Two cars explode in the final action sequence, upping the body count and the volume. Jennings is an approximately humane hero, opting to let enemies go when he could hurt them, or hitting them instead of shooting them.
As Michael battles Rethrick’s evil corporation, he slowly remembers the principles on which he acted before his memory was erased. Near the end of the film, he declares, “I never want to forget anything ever again.” This statement is very much in keeping with how God wants us to think of Him and His involvement in creation. We are to remember what He has done and all of the ways He has blessed us. Those who forget will grow away from God and turn inward, trusting only themselves. Jennings models this concept in a backward fashion. At the beginning of the movie, he is a forgetter who is self-absorbed and self-important, but in the end, he learns the value of remembering, accomplishes something great, and lets others into his life.
In the end, this ordinary outrun-and-outshoot action movie is elevated by a heady premise that, at once, keeps audiences guessing and gives them a little something to think about on the way home. Like much of the violence in the movie, Ben Affleck is bloodless. He is efficient rather than exciting. Because no single element is really spectacular, PAYCHECK tries to reach beyond the average sci-fi action movie but doesn’t quite make it.
Finally, however, there is talk in the movie about second chances, which may reflect the Christian worldview of its director, John Woo. After all, as Christians, we serve Jesus Christ, the God of second chances. This uplifting theme plays a major role in the movie’s upbeat ending.
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SUMMARY: PAYCHECK features Ben Affleck as a programmer whose memory is erased by a greedy businessman. Elements of the story suggest parable-like Christian meaning and the story has some interesting twists, but ultimately it is a typical action movie with plenty of fast-paced violence.
(BB, C, Acap, LL, VV, A, D, M) Strong moral worldview in which man’s pride precipitates his downfall, although some characters are still rewarded for their self-centeredness, and light redemptive elements and symbols such as talk about second chances and use of Christian dove symbol to help hero solve the plot problem, as well as some anti-capitalist elements because the villain is a unscrupulous head of a corporation; about 11 obscenities, four strong profanities, and three light profanities; lots of action violence including many punches thrown in fight and chase scenes, innumerable bullets fired without hitting a target, two men thrown through windows, four men fatally shot with little gore shown, two cars explode, car crashes when cars chase people on motorcycle, woman throws things at bad guys, and martial arts fighting with stick; no sex scenes or nudity, but passionate kissing before camera cuts away and hero wakes woman up by singing happy birthday to her; alcohol use; smoking; and, man steals ring and FBI agent lies to Attorney General to protect the hero.
GENRE: Science Fiction