January 24, 2004


PaycheckReturn to Zork

starring: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, the short funny guy, the creepy evil guy, the black law-enforcement guy, the other creepy evil guy, and Multivac.
running time: 119 minutes
based in some way on a short story by Philip K. Dick

I should have swiped the giant Viggo/Hidalgo poster on the way out, but my sense of propriety, and lack of a lookout, prevented me.

Remember those old Interactive Fiction games? They were text adventures from before the days of Grand Theft Auto: Kill Everything You Can't Steal and Drive, with names like Haunt and Zork and Trinity and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. The player often found herself in a strange location with a bunch of random items whose usefulness would only become clear when the right set of circumstances arose.

You are standing in an open field west of a white building. There is a manila envelope here. The manila envelope contains a package of Spree candy, a movie ticket from a Fandango Automatic Ticket Machine, and a review of this movie.

As a matter of fact, those games are still popular. I've even written a couple myself—they make great exercises for fiction authors, and they're just plain fun. Playing them requires a great deal of imagination on the part of the player, immersion into a world described only with words, and the best of them require a great deal of mental agility. As a matter of fact, Paramount & Dreamworks have made a movie that is, in essence, an interactive fiction game, but one in which the audience gets to do none of the fun part, none of the figuring-out of the various items. Not even director John Woo can make it particularly exciting to watch Ben Affleck do the figuring.

> walk west
You are standing in front of a white building. It appears to be a movie multiplex. A newspaper clipping is attached to the door.

How did I get through this movie unable to remember Ben's character's name? (Michael Jennings. I had to go look it up on the IMDB). Ben has a bit of a Burt Lancaster vibe going when he's lit a certain way. And I do periodically think he has It—that ineffable Something that is true movie-star charm, Errol Flynn and Cary Grant and Clark Gable. He seems to be able to remain watchable in any sort of trainwreck movie—although, I didn't see Gigli, so I haven't seen him put to a true acid test.

Please wipe my memory...Ben—I mean, Jennings—oh, just go with Ben—is a reverse engineer. He takes someone's successful software project, figures out how it works, and sells the tech to another company to exploit. He is a smart cookie, so he improves the product along the way. In return for doing this (illegal) work, and in exchange for mighty paychecks, he agrees to have all memory of these projects wiped from his mind. This involves sitting in a special memory-zapping machine and letting his friend, the funny short guy (Paul Giamatti), kill off the relevant neurons in his brain. Funny Friend monitors the process by watching Ben's memories on a screen that conveniently shows a nice camera angle, including Ben, instead of showing the memory from Ben's perspective—one of the several bits of silly pseudoscience that the movie does manage to correct later, when it makes for a better shot on the screen to use Ben-POV.

> examine door
There is a pet peeve here.

"Nexum announces it's answer" reads a newspaper showing the effects of Ben's product-cloning on the market. I am hoping this was some sort of intentional statement about how in the year 2007, in spite of technological leaps that allow the pinpointing of which specific neurons contain which memories, journalists and their editors still can't tell the difference betwen its and it's. Actually, doing the math, that scene is meant to take place in 2004, which, if my calculations are still correct, is the current year. In which case, unfortunately, it's a pretty accurate depiction.

One does wonder how Ben's skill is meant to grow and develop, when he never has a chance to learn from successive projects. But one would be nitpicking, and there are so many far more terrible things in this movie to nitpick over.

> put Spree in pocket
You cleverly hide your Outside Food before entering the multiplex. You enter without being challenged by the eagle-eyed door-watchers. To the west and east are the doorways to several screens. Above the doorways on the west is a gigantic movie poster.

Shortly after meeting Uma Thurman at a party (love at first sight?), Ben decides to take on a project for Bill Gates-like Creepy Evil Guy James Rethrick (played by Aaron Eckhart). Rethrick founded his corporation, Allcom, in his garage, in case you didn't get the Microsoft references. Microsoft. Gates. Bill. Got it? Huh? Okay. Just checking. Uma ("Rachel Porter") is a biologist at Allcom. Not clear what she does exactly. I think it has something to do with bioengineering carnivorous ninja waterlilies. After this project, Ben will have three years of memories erased.

When he wakes, as the trailers told us, he has forfeited an enormous paycheck in exchange for an envelope filled with random common items—which could be clues to what he has been doing the past three years, including a possible relationship with Uma, and what he is to do next. Finally, the action can begin. Vroom! Let's blow some stuff up!

> examine poster
You see a gigantic poster of Viggo advertising Hidalgo and feel weak in the knees.

Unfortunately, every clue and hint is underscored with triple underlines in bold with flashing lights and the <BLINK> tag. The movie is populated with non-characters who behave as stupidly as the plot demands. We are given little reason to care about any of their goals or concerns, even though they figure importantly in the denouement. The script is riddled with hopelessly dumb dialogue (they see a catwalk, so Uma exclaims, "That's the catwalk!") and such a garbled plot I had to keep asking myself, "Why are we here? Why are we doing this? Didn't we just break that? And now we're fixing it? And now we're breaking it again? Why are we here, again?" Once Ben has solved his problem, he seems driven to re-complicate it, for a motivation we see no hint of before it is announced in a Very Moving Speech. Once the good guys offer to help him, why does he still run, risking the lives of police officers (who miraculously don't die in flaming car wrecks like the bad guys)? It all feels a bit like a Jackie Chan movie, where nothing much has to make sense as long as Jackie is dizzying us with his sleight-of-body. Like the worst of the Jackie Chan movies (I love him, but The Medallion should never have happened), when the visual magic isn't there, what is left is simply cardboard.

Ninjas!> eat Spree
You manage to nibble a few tangy chewy candies without being spotted. You float on a sugar high past Viggo without making a complete fan-girl idiot of yourself.

Ben is action hero here: outrunning trains and momentum and fiery explosions! Making a Rambo face when he fires his automatic weapon! Walking freely through a high school to use their science lab! (Well, sometimes it's nice to think of a hardware/software nerd as an action hero.)

Unfortunately there is a complete lack of tension, and attempts to create some are frantic and contrived. A dangerous-looking car chase (setting the all-time record for how many times you can say "BMW" during a single product-placement sequence). Slow-mo on the bad guy whenever he stalks toward the hero. Fisticuffs for no reason (our heroes may not have realised this, but guns can be used from a distance). And remember, if you need to blow up something, never rig it so that it blows up as soon as the villains arrive or reasonably quickly; set it on as long a fuse as possible. You might need time to make a Very Moving Speech.

> enter Paycheck theatre
Are you sure you want to do that?

> enter
Have you checked everything in your inventory?

> read review

My constant thought, as each clue unfolded in a facile way, was: Please let this movie be more clever than it seems to be. I cannot compare it to the original short story, but I suspect a certain amount of fluffing up of action sequences at the expense of what might have been an interestingly cerebral tale. Just a suspicion.

Except for the expected tokens (a briefly seen Asian exec, the black cop-type, the latino thug, and some background colour), this is White Guy World. But Ben Affleck brings his own special form of smarm, and it is perfect for this character (what was his name again?). The cinematography has a few pretty moments, but Uma is never one of them. She looks dreadfully haggard. I'd rather have seen her polished into Hollywood glamour; since she seems uninspired to do any acting, she should have been nicer to look at.

If I could have left myself a helpful envelope of clues before seeing this movie, it would have contained one item: a ticket to a different movie.

> read ticket
Whaddayaknow! It's a ticket to see Return of the King for the fifth time!

> see Return of the King
Now you're talking. Doesn't Billy Boyd have the sweetest voice?

> Faramir is pretty sweet too
Don't I know it. And Viggo isn't hard on the eyes. Wanna try to swipe that Hidalgo poster? I'll keep a lookout.

Oh, but I forgot to mention the Previews:

I arrived at the theatre a bit late, having been distracted by looking up David Wenham's age, then being nearly completely done in by the you-know-what poster, so I missed most of the preview for Highwaymen. I saw enough of it to understand that it is not, alas, about thigh-high boots, horses, and bunches of lace.

I was squeezing through the crowd of eight people in the theatre to find a seat during the trailer for Spiderman 2. I would like to have an opinion on that preview. It's another Spiderman movie. The octopus guy is in it. There doesn't seem to be much else to say.

Next were scenes of a post-apocalyptic mall in a city apparently called Metropolis. Dawn of the Dead with Ving Rhames and Mekhi Phifer and some other people. I thought we'd already made that movie.

Eurotrip, starring Buffy's little sister, looks nothing like my European trip. Well, except for the pervert on the train. And the absinthe. Trailer consists of drugs, sex, nudity, and gay jokes, and possibly some European scenery, though little is on evidence in the preview. This comes from the producers of Road Trip and Old School. If you are the target audience for this movie, you already know who you are.

The final preview was for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, of which much has been said, but none of it by me. Jude Law, Gwenneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie in a retro adventure, all the human actors filmed on bluescreen to superimpose on a previously created computer-generated 1930s serial-movie Buck Rogers-style world. The invading alien robots with the spaghetti arms conjure up covers of old pulp magazines like Amazing Fantastic Weird Unbelievable Stories of Scientifiction and Beyond. It could be fun. The Stargate music during the preview was a bit unnerving. I kept expecting Richard Dean Anderson to appear and make a wisecrack.

Jim tells me that it was Steve Jobs who founded his computer company in his garage, not Bill Gates, who started his in a seedy motel, instead. My mistake.

Posted by OutsideFood at January 24, 2004 12:00 PM

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