movie trailer (apple.com - quicktime)
NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Buck Thighmaster who says... "I've talked to many people who loved Paycheck, but I wasn't one of them. The whole thing hit me as tawdry and plastic. It was neither big budget blow-you-away, nor down to earth realistic and gritty."
Movie opens with Michael Jennings walking up to a booth at an electronics trade-show where ARC Corp is displaying their brand new LCD monitor that displays in 3D - i.e. the image seems to extend out from the screen. The marketing maven manning the booth is intrigued by Jennings' hunky manliness and approaches; Jennings promptly buys one of the displays. He takes it to a high-tech warehouse some place where he's met by a lawyer Rita Dunne, who is covertly representing the company Jennings has actually been hired by. She gives him his paycheck for the job, then seemingly locks Jennings in a lab where he starts taking apart ARC's fancy new display to see how it works. It is not explained what he'll eat or where he'll sleep, or if the whole 'locked in the lab' thing was just a put-on and he's actually going back to his apartment at night and clubbing on the weekends.
You see, Jennings is a brilliant engineer who has made a career out of reverse-engineering inventions for rival corporations.
Say a corporation wants to copy an invention from another company, such as ARC's new 3D display. The rival corporation could just tear the invention apart and make a perfect duplicate, but then they would be violating the patents that protect the invention. Instead, the rival hires Jennings to secretly tear the invention apart. Jennings then builds a new invention that does the same thing as the original invention, but is designed differently enough so as not to infringe on the original patents and copyrights. (Example: GM designs a radical new car with a 4 cylinder engine that does 100 miles to the gallon. Jennings then tears the car apart, learns from it, and builds a 5 cylinder engine that gets 105 miles to the gallon.) Now here's where it gets tricky. The rival company then buys Jennings' work off of him, like he was a completely independent inventor who they just happened to meet up with, and then Jennings has his memory erased so he can't remember the original arrangement with the rival corporation, nor how he actually invented the copycat device. Thus if everyone gets dragged into court over patent infringement or industrial espionage, Jennings won't remember any of it, the corporation was never officially involved in the copying process, and the paperwork will all be legal and proper.
Onwards...several weeks later Jennings has finished copying ARC's display, but his copy is improved so that it doesn't need the LCD panel - it just displays the 3D image in mid-air using a beam of light emitted from a base. Rival corporation's executives are much impressed. Rita the lawyer takes the opportunity to sprawl across the lab bench with Jennings, since he's about to get his memory erased. After that Jennings goes into the next room where his friend and doctor Shorty is waiting with the mind eraser. After briefly sifting through Jennings recent memories to find where to begin erasing (to Rita's minor embarassment), Shorty starts firing lasers (x-ray lasers?) through Jennings skull to destroy the neurons the memories are attached to. Yes, that's right, the memory eraser works by DESTROYING BITS OF YOUR BRAIN. Riiiight, sounds real safe. After the procedure is finished, Jennings remembers nothing of the last few weeks. He gets a big paycheck.
Jennings and Shorty go for dinner and a workout where Shorty checks out Jennings reaction times, etc to make sure he's still fine after HAVING BITS OF HIS BRAIN VAPORISED. We learn that Jennings is supposed to be an expert at bo staff fighting (supposedly because he doesn't look very expert, frankly), and that he rationalizes having his memories destroyed by focusing on the fact that he only remembers his fabulous vacations between jobs. His life is 'all highlights'. Jennings gets an invite to a party thrown by an old engineering school pal, Rethrick, who's now a billionaire mogul ala Bill Gates, but with electronics and biotech rather than software. Jennings meets Rachel (Uma Thurman) at the party - she apparently works for Rethrick, but she shoots Michael down. In his study, Rethrick reveals that he wants to hire Jennings to work on a secret project about which Rethrick can reveal nothing, but that it will take likely three years. Jennings scoffs that his memory could be wiped after such a long time. Rethrick is confident, but entices Jennings with the promise of at least ten million for his efforts and maybe much more. Jennings is definitely intrigued. The project is foreshadowed by an incredibly tacky and ridiculous fantasy-crystal-ball that Rethrick has in his study, clashing horribly with the rest of the decor.
Soon after, Jennings shows up at Rethrick's company where he gets a chemical marker injected by security chief Wolfe to mark that moment in his brain. A later injection will chemically block everything back to the chemical marker (so the procedure is different from the usual laser techinique). Rethrick takes Jennings on a tour of the highly secure research facilities, where Jennings will be required to live, along with many other scientists working on other projects, for the duration of the project. Jennings even has to give up his watch and all other personal items he's carrying just in case they might contain tiny recording devices. They meet up with Rachel again in her lab where she does botanical research and has perfect control over the in-door weather. She reveals she was not entirely turned off by Jennings at the recent party.
Jennings and Rethrick move on to Jennings' new closed research lab where they meet his surprise research partner, scientist Dekker, who starts to reveal to Jennings the details of what they will be working on. Next thing Jennings knows, he's sitting in the same chair in Rethrick's office, remembering nothing. The erasure process was so smooth even Jennings is surprised. Rethrick congratulates him and Jennings goes on his way.
Back at his apartment after three years Jennings kicks through the pile of mail then first thing uses his computer to check what the stock in Rethrick's company he was promised should be worth by now - the answer: 80 million. Jennings is very happy and goes right down to his brokerage where after a bit of confusion he gets a very rude surprise. He agreed to forfeit all his stock options if the brokerage only returned a specified envelope of personal items. Jennings is especially un-impressed when they aren't even the original personal items he gave up when entering Rethrick's lab, but instead a rag-tag assortment of trinkets and odds and ends. He leaves the brokerage in a huff, abandoning the envelope.
Arriving home, he finds intruders who zap him with a stun-gun after a brief struggle, then arrest him - they're feds. At the FBI building downtown the feds slap Jennings in restraints and question him about his work, what Rethrick is up to, the contents of the envelope (which they now have, strewn across a desk in the interrogation room), and what happened to Dekker? Turns out Dekker was a government scientist whose work was very deliberately shut down by the government, and who then shopped said work to the highest bidder. Rethrick bit, but the government didn't know until recently, or if the project succeeded, and the FBI is a bit suspicious since Dekker took a header out his condo bedroom window just that morning.
Jennings of course remembers nothing and is only more confused by what the FBI tells him. They slap a scanner on his head and try to extract the blocked memories, but get nothing useful. As Jennings lies there in a daze, the agent-in-charge needs a smoke, so bums one from Jennings envelope of personal items but forgets to turn off the fire suppression system. The system goes off, filling the room with eye-irritating fire suppression fog and releasing Jennings restraints, however the door to the room stays locked. Everyone stumbles around trying to get a hand on Jennings, who discovers that the cheap sunglasses in his envelope filter out the haze, allowing him to see. Jennings scoops up the rest of the items and escapes when another agent opens the iterrogation room door from outside.
Wolfe is sitting in a cafe across from the FBI building and appears to be waiting for Jennings to take his own header into the pavement, so he is quite surprised when Jennings goes running by pursued by the feds. Jennings makes it to a subway station where after several tense moments hiding behind a column he discovers a train ticket for that day amongst his envelope of items. He jumps a train just ahead of the feds.
After stopping back at the brokerage and discovering that he was the one who mailed the envelope of weird items to himself, Jennings makes it to a cheap, anonymous hotel where he goes through the envelope more carefully but discovers nothing particularly revealing. One of the items is a bullet, however. Jennings finally calls his old friend Shorty, who he hasn't talked to in 3 years.
Back at Rethrick's office, the mogul can't understand why Jennings isn't dead. They somehow know that he was supposed to die at the moment when Wolfe was watching from the cafe. Obviously Jennings' project was some sort of device to see into the future. Rethrick and Wolfe go to check the machine, which hasn't been tested since Jennings left that morning, and discover it no longer works. Jennings rigged it somehow before his memory got erased. Now Rethrick needs Jennings alive again to fix the machine. Another scientist starts trying to repair the machine.
Jennings and Shorty meet up in the cafe at another subway station. Shorty reveals what he'd heard about Dekker through the grapevine, which is that the feds had Dekker's lab shut down but it didn't matter anyway because his invention would have likely cost 500 billion to construct. What would anyone pay 500 billion for? At that moment Jennings is going through his items again and realizes that the numbers on a slip of fortune cookie paper match the lottery numbers being announced on the television in the cafe. This leads to two epiphanies: Jennings gave up his fortune in stock so that he would pay attention to the envelope of seemingly useless items, and someone might well pay 500 billion in order to see into the future!
Just then Jennings notices several ominous men standing around the station watching him and Shorty. They're hitmen sent by Rethrick. After scrambling around a bit Shorty escapes through a maintenance doorway using a key from Jennings' envelope, and manages to shut off the lights. In the darkness Jennings escapes into the subway tunnels where he takes out two of the hitmen but ends up in a standoff with Wolfe. Unfortunately the train is coming and Wolfe is now happy to let Jennings get run down. Jennings manages to create a distraction, run down the tunnel way from Wolfe, then stop the train by shorting out the signal lights to red using a paperclip from his envelope
Back at his cheap motel Jennings washes himself off and gets water on a pack of matches from the envelope, revealing that there is actually a secret logo printed on the pack, for a restaurant. Jennings calls the restaurant and discovers he has a reservation for the next day. Obviously he's supposed to meet someone.
Meanwhile at the FBI offices a director has arrived for an update on what's going on with the Jennings investigation. The director reveals to the agents that Dekker believed he could build a laser enhanced mirror that would allow him to see around an infinite curve, and that if one could see around such a curve then you would actually see right around to the starting point, but in the future. Jennings was obviously brought in to help realize Dekker's concept in a cost-effective manner. The FBI realizes at this point that Jennings' envelope of items helped him escape, and since he mailed the items to himself then he must have known from looking through the machine that his life would be in danger from Rethrick. Therefore Jennings is likely a good guy, and Rethrick probably has a machine that can see the future, which the FBI definitely doesn't like, especially if they're not the ones who have it.
Back at corporate headquarters Rethrick figues he has one last card to play if he wants to get ahead of Jennings. Turns out our intrepid engineer has been seriously involved with Rachel for the last 3 years, so Rethrick figures she must know something. Rethrick tells Rachel that Jennings left early that morning immediately after getting his memory wipe. She's bereft, but completely clueless as to why Michael would abandon her, much to Rethrick's disappointment. They continue monitoring her corporate apartment with secret cameras though, and see her come to some sort of happy realization while in the bathroom after taking a shower.
The next day Rachel packs for a quick escape and with help from her co-workers eludes surveillance and escapes from her own lab. Rethrick has her apartment tossed and finds nothing, but then Wolfe notices something on the mirror in the bathroom. Some quick steaming reveals that Micheal wrote a message on the mirror for Rachel, revealing the restaurant reservation where she was to meet him. This is great news for Rethrick, who quickly realizes that Michael likely has no idea any more who he is to meet, so all they have to do is get there first with someone who looks superficially like Rachel (just in case Michael still vaguely remembers her).
At the restaurant Michael is met by the Rachel impersonator, who's wired for sound and in contact with Rethrick back at corporate headquarters. The double convinces Jennings that they knew each other and Rethrick sees the envelope of items using a hidden camera, which reveals to Rethrick how Jennings has managed to elude them so far. Rethrick tells the double to take a corporate security keycard from the envelope, as it likely contains data that will help them fix the machine. The Rachel impersonator makes up a story about how she was supposed to get the card from Michael as part of their plan all along, and she'll be back soon. At the last moment Jennings notices the double's false contacts and gets suspicious, asking a personal question to establish how well they knew each other, then the real Rachel shows up, clocks her double in the head and promptly answers the trick question.
Jennings retrieves his keycard and flees the restaurant with Rachel, pursued by Wolfe and more corporate goons. Next door is a BMW dealership and Jennings pulls a BMW key from his envelope which after many attempts is finally discovered to fit a brand new motorcycle. Lame chase ensues with Jennings and Rachel finally losing Wolfe et al in a construction sight.
They then have to elude the FBI who were only one step behind, having discovered that Jennings bought the motorcycle over the internet and had the key mailed to himself at the lab a few weeks prior.
At another hotel, Jennings and Rachel clean themselves up. There is much awkwardness over the fact that she obviously loves him, while he remembers nothing of their three years together. Looking at the remaining items from the envelope, wondering what they should do now, Jennings realizes that he signed for delivery of 19 items at the brokerage while there were only 18 in the envelope. A careful perusal reveals a microdot embedded in one of the stamps on the envelope.
Our awkward couple go across the street to a highschool where they borrow a micrscope in a deserted lab. A look at the microdot shows photos of newspaper frontpages from the future, obviously taken by Michael using the machine. The photos show stockmarkets and economies collapsing when news of the future-machine is announced (except for stock in Rethrick's company, of course). Later headlines show the US government making first-strike attacks on countries that the future-viewer shows will eventually attack America, then further headlines showing this leading to nuclear war. Other news items show people being rounded up into camps to contain a future-disease predicted by the future-viewer, but the camps concentrate the pathogens allowing the disease to get out of hand and turn into a plague that spreads to the general population.
Now Jennings and Rachel know eveything about the machine and how powerful it is, and what a horrible thing knowing the future can be and why the machine must be destroyed. Knowing the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You take actions to avoid a fate predicted by the future machine, and those actions lead inevitably to the same fate. Even if great disasters were avoided using the machine, knowing the future would be a crippling burden for many on a personal level. Many people who knew their future would consider it set in stone, unavoidable, and would live their lives in misery thinking that an unhappy doom was unavoidable. Others would rebel against the very idea of fate and would do everything they could to act contrary to the future predicted by the machine, but in doing so would refuse to make many wise and sensible choices simply because those choices had already been predicted by the machine. The whole thing's a bad idea all around.
The machine must be destroyed. Around this point Jennings starts being troubled by dreams and visions of himself being shot in Rachel's botany lab.
Jennings and Rachel come up with a plan to sneak back into the lab. Rethrick also realizes they'll try to get back and decides this will be the easiest way to get the machine fixed, so he'll let them if they try. The FBI still wants to find Jennings, but realizes they can't storm Rethrick's company and seize the machine without a legal pretext, since there is no outside proof yet that the machine exists.
Jennings sneaks in using his keycard and a handful of ballbearings to cause confusion at the security checkpoint to the lab building, but Rethrick and Wolfe are onto them immediately and watch as they make their way to Micheal's lab. Jennings takes apart the controls to the huge security door on his lab and jams them using items from his envelope. A crossword puzzle from the envelope is then discovered to be a crude circuit diagram that allows Jennings to find where he rigged the machine, and he then attaches the bullet from the envelope to the pistons that control the flow of liquid nitrogen used to cool the machine. When the last canister of nitrogen is engaged, the piston will slam into the bullet, blowing up the canisters of highly pressurized nitrogen.
At that point Rethrick's security starts trying to break into the lab. While Rachel forces open an air duct to provide an escape route, Michael takes a quick look at the future and sees the machine blown up, but also once again sees himself shot in Rachel's lab. Security breaks in and Jennings and Rachel escape into the air ducts.
They're eventually chased into Rachel's lab where Rachel beats up guards using the lab robots while Michael puts his ridiculous bo staff skills to use. Micheal then forces Rachel out a security door to safety while returning himself to face down Rethrick and his own supposed date with a bullet. Eventually it comes down to one on one between Jennings and Rethrick, with Rethrick getting the upper hand and proclaiming that Michael can't escape his fate while Rethrick drags him up to the catwalk where Rethrick has also seen Michael get shot, via the future-viewer.
Security then shows up with Rachel in tow, and Rethrick lines them both up to get shot. Just then the alarm on Michael's digital watch, from the envelope, goes off and the tiny LCD screen flashes GO! A fire door in the lab opens up and the gun that Jennings saw himself get shot with turns out to be in the hands of the FBI, who are storming the facility on the pretext of taking Jennings into custody. Michael and Rachel jump out of the way and Rethrick takes the stray bullet that would have theoretically hit Michael.
Meanwhile, Wolfe is in Michael's lab trying to see his own future when the machine blows up. It's like deja-vu, but it kills you!
Flash forward and Michael and Rachel are living underground with Shorty. Michael doesn't want anyone trying to force him into re-building the machine. Shorty had started up a failing greenhouse business in the three years Jennings was away, so Rachel the botanist is happily turning the business around. Shorty arrives, having managed to retrieve Rachel's pet birds from her old apartment at Rethrick's lab facility. Rachel is thrilled since she and Michael chose the birds together and they are very special to her.
One last item from the envelope has been troubling Jennings - the fortune cookie slip, which as well as having the lottery numbers, also had a fortune on it (can't remember, sorry). Michael decides that it might refer to the bird cage and he discovers a winning lottery ticket to a 90 million dollar jackpot under the lining of the cage. Everyone is happy!