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"How much is a key to a bus locker worth? One day it's worth 25 cents, the next day thousands of dollars. In this story I got to thinking that there are times in our lives when having a dime to make a phone call spells the difference between life and death. Keys, small change, maybe a theater ticket — how about a parking receipt for a Jaguar? All I had to do was link this idea up with time travel to see how the small and useless, under the wise eyes of a time traveler, might signify a great deal more. He would know when that dime might save your life. And, back in the past again, he might prefer that dime to any amount of money, no matter how large."
Philip K. Dick, on the original short story

A 2003 American sci-fi action film adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, directed by John Woo and starring Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, and Uma Thurman. The supporting cast includes Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall, Peter Friedman, Kathryn Morris, and Ivana Miličević.

Michael Jennings (Affleck) has a great job. He's a reverse engineer, paid large sums of money to figure out how rival technology works and improve on it. In exchange for his massive paychecks, Jennings must have his recent memory wiped after each job to prevent any information leaks. Since those memories are mostly of him doing long arduous work that he does not mind losing, he is left with "highlights" of time spent with friends and on vacations. Life is good.

Jennings' latest project at Allcom was supposed to be his biggest yet, lasting three years (which were wiped upon completion) but earning him enough money to finally retire.... but something has gone wrong. His 8-figure payment has been forfeited in favour of a manila envelope full of random odds and ends. The FBI wants to talk to him about his apparent involvement in the death of another engineer. A lot of people are trying to kill him. Now Jennings finds himself in the strange position of having to reverse-engineer his own future... before time runs out.


  • Achievements in Ignorance: Shortly after Jennings reunites with Rachel, they try to use BMW key/car alarm to find an escape vehicle, but when Rachel notices an orange and black R1150R Rockster motorcycle with its lights flashing in a nearby display room, she reminds him he learned to ride a motorcycle. Once they're blasting along at 70+ and ducking between cars trying to ram them, she points out that he learned how to ride as in "drive from place to place without crashing" - not become a Badass Driver. Jennings ignores her - he's been doing just fine so far.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the original short story, the only real threat for Jennings comes from the security police, not from Rethrick (who after the end of Jennings' contract actually offers him to work for the company again at any time). In the adaptation it's almost inverted - to such an extent that Rethrick seems to be motivated primarily by For the Evulz.
  • Aerosol Flamethrower: Used by Jennings to take out a couple hitmen.
  • Bad Boss: Wolfe guns down one of his thugs for being overpowered by Jennings.
  • Badass Bookworm: Jennings and Rachel are both physically fit scientists who are good at fighting against multitudes of assasins and security guards.
  • Batman Gambit: Allcom deciding to let Michael in, betting he'd want to use the machine before destroying it.
    • Another example would be Michael using the gambit on his future self to use the twenty items to solve the mystery.
  • Call to Agriculture: At the end, the main good guys are working in a greenhouse.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: A deliberate, in-story invocation of this trope - The envelope that Jennings substituted for his paycheck contains 20 items, one for each time his life is threatened or he doesn't know how to advance the plot;
    1. a pack of cigarettes labelled "Smokeless" - actually regular cigarettes used to escape from the FBI by setting off the fire suppressants in an interrogation room, creating a smoke screen – without it he would have died during interrogation.
    2. a pair of tinted sunglasses - allows Jennings to see through the smoke, enabling a quick escape.
    3. a bus pass - an item common to both the film and original short story; allows Jennings to escape quickly through a bus terminal – the FBI must jump the turnstiles.
    4. a diamond ring - allows a street kid to steal it; had it not happened, Jennings would not have returned to the bank where he received the envelope so he could ask more questions about its origins; also used in the alternate ending in which Jennings proposes to Rachel.
    5. a fortune from a fortune cookie with lucky numbers printed on the back - initially it only seems to be proof of the envelope's prophetic nature, lucky numbers matching the lottery winning ones, but in the end it's also a clue to the location of the winning lottery ticket which totally reimburses all Jennings' financial losses.
    6. a janitor's key - allows friend to access circuit breakers, creating a distraction.
    7. a can of hair spray - used with lighter as a makeshift flamethrower.
    8. a cigarette lighter - used with hair spray as a makeshift flamethrower.
    9. a paper clip - used to short-circuit electronics to avoid being hit by subway train.
    10. a matchbook - specifies a restaurant where he has a reservation, disguised with water-soluble paint as "new liberty saving" bank.
    11. a BMW key with alarm - allows him to identify and utilize a means of escape: a motorcycle.
    12. a loupe - allows him to notice discrepancy on stamp.
    13. an unnecessary postage stamp on the envelope - contains a microdot with snapshots from the future – the fact that it's Albert Einstein on the stamp is a clue.
    14. a small container of ball bearings - used to set off metal detectors, creating a distraction at security.
    15. a keycard - shared with the original short story; allows him to re-enter his lab in the film and escape from the plant in the short story.
    16. a hex key - used to open lab door security panel.
    17. an Eisenhower Dollar - used to jam lab door security panel.
    18. a Crossword Puzzle - locates hardware bug on the machine, allowing him to repair it.
    19. a .45 Caliber cartridge, but no gun - used to destroy the machine – fired into hydrogen tank by a cycling piston.
    20. a watch - two uses. At the start, it confirms the items are his, as the watch matches the tan lines on his wrist. At the end, it alerts him when to duck a bullet.
      • Not related to the envelope is the remote-controlled grabbing device in Rachel's lab, along with her thunder, lightning, and wind effects.
    • Just FYI, the short story featured:
      1. a length of fine wire - used to break the lock in the security police cruiser.
      2. a bus token - same context as in the film.
      3. a ticket stub - from his journey to the plant - allowed Jennings to learn the whereabouts of the facility.
      4. a green strip of cloth - typically worn as a sign of a temporary worker at the Rethrick's plant; allows Jennings to mingle with the workers.
      5. a code key - in a small twist, it turned out to be needed not to enter, but to exit the facility.
      6. half a poker chip - used as proof that Jennings is a casino customer, which allows him to stay in the casino at night and thus evade the security police during the curfew.
      7. a parcel receipt - an item from the future, retrieved by the time scoop. Allows Jennings to get access to the storage vault in the bank where the blackmail materials are deposited by Kelly McVane, Jennings' accomplice who turns out to be Rethrick's daughter and promptly betrays Jennings. Also an initial clue to the nature of his work at Rethrick's, as the date on a receipt shows that it is issued a few days after Jennings regains memory.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In the beginning of the film there is a short scene of Jennings training at the gym, hitting targets with a staff. Guess how he beats up mooks near the ending?
  • Chronoscope: The Time Scope, of course.
  • Collapsing Lair: During the climax, the lab with the machine in it goes down in an explosion.
  • Condensation Clue: Jennings wrote a note to Rachel on her bathroom mirror so she would know that he hadn't abandoned her.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Rethrick.
  • Death by Adaptation: Rethrick. In the short story Jennings simply blackmails Rethrick into letting him become a partner in running the company, while in the movie Jennings leaves himself a watch timed to tell him to move just in time to get out of the way of a bullet and allowing it to hit Rethrick.
  • Disturbed Doves: Well, it is a John Woo film...
  • Dodge the Bullet: Jennings ducks in time to avoid the FBI Agent's bullet that then kills Rethrick.
  • The Dragon: John Wolfe.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Car vs. pipe. Point goes to the pipe.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: The bad guy stands in front of the machine that shows the future, but only sees himself throwing down the controls and trying to escape just as the machine explodes in his face. Horrified, he throws down the controls and tries to escape just as the machine explodes in his face.
  • For the Evulz: Is there any other reason for Rethrick to kill the former employees who weren't able to remember anything substantial anyway? Who knows whether Jennings would have turned on Allcom at all if it hadn't been for Rethrick's willingness to murder him... Notably averted in the original short story (see Adaptational Villainy).
  • Framed Clue: The extra stamp on the envelope.
  • Gambit Roulette: Jennings uses a Memory Gambit, prophecies, and a time portal in his plan to outsmart his opponents.
  • "Good Luck" Gesture: You can see that Jennings has his fingers crossed when he raises his head after almost being run over by a subway train.
  • Gunpoint Banter: Happens twice.
  • Has a Type: Both Rachel and the executive Jennings has a brief fling with in the first scene have short blonde hair.
  • Intangible Time Travel: The time scope. In the original short story, played straight with the time mirror and downplayed with the time scoop (no time travel for humans, but an object from the future could be mechanically retrieved).
  • It May Help You on Your Quest: Justified here; the character knew exactly what was going to happen in the future and when (see Note to Self, below).
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Literally. It involves a submicronic laser being used on individual memory-neurons in Jennings' brain and happens to him after every job to prevent data leaks.
  • Magical Security Cam: The memory reader, which somehow works in third-person.
  • Memory Gambit: Knowing his memory would be wiped, Jennings left clues to lead himself to the info or escape route he needed.
  • Memory Wipe Exploitation: At the beginning of the film, the protagonist has a brief affair with an executive while working on a project. They both know that his memories will be wiped once the project is complete, so it can be treated as an inherently short-term thing.
  • Mexican Standoff: Happens three different times in the film!
  • Mood Whiplash: An assassin attempts to take a shot at Jennings from behind his newspaper disguise while in a subway station. Then, suddenly, a small kid with a toy revolver approaches the assassin in disguise, and "shoots" him (saying something along the lines of "Bang! Bang! You're dead!"). The assassin ignores him and takes out his long badass silenced pistol (BFG) to take aim at Jennings. The kid only seems annoyed.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the original short story, we're never told Jennings' first name; the movie gives him the first name Michael.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: Jennings sabotages the time scope by adding a simple circuit to the vast array of circuit boards that control it. The techs in Rethrick's employ can't simply do a quick one-over of the boards and find one out-of-place object, so it buys time for Jennings to figure out what's happening to him without Rethrick using the time scope to get ahead of him. On top of that, he's given himself instructions on how to correct the sabotage when he needs to use the time scope.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: See For the Evulz. Honestly, Rethrick's pathetic attempt at The Reason You Suck speech in the end should have been directed towards himself.
  • No Full Name Given: In the original short story, we're never told Jennings' first name.
  • Note to Self: Made difficult as the only things Jennings could sneak out were innocuous items.
  • Oh, Crap!: Wolfe has a justifiably panicked reaction when the device that shows the future projects an image of himself being killed by an explosion as he tries to run away from that very control panel. Seconds later, that image comes to pass due to Jennings' sabotage.
  • Old Cop, Young Cop: There is a twenty-year age difference between the two FBI agents. Dodge, the older one, has some good gut feelings and reasonable insights. His partner Klein is less imaginative, but is practical and efficient.
  • Ontological Mystery: Jennings' last job and what happened on it kicks off the bulk of the plot, especially since due to the memory-erasure procedure he doesn't know why anyone would kill him over it or why he's been accused of killing someone.
  • Plot Tailored to the Party: Justified! As a reverse engineer with an access to the time scope, Jennings is uniquely suited to analyze the numerous potential bad futures and give himself innocuous-looking doodads to allow himself to survive.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Though the basic idea is more or less the same (Jennings completes a job and has his memory wiped, finds himself in trouble with the law with the only clues being a series of seemingly useless items he left for himself as the result of seeing his own future), the movie is a lot more elaborate than the short story. Some of the key plot elements are seen earlier in the movie, but the ending is completely different in both versions.
  • Psycho for Hire: Wolfe, The Dragon, is a brutally efficient thug who takes pleasure in mocking Jennings about his approaching death. Of course, his boss isn't much better.
  • Quest for Identity: Jennings is trying to find out what happened on his last job.
  • Raster Vision: Used for the holographic interface.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The two FBI agents are quick to decide that Jennings doesn't show signs of guilt. They are equally quick to accept that Jennings' actions indicate he has knowledge of the future, and they are Properly Paranoid about how their own government might abuse that technology.
  • Screw Destiny: What the machine would hopefully do, though Jennings's initial use of it indicates it's closer to a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The eventual conclusion seems to be that you can do it, but it's really hard.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The stamps on Jennings' envelope demonstrate this. Images of newspaper articles show that the predictions the machine makes come true but it's because the people they are given to are too quick to jump to conclusions, thereby creating the very catastrophe they were trying to avert. Jennings, an engineer, had both the time and intelligence to logically deconstruct his prophecies and give himself specific tools to avert them.
  • Someday This Will Come in Handy: Inverted. Jennings was working from (temporary) foreknowledge of his own future, and after his memory wipe he has to figure out what is needed where.
  • Spot the Imposter / Trust Password: Maya fails at this by not knowing Michael's favorite baseball team.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Set between 2004-2007, a few years after the film's 2003 release. Deliberately in contrast to Dick's original 1953 short story, which depicted a much more distant (and near-dystopian) future with many more obvious sci-fi elements.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Michael and Rachel sneak into a chemistry lab at a high school to use the microscope to examine a clue. When they're leaving, there are kids all over the hallways. No one seems to notice or care that there are two adults wandering the hall, while school is in session, that no one there knows...
  • Viewer-Friendly Interface: Every computer in this movie.
  • The Watson: Shorty serves as someone for Jennings to tell his theories about what's going on during one pivotal scene.
  • Wealthy Ever After: At the end Jennings recalls a fortune cookie note from the envelope and discovers that he has foreseen the results of a $90 million lottery. Bingo!
  • With This Herring: Jennings begins his quest with odds and ends. They come in handy but the trope is still valid.
  • You Will Know What to Do: Pulled off artfully in the movie (he gets twenty of these), but with a bit more flair in the short story.