[Deep Focus]
Minority Report

Does whatever a spider can.

Movie Credits:

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick

Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski

Edited by Michael Kahn

Starring Tom Cruise, Max von Sydow, and Samantha Morton

USA, 2002

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)

Screened at Loews Palisades Center, West Nyack, NY

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It is fascinating on some level that Tom Cruise, for so many years in his Top Cocktail Thunder Gun roles the whipping boy of "serious" cinema buffs, has taken such an interest in movies that trade thoughtfully on his status as a celebrity. Talented directors in recent years have managed to mask his face (Eyes Wide Shut, a film that even managed to question Cruise's sexuality), disfigure him (Vanilla Sky), make him a celebrity misogynist (Magnolia), or even have his eyes plucked out of his head. But in all these admirably ambitious films, he comes across disconcertingly. He's not a person but a walking experiment, a cinematic Frankenstein's monster cobbled together from bits of the vision of the different directors who use him. The last time I felt sympathy for him, he was playing the utterly humiliated pretty boy of the fearlessly touchy-feely Jerry Maguire. Cameron Crowe tried to humble him again in Vanilla Sky, a sad misfire that remade the Spanish original nearly shot-for-shot while muddling its characters almost beyond recognition. Cruise is aiming for significance, and I generally enjoy watching him, but his presence in these roles seems ultimately infelicitous.

What he plays undeniably well is cocky. In Minority Report, Cruise is John Anderton, a career police officer who believes himself to be a sort of supercop. He's the ringleader of Washington, D.C.'s grand Precrime experiment and spends much of his time in front of huge holographic displays, behaving like a crime-fighting maestro conducting a symphony of images. The images are plucked from the brains of the Pre-Cogs, three bald psychics floating in a tank who invariably and infallibly depict murders that will take place in the future. The tables are turned, natch, with a brilliant narrative hook that has Anderton stumble across a typically unimpeachable report that implicates him in a future murder.

Minority Report is intermittently exciting, with some moments of truly bizarre humor that I greatly appreciated. Mostly, Spielberg eschews sheer spectacle. Rather than sending a fleet of menacing, airborne police cruisers after our protagonist, he instead has him stuffing towels around the bottom of an apartment door to try to keep a flock of menacing spider-like robots from sniffing him out. And he has a techno-fetishist's eye for futurism, turning out dazzling and thought-provoking imagery on a level that's rare in SF film. The talking advertisements that identify John Anderton by name function both as comic relief and as a chilling reference to incursions on consumer privacy. And the cops in this movie work a high-tech video editing suite that allows them to scrub through video images of pre-cognitive visions as though playing a theremin. It's a dynamic visual that lets Cruise ham it up, Frank-Mackey-in-Magnolia style, as the maestro of pre-cog as well as a chance for Spielberg to comment, Blowup-style, on the nature of investigating a visual image and, by extension, the reality that the image in question represents.

Yes, this is real science fiction, and it plays out in the same alternately dazzling and dry veins as Spielberg's last film, A.I., in which he worked feverishly to channel Kubrick. Here, with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski as his accomplice, he checks Kubrick, Dreyer/Falconetti, and Bergman for starters. The highly talented Samantha Morton comes across in full-on Joan of Arc mode, while the pallored photography suggests a sublime Scandinavian angst relocated and channeled partly through expatriate Max von Sydow, present here as one of the original masterminds of Precrime. It's a rich film that delivers both beauty and for most of its running time. In truth, it gets us about 75 percent of the way to a terrific film before it peters out.

The most compelling sequences allow us to watch situations unfold in real-time that we've already seen play to their conclusions as visions of the pre-cogs-the first is a premise-establishing prologue, and the second is the climactic moment when Anderton has to live through a movie of his life that he's already seen. Both scenes work beautifully; the struggle with apparently pre-determined destiny is a great subject for pop cinema, and this film deftly echoes of a slew of time-travel precursors. Spielberg's chilly depiction of the pre-cogs themselves begs the question of why they're considered less than human by society. The answer, of course, is simply that these hapless clairvoyants are considered more valuable as public slaves rather than as citizens with the basic human rights that citizenry entails-the very existence of Precrime is thus a moral failing. And of course Spielberg managed something of a precognitive feat of his own, finishing up a movie that cautions his audience on the loss of liberty in the purported service of the greater good just as audiences are being asked to give up some degree of privacy in the interest of post-9/11 public safety. That Spielberg's public statements about Ashcroftian precrime initiatives have been ambivalent suggests that even the director hasn't come completely to terms with the insight that his film offers.

Minority Report is meaty and thought-provoking, to be sure. It's also quite an achievement in the visual department, serving up a few exciting set pieces and an interesting update of a commercial-ridden future first posited by Blade Runner. What's missing is much in the way of emotional resonance. In addition to my general reservations about Cruise's performance, he's not helped much by the script. Though Anderton is put through several interesting variations on Hell, you never really feel the events puncturing his hubris. To the very last scenes, he's brave and righteous and unbowed. I suppose that's a requirement of commercial cinema, but his ultimate triumph feels unearned. Moreover, Spielberg's favorite subject, American parenthood, is shoehorned in here with such a lack of finesse that the proceedings are loaded up with gauzy schmaltz. Perhaps most damagingly, Spielberg continues to have a problem with climaxes; just as it did in A.I., the intellectual and emotional climax of Minority Report comes about 20 minutes before Spielberg, in concert with screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight), is ready to tie up his hanging plot threads, which are more perfunctory and less interesting than the more metaphysical mystery that came before. In short, free will prevails. (Had you any doubts?)

I gave A.I. a better review than it deserved, probably because it was just so exciting to see Spielberg try to find his way back into serious science-fiction filmmaking-an art that's been made all but irrelevant by the recent plethora of expensive, dumb-as-a-stump science-fiction potboilers. It's also great fun to see a master manipulator of audiences seem as uncertain of where his next shot is coming from as Spielberg does during parts of both A.I. and Minority Report. (The impact of a film like Schindler's List is dulled by the fact that Spielberg plays his audience like a 180-beats-per-minute rendition of "Turkey in the Straw" hacked out on a Stradivarius. The emotional beats are too easy, the moral universe too carefully controlled.) If Minority Report is ultimately something of a botched job, it's still a minor event, an occasionally breathtaking work of uncommon vision, beauty and insight, and that rarity-a real science fiction film. Not a failure by any means. But for conviction, spectacle, and narrative confidence, I'd still take Jurassic Park.

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer