Steven Spielberg has always been the right man at the right time. Spielberg has been both in tune with, and helped to formulate, the cultural zeitgeist surrounding his every release, from the childhood epics of his early career which turned summer into a kid ghetto through his WWII trilogy, which segued from the boyhood lens of EMPIRE OF THE SUN through SCHINDLER'S LIST, and finally with his Tom Brokaw tie-in, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. This month, Spielberg shows that either he is as clairvoyant as the floating mutant precogs portrayed in his new film, MINORITY REPORT, or else he just has the most phenomenal luck in the universe. For just as the terrifying theocratic wingnut currently doing duty as the United States Attorney General is holding a United States citizen in a military brig, for an indeterminate period and without charges, because he may have discussed (but not actually committed) an act of terrorism, MINORITY REPORT depicts a world in which people are arrested for crimes they haven't yet committed. Spielberg couldn't have better timed the release of this film if he'd tried.
Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the work
of whom has already been cinematized into such joyfully optimistic futuristic
visions as BLADE RUNNER and TOTAL RECALL, MINORITY REPORT is set in a
Washington D.C. circa 2054, in which murder is a thing of the past, due
to the six-month-old Department of Precrime. This pilot law enforcement
project utilizes enslaved humanoid seers called precognitives -- futuristic
crack babies who are kept drugged and wired and floating in a tank, their
visions of future atrocities monitored and downloaded; the names of future
perpetrators and victims spat out of plexiglass tubes in a kind of bizarre
lottery. The project's chief, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is hardly the
kind of lantern-jawed hero one would expect in a film like this; rather,
he spends his evening inhaling the recreational drug of choice in the
year 2054 and watching holographic images of his lost son and estranged
Anderton is a true believer in the vision of his boss, Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow), who plans to take Precrime national, because "that which keeps us safe also keeps us free." However, Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a former seminary student who is now a natty, well-pressed Justice Department flack, is skeptical, and begins an investigation to find the flaws in the precrime concept. Then, lo and behold, Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most talented of the precogs ,visualizes a murder in which Anderton himself is the perpetrator, and like most cops who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, Anderton finds his true belief shattered once it's his own freedom on the line. "Everybody runs," he says philosophically, as he navigates a world in which privacy does not exist, lost to consumer-oriented corporations as much as to the government.
It's said that Philip K. Dick was adept at setting up a science fiction universe, and then not doing anything with it. As scripted by Jon Cohen and Scott Frank, MINORITY REPORT is fraught with Stuff That Makes You Go Hmmm..., and if it doesn't entirely succeed, and if it contains as many plot holes as the Bush Administration's official account of the events of September 11, 2001, it contains enough whiz-bang action sequences to work as a summer popcorn flick, while being creepy enough and sufficiently thought-provoking to keep the tables at Starbucks full of moviegoers pondering the paradox of precognition over their iced caramel macchiatos all summer long.
Last year, Spielberg began to tune into his darker side with the completion of Stanley Kubrick's interminable project A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, in which he tried mightily to capture the cold antiseptic Kubrick universe, only to ruin it with a typically mawkish Spielberg ending. This year, with MINORITY REPORT, Spielberg finally fulfills the mission of releasing his Kubrick film -- also his Cronenberg film and his Lynch film and even his George Lucas film. Indeed, much of MINORITY REPORT plays like the work of an extraordinarily promising film student paying tribute to his favorite directors. A particularly gruesome sequence involves the the always disturbing Peter Stormare as a doctor with a grudge who replaces Anderton's eyeballs to enable the latter to evade the ever-present retinal scans. The disgusting operating theatre, the grotesque mole on the face of a nurse who is Frau Blucher without the comedy, the return of the original eyeballs in a bag might as well be right out of the game of eXistenZ. The only thing missing was Don McKellar's maniacal Russian fishmonger. In Agatha's vision of the murder that Anderton perpetrates, an old woman smokes a pipe as she sits in front of a red wall; a sequence that would be right at home in David Lynch's old TWIN PEAKS finale. Even the precogs themselves, with their silvery bodysuits and shaved heads, evoke Spielberg's old buddy George Lucas' first feature-length film THX-1138, even as the strange sideways-driving autopods and the assembly line that builds them evoke Lucas' latest, this year's ATTACK OF THE CLONES.
But it is Kubrick's ghost which hovers constantly over this film. Starting with the delicious coincidence that the austere settings and production design are created and overseen by an art director named Alex McDowell and that Precrime's mastermind has the last name Burgess, the influence of Kubrick's emblematic futuristic classics 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is clear. Clever use of present-day product placement helps the viewer feel at home in 2054 the way the Howard Johnson Sky Lounge and the Bell Telephone Picturephone did in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Mall billboards scan your retinae and call out your name, admonishing you to make new purchases based on past buying patterns. Lush classical music offsets the geometric, stark, James-Cameron-Blue austerity of the home of the future, as well as providing a metaphorical backdrop for the conductor-like movements required to examine the precogs' visions. In the aforementioned eye-transplant scene, a device similar to that used to prop Alex' eyes open in CLOCKWORK ORANGE is used.
MINORITY REPORT is so chock full of plot and setting that the performances are almost besides the point. Yet it is in this film that I finally realized what it is that's so off-putting about Tom Cruise. In Richard Benjamin's 1982 comedy MY FAVORITE YEAR, a swashbuckling Peter O'Toole says, "I'm not an actor; I'm a movie star!" This could also be said about Tom Cruise; though Cruise is not a movie star in the way a Mel Gibson or a Tom Hanks is a movie star. These are movie stars whose performances contain an undercurrent of humanity; we never forget that this is a human being behind these characters.
Cruise, on the other hand, seems always to be not quite human; a very advanced cyborg designed and created in a laboratory for the sole purpose of being a movie star. This of course limits him as an actor, but it suits him well in this kind of role -- stoic action hero with a slightly deranged edge. Cruise is perfectly offset by current Vanity Fair coverboy Colin Farrell as the skeptical Danny Witwer. Unlike most VF hot hunks, for whom an appearance on this particular magazine's cover is the career Kiss of Death (see also: Matthew McConaughey), Farrell is the real deal. When he's on the screen, he's the only recognizably human presence, even though his character is tragically underwritten. Witwer has a strong conventional spirituality honed in a (presumably Jesuit) seminary; and when he ruminates to Anderton about the irony of referring to the precogs' tank as "The Temple", HIS is the story we want to see. Farrell is making the kind of splash Tom Cruise did nearly twenty years ago, and watching both he and his character play Eve Harrington to Tom Cruise's Margo Channing is like watching a passing of the torch to a younger player by a reluctant aging athlete. Combined with the fact that Lamar Burgess, the benign elder mentor of Precrime, is portrayed by NEEDFUL THINGS' Max Von Sydow, we have a pretty good idea that the bad guy is not going to be who we expect.
The film is rounded out by extremely effective and memorable supporting performances. Tim Blake Nelson, in a radical departure from his village idiot role in O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU is an eerily Lynchian paraplegic prison guard. Lois Smith, a character actress in the Eileen Brennan mold, is present in the Kubrickian "Patrick Magee Crazy Old Man" role. As Iris Hineman, the creator of Precrime who has since retreated to a reclusive existence as a botanist, she makes a short but unforgettable appearance, while Neal McDonough is a chilling, Aryan-like presence as another Precrime acolyte.
As Agatha, the most talented of the precogs, Samantha Morton has little to do verbally but look startled and scream, but as we saw in SWEET AND LOWDOWN, Morton's acting often has very little to do with what she says and more to do with what she does with her body and her face. With her close-cropped hair and waifish figure, she is rapidly becoming her generation's Mia Farrow, which may or not be a compliment. As she is dragged through a mall by Anderton, her face reveals the awesome burden of already seeing the future of everyone she passes. She touches one woman's arm and tells her "He knows. Don't go home." Imagine how you would react. This sequence is perhaps the most disconcerting in the entire film, as Morton's seemingly random admonitions to Anderton, set against a backdrop familiar to today's moviegoers, amazingly fall right into place.
As with every Spielberg film, I was waiting for the inevitable Spielberg Sledgehammer moment, that one hideously maudlin scene in every one of the director's films in which he refuses to give his audience credit for "getting it." And in MINORITY REPORT, while said scene is there, it's remarkably restrained for Spielberg. Yes, the film has what appears on its surface to be a happy ending. But is the ending what it seems to be?
See you at Starbucks. I'll have a frozen caffe mocha, please.
- Jill Cozzi
Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.