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Minority Report (Steven Spielberg) 2002
Most of the hope that I had for Minority Report, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of a classic Phillip K. Dick short story drained away early on, as soon as I saw one overly cute element of the film’s set design. In Spielberg’s vision of the near future (2054, to be exact), the Precogs, a trio of clairvoyant crack babies, are used to predict murders so they can be stopped before they are committed. To illustrate the process by which their predictions are delivered to the policemen that investigate them, he uses, for no good reason a spiraling glass ramp that delivers colorful balls with the perpetrator and victims’ names on them. It’s a distinctive touch, to be sure, and its one that could only exist in a child’s vision of the future, and it feels entirely out of place among the sterile metal look that dominates the rest of the set. This fragment of his future is indicative of Minority Report’s biggest problems, however. Spielberg uses images that could fascinate a child in his designs in hopes that they will appeal to everyone, and the resultant effect is the creation of a science fiction future that feels emotionally familiar and comfortable. While that might be some sort of achievement in itself, it works entirely against the plot of Report, which attempts to show us the dehumanizing effects of the invasion of privacy in its futuristic police state.
Unlike Dick, Spielberg’s doesn’t use science fiction to provide a cautionary and predictive look at the future. It instead fuels childish hope that all wishes will come true and fantasies will be fulfilled if we just have patience (consider ending of A.I. in this light). That’s precisely why he’s so wrong for this material. He has faith in happy endings even under totalitarianism, even when they make no emotional sense. In Minority Report, Spielberg’s characters revert to using old technology (as opposed to the impotent, non-lethal weapons of the future) whenever someone actually dies, and by doing this he’s suggesting that the human foibles and flaws that allow murder to happen are outmoded artifacts that will hopefully be phased out soon. This notion completely contradicts the film’s ending, which vehemently denounces technology, and embraces those flaws. The way that the film is shot, though, it appears as if all of the color has been desaturated from the future world, leaving a pseudo-black and white wannabe-noir look, and that lack of shading is appropriate considering the sheer simplicity of the film’s morality and symbolism. The attempts to push the morality of the characters into gray areas are so obviously going to be overcome by the film’s end that they are completely ineffective in making the movie any more complex. The symbolism is even more laughably heavy handed. Early on, one character explicitly points out how goofy the clunky religious symbolism (there’s a Holy Trinity, a Temple where humans play God, halos placed on convicts, etc…) that the movie employs is, but Spielberg continues to pile it on afterward, as John Anderton, Tom Cruise’s harbinger of truth undergoes his spiritual and literal cleansing. Perhaps even more groan-worthy is the repeated use of the characters’ eyes to reflect the true nature of their souls. A man with murder in his heart wears a pair of glasses that surely should be anachronistic post-Lasix. A drug dealer has empty sockets where his eyes should be. We know Anderton’s ex-wife must be a decent person since she’s a photographer. Cruise’s cop on the lam has to lose his in order to be resurrected as humanity’s savoir. It was enough to leave me rolling my eyes every time it resurfaced.
Spielberg’s films have never been about great ideas, however, so the above gripes were hardly what ruined Minority Report for me. Despite some flat-out stunning visual effects, the film’s vision of the future felt unconvincing. Every chase sequence that the film throws at us feels as if it is a big commercial. Product placement abounds in this vision of the future where the Gap store knows your name and every car seems to be the same make of Lexus (one apparently without a standard lowjack system, despite the obliteration of every other privacy right). Small change is still used and bums still beg for it and newspapers update so quickly that no writers could possibly have been involved in the journalism. The police use small spider-shaped robots to search private residences in what might have been the most harrowing scene of the film, but Spielberg makes sure that even they are humanized with double takes and endearing motions worthy of a Pixar cartoon. Though there’s no apparent femme fatale among the noir homage in Minority Report, it soon becomes apparent that this technology itself is mankind’s great seducer. Spielberg can’t resist its siren’s call, and he ironically ends up making a cautionary tale about his own directorial hubris. As he has done throughout his entire career, he puts too much faith in technique and technology here, and the resultant effort flounders.
Most of the directorial flourishes that do work here are unfortunately cribbed from more successful movies. Certainly, Spielberg owes a great debt to many classic film noir, since the trappings of the plot, the smart-aleck prison guard, and the look of the movie are derivative, but he might own even more to Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated action masterpiece Strange Days. Alongside most of its attitudes toward technology, he also borrows from that superior film the sole witness to his murder mystery (recorded brain waves) and copies a sleazy computer geek character that deals in virtual recreations of experiences. Echoes of every type of film can be felt elsewhere, however. There’s a chase scene through a dingy apartment that feels as if it came out of De Palma’s The Fury, a run in with a gardener that resembles Poison Ivy from Batman & Robin, a scene in which a character’s eyes are forced open á la A Clockwork Orange, cute kid banter (“How long can a whale hold its breath under water?”) that recalls Jerry Maguire, and a scene in which Cruise sheds his pretty face that’s borrowed from Vanilla Sky. Less successfully integrated are several scenes of gross-out comedy where characters play with eyeballs and eat rotten food. Worst of all might be the obvious copy of the final shot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s great sci-fi film Solaris, which is recreated here with none of the emotional weight that it had in the original. It’s downright hilarious at one point when Samantha Morton, as the most fetching and eloquent of the crack babies, says, “I’m tired of the future,” since the film seems so stuck in the past. Her bald character has been photographed like Dreyer shot Falconetti in his The Passion of Joan of Arc, but she’s the opposite of the martyr that the visual homage leads us to expect. She shirks her social responsibility to gain personal freedom by the film’s end, and unsurprisingly Spielberg expects us to cheer for the move.
Since all of the best stylistic elements of Minority
Report are stolen, the packaging of the pastiche becomes of utmost importance, and
that’s when the disappointments of the plot become crushing. Myriad plot holes
and contrivances* are to be found here, but many are so bad that they’re
inexcusable. A crucial flashback is continually interrupted at its climactic
moment. The film never offers up a compelling reason why Anderton insists on
facing his destiny. Knowing that he is facing an inevitable fate, he charges
headlong toward it instead of simply burying himself for the thirty-six hours he
has until it is supposed to come to fruition. This plot device effectively
defuses any excitement for much of the movie. Since we know that he will never
be captured and we know that no one will die as he attempts to escape his
pursuers, little suspense builds during the action scenes. Since Minority
Report is not a character study, some early scenes in which Anderton watches
old home videos are so obviously expository that they render the film’s
biggest surprises completely predictable. It doesn’t take a Precog to figure
out where the film’s plot is heading, and there’s little excitement in
getting there. To work, this sort of movie requires a level of coherency that Minority
Report simply doesn’t have. It’s not a total waste, however. As noted
above the effects are great, the cinematography is stellar, and the acting is
solid, if not as good as it was in A.I.. I didn’t love Spielberg’s
last attempt to spin a sci-fi tale, but at least it was ambitious and messy
instead of sloppy and simple. Minority Report aspires to more than mere
mindlessness, but fails miserably, and as a result crystallizes nearly
everything that I dislike about Spielberg’s films.
* Here are some of those plot holes and contrivances promised above --- Major spoilers, obviously: