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Minority Report: The Cold, Dark Heart of Steven Spielberg

Jun 23, 2002 (Updated Jun 24, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Spielberg, Cruise, Morton, Kaminski, Williams--craftsmen at the top of their game

Cons:The last two minutes of sunny optimism leave a bad taste in your mouth

The Bottom Line: This fulfills the promise of A.I.: Steven Spielberg is tapping something serious and dark. The world is not always a happy place. Sometimes, it's a Kubrickian nightmare.


Steven Spielberg, the Godfather of Blockbusters, is doing something very subversive and frightening to summer movies. He’s making us think.

With last summer’s A.I. and now Minority Report, Spielberg is stretching himself to thought-provoking heights and taking us with him. For once, it’s a relief to fill our heads with something other than popcorn. Sure, pre-packaged formula flicks like The Mummy Returns and Scooby-Doo have their place in the grand scheme of things, but Minority Report proves that it’s possible to wrestle with big ideas like predestiny, fate and “fundamental paradoxes” and still have enough room left on the screen to thrill us with some of the best action sequences since…well, since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Just watching Tom Cruise leap from car to car on a busy freeway was enough to make even a hardened moviegoer like yours truly groan, gasp and writhe. Add the fact that the freeway—52 years in our future—runs on a vertical plane with bubble-shaped Lexuses zipping up and down along the dizzying heights and you’ve got a guaranteed white-knuckler. There’s also another sequence, a chase through a car factory which showcases Spielberg’s innate sense of timing and visual humor. There is nothing flabby about Minority Report.

There’s also nothing too blabby about it. Sure, a lot of dialogue comes at the rate of hyperspeed—you may have to struggle to keep up with the exposition in the first 20 minutes—but the script by Jon Cohen and Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Get Shorty) is smart, surprising and witty. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (whose works were also the basis for Blade Runner and Total Recall), Minority Report is an all-too-plausible forecast of where we’re headed.

It’s 2054 and murder in Washington, D.C., has been reduced by 98 percent, thanks to a trio of psychics who can predict crimes up to four days before they take place up, allowing a team of Department of Precrime cops to zip to the scene with their jet-packs and stop the perps before they kill. The Miranda Rights, of course, are just wee a bit different: “I’m arresting you for the murder you’re about to commit. You have the right to remain silent.”

There’s a ballot measure urging voters to make the Department of Precrime a national program. Even the Attorney General gets in on the act: “We want to assure the nation of the utter infallibility of the system.”

According to Precrime, the psychics—known as “precogs”— have never been wrong in the six years since they were put under observation. They float in a pool of water, electrodes hooked to their shaved heads. Their thoughts and nightmares are recorded through a Rube Goldberg contraption, eventually spitting out the victim's name and time of death.

As the chief of Precrime, John Anderton (Cruise) is driven by loyalty to the system and by fierce determination to catch citizens in the moment just before they turn to the dark side. He’s supported by the head of Precrime (Max Von Sydow) and a crack staff which includes Steve Harris (TV’s The Practice) and Neal McDonough (as good here as he was in HBO’s Band of Brothers).

Anderton is fuel-injected with the typical Cruise cockiness (bordering on egomania) and leans forward into the hunt for future killers with as much gusto as a slobbering bloodhound straining against the leash. He uses a sort of Powerglove to “scrub the images” of the three precogs, waving his hands and tapping his fingers in the air as digital translations of the visions play across a giant glass screen. He’s a techno-Sherlock Holmes, a maestro of riddle-solving whose brain works even faster than his mouth. He also has an understandable God complex. “Let’s face it,” one detective says, “we’re more like clergy than cops.”

Anderton doesn’t allow himself to be troubled by nagging questions about whether or not he and his team are altering the future by ensuring the preconceived future doesn’t take place. “The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen,” he tells Detective Witwer (Colin Farrell), a weasely federal agent who’s visiting Precrime to look for flaws.

Anderton refuses to believe there are flaws…until, that is, one of the precogs, Agatha (Sweet and Lowdown’s Samantha Morton—doing much with a demanding role), foresees him killing a man in three days. In an instant, his world comes crashing down and he’s on the run from his own colleagues who, like it or not, must bring him in for justice.

Shot in washed-out tones by Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan), Minority Report’s world is at once grimy and clean, bleak and sunny. There’s not the unremitting rain of Blade Runner, but there is a scene in a black-market eye surgeon’s apartment which wallows in squalor. Like A.I., this movie warns us we’re headed toward a cold, sterile standard of living—so unlike the warm nostalgia of little boys biking around with extra-terrestrials or big boys dodging boulders in search of ancient treasure. Spielberg creates a utopian society that’s frighteningly possible. Unlike other movies of this type (Blade Runner and Dark City among them), I wasn’t fascinated by the usual Hollywood bag of tricks (though the digital special effects are generally excellent). Instead, I found myself completely immersed in Spielberg's vision of a Scary New World. It's a world where the public deifies three half-sleeping people named Dashiell, Arthur and Agatha (perhaps not coincidentally, also the names of three great mystery writers). “The precogs get more mail than Santa Claus,” one Precrime official boasts. Even so, “It’s better if you don’t think of them as human,” says Anderton. In 50 years, it seems, it’s better not to think of anything as human. Just as in A.I., cold technology is slowly replacing warm flesh.

With these back-to-back visions of things to come (the first times he’s set a film in the future), Spielberg is treading lightly in the footprints of his mentor Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg seems to have tapped into a new cynicism—something that may shape his legacy as a director not bound by the popular notion of him as the modern Frank Capra, all full of blue skies and apple pies. Trouble is, both Spielberg and Capra have dark streaks running through nearly all of their films. The cynicism has always been there, Spielberg has just usually layered it with tear-jerking sentiment and John Williams scores.

Still, try as he might, he stops just short of complete Kubrickian bleakness. If there’s a flaw to Minority Report (and trust me, it’s the only flaw) it’s that the director succumbs to sentimentality in the movie’s closing moments with a sun-drenched coda where everything is neatly tied up. We’ve seen this sappy coda in other Spielberg movies—including his two other hard-edged masterpieces Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan—and the effect is like adding a ninth verse to America the Beautiful. We don’t need it.

Until Minority Report’s needless epilogue of schmaltz jars us from the grim world of paranoia, Spielberg brings us one of his darkest films yet. How interesting then that it opened on June 21, our summer solstice.






Warning: Comments section contains at least one spoiler.


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