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Minority Report Review

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by Chris McEneany May 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Minority Report Review

    “Where's my Minority Report. Do I even have one?”

    Pre-Crime Chief John Anderton waits in agony for the volcanic ash-cloud to clear so that he can receive the US copy of his own film. As I did!

    Author Philip K. Dick was a strange fish, and no mistake. But just look at the legacy of imagination and paranoid perception that the visionary accomplished with his celebrated brand of literary weirdness. With Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Imposter and this, Steven Spielberg's first fully-fledged grown-up SF offering, Minority Report (based on his 1956 short story), his conspiratorial and anti-authoritarian misadventures in dystopian futures and subversive alternate realities have found an equally cult-cherished domain in which to flourish. Arguably the finest and most intelligently written film in the genre from the noughties, Steven Spielberg's inaugural and much ballyhooed bunk-up with Tom Cruise after a string of false-starts and opportunity-obstructions (including initial versions of Rain Man and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) was a slam-dunk hard Sci-Fi brainstormer with added blockbuster appeal a la jet-pack pursuits, itchy Spyderbots, taut action and the pint-sized superstar scurrying about in his trademark little black tee-shirt. But the most amazing thing about the venture, which Cruise had first approached 'Berg with back when he was making Eyes Wide Shut with mutual friend Stanley Kubrick, was the sheer sophistication and style with which they honed the tale of a persecuted cop, on the run from his own and desperate to get to the bottom of a mystery that locks in the secrets of a new societal order. How dare they combine futuristic sheen with the moral murk of forties noir? How dare they cram all the action into the first half of the film and then pile on revelation upon revelation, shock upon trauma into a plot that leaves set-piece mayhem behind and plunges headlong into a twisty-turny labyrinth of skulduggery, deceit and pre-ordained murder? And how dare they smuggle BIG IDEAS into a summer blockbuster and, most outrageous of all, how dare they drag us through a tremendously emotional and intimate tale of loss and redemption when all we expected was kaleidoscopic, pulse-pounding smash-bang-wallop?

    “There hasn't been a murder in six years. There's nothing wrong with the system. It is perfect.”

    “Perfect. I agree. But if there's a flaw, it's human. It always is.”

    As acclaimed as it was by the critics, Minority Report was unsurprisingly, considering the highly distinguishing elements that went into its look, pace and overall style, a film that disappointed many and left an equal amount perplexed. Hyped as a massive visual fx/action extravaganza, some audiences didn't much care for the fact that they would have to use their own grey cells to keep up with the unravelling clues and the often eye-boggling (or eye-rolling, at one point, in the case of Cruise's butter-fingered copper, who literally drops his own plucked orbs down a drain) plot developments that transformed the film from thrill-ride to traumatic whodunit. It is, however, an absolute classic of modern genre twisting that can easily sit next to its immortal forebear in future-noir detection and “incredible-made-credible” society-creation, Blade Runner.

    At the time, both Cruise and Spielberg were in need of a commercial and critical hit. Vanilla Sky hadn't courted much kudos with the kids for Tom, and Steve's slick, ambitious but ultimately sugar-coated cyborg fairytale, A.I., ended up as so much theatrical scrap - at least as far expectations for the two highly touted projects were concerned. But, working as a team, their joint efforts saw the Cruise-Berg modern-myth-machine at its best and Minority Report, along with War Of The Worlds, revealed that the pair had a creative chemistry that was pulsating, unpredictable and highly charged with such raw emotion and intensity that their films tapped exquisitely, though perhaps not entirely welcome, into the fragile, terror-blighted cultural hole left in the wake of the collapse of the Twin Towers. After Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, Spielberg had come of age, we all knew that. But the true test of his more matured mettle would come if he could deliver something in the genre he was best-loved for that didn't come candy-covered and sing wistfully to the inner-child within us all. For Cruise, much the same could be said. After the overt vanity-fest of M:I-2, and the inverted vanity-fest that was Vanilla Sky, we needed to see him brought down, not so much physically, but emotionally. And, whilst he certainly succeeds, his portrayal of future-cop John Anderton, poster-boy of the illustrious and groundbreaking Pre-Crimes Unit, also put the Cruiser into extreme motion ... for Minority Report seemed to give birth to that period in which he was contractually-obliged to run for almost the entire length of a movie - to wit, M:I-2 and 3 (with its still jaw-dropping flat-out, last-act super-sprint), War Of The Worlds and this.

    “John ... don't do this.”

    “Everybody runs, Fletch. Everybody runs.”

    It is 2054 and Washington DC has been completely murder-free for six years down to a unique technological breakthrough that utilises a trio of precognitives (or pre-cogs) who foresee crimes before they actually happen, a complex visual connection that allows detectives to view these events and those involved in them, and a rapid response team who move in and make arrests and save the day just in the nick of time. The outlandish system has been a massive success and is reputed to be 100 % accurate. After this trial period, its founders, headed-up by corporate overseer and protective father-figure for Anderton, Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow) intend to take the project nationwide. Chief John Anderton (Cruise) loves his job assimilating the facts that the pre-cogs send, and throws himself into his work with grandstanding results and high-calibre kudos - in an effort to distract himself from the pain and guilt he feels at having lost his 6-year old son, Sean, in a gut-wrenching and still unsolved abduction. When an internal audit, headed-up by blood-hungry doubter, Federal Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), seems hell-bent on finding fault with the system and re-opening Anderton's old wounds in the process, the status quo begins to rock. But when there are confused images from the lead pre-cog, Agatha (Samantha Morton), of a bizarre murder taking place in which John Anderton, himself, appears to be the killer, the hunter becomes the hunted and Pre-Crimes' prime operative must flee from his own men and fathom out just who he is going to kill, and why, before what he has seen happening actually happens.

    Confused?

    Just put yourself in Anderton's shoes for a moment.

    In this gleaming, bleached-out world, your identity is known literally everywhere you go. Optical identification scanners in every store - real or virtual - every vehicle, doorway, apartment and method of transport record your every move. Bubble-cars lock you in and attempt to ride back into custody. Breaking News appears, Hogwarts-style, on the front of every newspaper. Personalised floating commercials call out to you by name to entice you into the pleasure of a cool Guiness, say, or to sample the latest designer-wear just when you are trying to keep your head down. How can you slip anywhere, incognito, when your own eyes will give you away at every opportunity? And with your own men hot on your heels, scummy Witwer gloatingly pursuing you with a “told you so!” look plastered all over his smart-ass chops, a date with your own victim edging ever closer and an abducted Agatha in-tow, and assorted low-lives your only chances of uncovering the truth, it seems that destiny is determined not to be thwarted.

    Amid this hi-tech maelstrom, story still comes first. Anderton, on paper, is little more than a cliché - a necessary cog in a machine that has no urge to deviate from a strict forward momentum. But Cruise provides his haunted hero with a startling array of humanistic traits that make him not only easy to empathise with, but also fully rounded. He may be able to leap from car to car as they zoom, Arkanoids-style, down a vertical highway and go several rounds with Farrell's moustachioed bloodhound, but this is also a man who believably crumbles with paternal grief and guilt in the light of shocking revelations regarding the loss of his son. That standard Cruise-control commendably slips and the star reveals a raw vulnerability and rage that he hadn't attempted since his portrayal of the physically and psychologically battered Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone's Born On The 4th Of July. I've always been a fan of the actor, but readily agree that he has coasted on his looks and megawatt smile in the past on too many occasions. If Stone's second 'Nam odyssey was the moment when he attempted to break free of his glowing screen persona, and Neil Jordon's Interview With The Vampire saw him investigating his own dark side with considerable relish, then it is Minority Report that mixes both to the degree where that Top Gun grin and the Cocktail twinkle in the eye are defiantly eroded and a healthy dose of inner disquiet and self-doubt are unsheathed. War Of The Worlds, in my opinion, provided him with the fullest, most committed arc of character development and realised his true potential to wring genuine and affecting emotion out of it. His beleaguered dock-worker, suppressed father and reluctant alien battler in WOTW is, arguably, his best performance then, but Minority's belligerent and determined cop-on-the-lam is certainly cut from the same cloth. On the outside Anderton is confident and strong-willed. And popular. But inside, he is a mess, unable to dislodge that excruciating moment in his life when his son vanished. All so much cliché and contrivance, you would justifiably think. We've definitely seen this haunted cop angle too many times before for it to feel profound and fresh, yet Cruise is more than able to sally forth with all the angst, bitterness and direction-less fury of a father struggling to accept a harrowing event that he will never be able to close the door on. It is an element of startling conviction and something that, during a couple of emotional scenes, surely cannot fail to bring a lump to the throat.

    It is also telling that the film's oft-repeated tag-line of “Everybody runs” is not just for marketing and posters. It actually comes to mean a very heartfelt and poetic sentiment that is, possibly, the one constant in his life that Anderton can cling to once everything else begins to fall apart.

    “Sometimes, in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.”

    Morton does well as the gifted innocent whose visions speak of death and trauma, a waif-like conduit lost in a world that cruelly shuts her away as a societal servant and mental slave, along with her two equally incarcerated companions. Once broken free of the dream-bath that smothers her like a womb, Agatha (so named after Agatha Christie - her twin companions are Arthur, as in Conan Doyle, and Dashiell, as in Hammett) is a fragile, shrieking newborn, cursed with foresight yet plagued with the inability to personally alter it. Acting as though in shock for the most part, Morton, nevertheless, assumes the role of the movie's passive soul or, rather, of its conscience - the cold idealism that shimmers through the misted veils of sadness and torment that blights Anderton and his estranged wife Lara (Kathryn Morris) as they construct, respectively, a façade to hide behind and a harrowing surrogate accusation. Sadly, though, there is a hint of Leeloo from Besson's risible The Fifth Element to her obviously different and higher-plane existence as is whisked hither and yon around a world that she has only seen in disjointed images, but moments of gasping, screaming terror and an uncontrollable and irresistible yearning to exclaim the nuggets of truth that suddenly come to her provide Morton with some jarring volatility. You can readily accept her turmoil and dislocation when snatched from the Hive - “Is this now?” she begs to know. And Farrell who, at this time, was about to become the man-of-the-moment (although after burning bright for a short spell, has since become little more than a flicker), is aggravatingly cocksure and pushy - which is exactly what is required of him. The screenplay cleverly interprets his agenda as devious and ferreting, his character as dark and sinister and suspicious of all those around him. We even feel edgy and unnerved whenever he is around. Farrell also allows for some smug humour to reflect Witwer's go-get-'em drive and ruthless streak, yet he is also able to turn this on its head once he smells more than just Anderton's blood. But Max Von Sydow is the quiet revelation here. Always watchable, always radiant with an inner spark - except, perhaps, in Solomon Kane, in which his cameo smacks of the need for big name gravitas - Sydow brings a grave realism that is threaded-through with corporate nobility. But, even here, there is the chink in the armour, the flickering humanity in the eyes as dark clues unfold. There is a whiff of the crusade about him, yet his knight's armour will never entirely scrub up as white. We don't trust execs, officials or men in suits - Spielberg has always maintained that - but Sydow's gravelly accent, his inclement wheeze and sniffle and his innate decorum and infatuation with his surrogate son, Anderton, mark him out as exactly the guy to go to when you're in a jam. Sydow's done this type of corporate conspiracy thing before, of course, most pertinently in 3 Days Of The Condor, Judge Dredd and Dreamscape, but his regal brooding excels here.

    “In a world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

    It is also great to Suspiria's Jessica Harper in a brief, but pivotal role as the key lady of the visions, the curiously monikered Anne Lively. And Ravenous' Neal McDonough, who always looks too damn nice and friendly to be taken seriously as a hard man, does well as Anderton's once-trusted ally-at-arms, his softened edges and lack of venom actually convincing us as to Fraser's reluctance to apprehend a friend. Eagle-faced Peter Stormare is wonderfully kooky as the backstreet eye-surgeon who can replace your optical orbs and return your old ones (“My mother gave them to me,” proffers a sardonic Anderton) for sentimental reasons, before alighting with his glaringly warted assistant back into the murky underworld. And there are myriad other encounters and liaisons with denizens living off the underbelly of this outwardly safe and consumer-pandering milieu - hats off, then, to the inevitable purveyor of virtual fantasies in a sleazy cerebral-techno emporium, and, best of all, the sightless drug-pusher with mine-shafts for eye-sockets. But then there is Tim Blake Nelson's horse-faced Gideon, guardian of the stasis-imprisoned inmates that Pre-Crime has rounded-up, who comes across as decidedly slimy and smothered with unpleasant hidden agendas.

    “You still ... have ... a choice ...”

    It is never really going to come as a surprise just who is behind it all, but I doubt this actually matters all that much. There are a great many issues that blend within this soup, leaving the denouement. Issues of morality versus legality. Issues of fate versus individual choice. Issues of justice - both state sanctioned and personal - versus trial by jury. Issues of privacy versus consumer-driven mass-surveillance are also a wonderfully emotive metaphor for identity cards, CCTV and media-goaded reality shows of cops-with-cameras, etc. The fears of a nation suddenly gripped with real-life threats on its own home-turf are brought into sharp relief by swapping terrorism for the perceived “epidemic of bloodshed” that a spiralling out-of-control crime-rate would produce. And that age-old distrust of authority - Witwer's interfering Fed, the string-pulling puppet-master thrusting Anderton into ever-more incriminating activities, the immediacy of Pre-crime's judge-and-jury lock-down on all those caught before the act - is never allowed to stray too far from our understanding of this obsessive society. But beyond Spielberg's future-spiked homage to the likes of murder-mysteries such as Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and, most of all, North By Northwest, the film is actually about him returning to his roots. Having cut his directing teeth on an episode of Columbo, Minority Report also recalls a Night Gallery instalment that he helmed in which Tom Bosley has his eyes cut out and transplanted into Joan Crawford's noggin. It is also fair to say that earlier hi-tech conspiracy thrillers Blue Thunder and The Running Man borrowed liberally from Philip K. Dick's original paranoid idea. Although it could be argued that Minority's screenplay, from Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, actually leaned, in turn, on Blue Thunder's maguffin about crucial imagery from an unsolved murder as being a prime cog in its narrative engine.

    “I like you, Chief. You've always been nice to me. That's why I'm going to give you two minutes before I hit the alarm.”

    Spielberg directs with an amazing combination of dynamism, invention, compassion and restraint. Although Anderton's Great Escape packs a lot in, this is not a film in which the set-piece-meister over-indulges. It is true that a jet-pack tussle up and down the alleyways and then through a tenement is for show, but then set the tale twenty or thirty years before and this and it would have been a strenuous foot-chase, or a fun (but ludicrous) car-quake to have our knuckles whitening. Force-guns that hurl the target through the air on an energy bounce seem like fun, though, even if the aptly named sick-sticks are much messier than our current tasers. Spielberg is only using the tools and techniques of the trade that he has already set up within the film's environment, thus such things as hover-patrols and suspect incapacitating neural binds are essential. Likewise the skin-crawling surveillance Spyders, electronic arachnids that invade an area like a police raid, identifying friend from foe, innocent from perp, and leave no stone unturned, no duct-way un-investigated and no door un-slithered-under. In fact, this is the most exciting sequence in the film - as an optically-challenged Anderton is forced to feel his way to safety whilst a platoon of Spyder-bots seek and locate him. Coupled with the scurrying momentum of John Williams' frenzied music and some deft overhead camera-work that makes a much better job of capturing activities en mass in an intoxicating microcosm of behaviour than De Palma did in Snake Eyes, Spielberg and Cruise make what could be a preposterous situation utterly remorseless, fascinating and edge of the seat. Interestingly, the pair would revisit this set-piece three years later in War Of The Worlds during the epic basement scene. A sequence where our hero evades capture as a new car is built around him does, sadly, remind us of two things - the environs of the videogame and, inevitably, the droid-factory chase in Attack Of The Clones, 2002's other big sci-fi tent-pole. But whereas Lucas' flamboyant and colourful romp was juvenile, hackneyed and all rather embarrassing (and, hey, I actually enjoyed it!), Spielberg's is a masterclass in immersive design, plot construction and strong performance coaxing. A.I. lost its way and drifted, unforgivably, back into the sugary pool from which Spielberg once liberally gulped, but Minority Report stepped on the sensory gas and then deliberately decelerated in order to leave the thoughts free to regroup and the emotions ample time to rebound from each successive knock-down. If the ending does, ultimately, seem a touch too saccharine and clotted, a little too neatened for all that has led up to it, then this is a small price to pay for the journey it took to get there.

    “Every time I looked at him, I saw my son. Every time I got close to him, I smelled my little boy. That's why I left him.”

    Shot through what looks like one gi-normous lens-flare, the film looks astonishing. Or it looks horrible. It all depends on how you feel about the visual vogue that Spielberg became enamoured with during the first half of the decade. Regular DOP Janusz Kaminski creates a future-shock environment that struggles to gleam behind a sandpaper surface of intentional grain. Skin-tones are bleached-out to the point of the cadaverous, primaries are drained of vitality. In keeping with the 40's noir style of story, the film looks intensely monochromatic, yet heightened with the hazy lustre of silver glinting in the fog. It is a weird look, to be sure, and one that I have to admit I'm not smitten with. If the appearance adheres to the grey morass of the moral quagmire, then this is about as emphatic a flourish as you could get. It is also reassuring to see that civilisation hasn't blighted the environment with vast city-states, and that we don't all live in huge crystalline domes. And that it doesn't rain all the time. The world of Minority Report is rushed and frenetic at its epicentre, like any city, but the outlying environs appear unspoilt and positively thriving. This, at least, knocks the typical nihilism on the head and maintains that the wastage and atrophy so prevailing in many a future-tale is, here, found only in the warren of human emotions. Industrial Light & Magic perform the typically miraculous with all the myriad novel ideas that had their foundation in a three-day “think tank” session in which Spielberg met with the prime brains in science and technology, health, policing, transport and media/culture to ascertain what the future would, not could, have in store for us. I don't know about you guys, but I don't need a iris-savvy talking poster telling me that I could do with a beer. Jeez, it would be the only voice I'd ever hear!

    Accompanying all this attention to detail is John Williams' downbeat, yet exciting score. If this was a period in which Spielberg radically changed his game, then his musical muse followed suit with darker, much more melancholic scores. With Minority Report, War Of The Worlds and Munich, he eschewed the lush colour and sweep he is renowned for and concentrated on emotional and psychological hinterlands of angst and dread. To his credit. His music for Minority Report - although it does possess one sequence which is almost identical to his Coruscant chase with the chameleon bounty hunter, Zam Wessel - and for War Of The Worlds have become two of my favourites out of his considerable body of work. Unsettling, grim and full of foreboding, there is a definite nod of appreciation to the great Bernard Herrmann that is another welcome hallmark of the dark noir appeal of the film.

    Exciting, stimulating and moving all at once, Minority Report is a thinking man's adventure. The jet-pack sequence may induce a giggle or two, but this is a story that surmounts any amount of action spectacle with an engrossing, ever-moving narrative that hits you with ideas as swiftly as you can blink and a level of sophistication that the genre had been sorely lacking up until this point. Although Metropolis still proves to be the visual and cultural grandfather, and Blade Runner the polished and refined father, the genre's offspring, from The Matrix to Minority Report and from I, Robot to Repo-men bear all the same family traits and resemblances. Spielberg, one of its most doting uncles, suddenly takes a harder line than previously and coerces his energetic progeny into a much more mature sphere.

    “Shh ... do you know what I hear? Nothing. No footsteps on the stairs. No hovercraft outside the window. No clickety-click of little Spyders. Do you know why I can't hear any of those things, Danny? Because right now the pre-cogs can't see a thing.”

    Personal projects, such as Schindler's List and Munich aside, Spielberg hits the cultural nerve, post 9/11, exquisitely with both this and War Of The Worlds, and because these latter two are big SF yarns, they possibly become a lot more accessible for the majority. As such, the filmmaker has found a way to sneak messages under our defensive metaphor/allegory radar and plant ideas and ponderings in us that such overt sermons as the former couplet can fail to reach by virtue of their “serious” tags. An irksome final act and a series of loose-ends tied-up much too easily and conveniently do not detract from what is an exemplary marriage of detective drama and Sci-Fi. Many attempt this sort of thing - most notably Alex Proyas with both Dark City and I, Robot, but also Tony Maylem with Split Second, Roger Spottiswoode with The 6th Day and Danny Canon with Judge Dredd - but only a handful have ever convinced. Whilst it should never have come as a surprise, Spielberg can rightly join Ridley Scott in this exclusive club.

    Awesome.