Scrubbing the Image

Please turn on your magic beam: Tom Cruise in 'Minority Report'
20th Century Fox

Steven Spielberg's Minority Report is a case not of the emperor having no clothes but rather of him being desperately overdressed. In adapting Philip K. Dick's spare sci-fi story about life in a police state, circa 2054, where surveillance is law and people are arrested and sentenced to life in prison for murders they have not yet committed, Spielberg hauled out every trick and borrowed a few more from the wunderkinder of the Nineties. The result is a film so visually baroque that its Zeitgeist hook is all but obscured.

With the attorney general acting as if Dick's futuristic dystopia were already a reality, Minority Report could have been the most politically prescient Hollywood film since The China Syndrome, an exposé of the dangers of nuclear power whose 1979 release coincided with a real-life meltdown. And indeed, the hype around the film suggests nothing less. But instead, our collective paranoia about the erosion of civil liberties takes a back seat to Spielberg's personal anxiety about the younger, cooler filmmakers nipping at his heels. If this seems too fanciful an interpretation, note that the movie's production designer, Alex McDonnell, worked on David Fincher's Fight Club, and that Imaginary Forces, the special effects team responsible for Minority Report's eerie "prevision" scenes, created the widely imitated title sequence of Fincher's Seven.

Judicious borrowing is, of course, the prerogative of all great directors. But Minority Report has neither a coherent enough narrative nor a strong enough philosophical/political position to anchor its swirl of already dated bleach-processed imagery. Working with screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, Spielberg absorbed Dick's premise of a Pre-Crime Police Unit that treats the visions of three "pre-cogs"--psychic mutants who see murders before they occur--as incontrovertible proof of guilt. In other words: Three nut jobs have the power to send you away for life. This seemingly successful experiment in criminal justice is threatened when Anderton, Pre-Crime's gung-ho chief inspector, is himself fingered for a murder he is supposedly about to commit. On the run for his life, Anderton begins to doubt the validity of pre-crime as theory and practice.

In Dick's story, this leads to Anderton's understanding that what permits Pre-Crime to exist and, paradoxically, invalidates its findings is that there are many possible futures: In that sense the precogs' visions are always minority reports. In the film, this rather complicated idea is given lip service in a few garbled speeches about free will. Similarly, Spielberg evades the cautionary aspect of Dick's story, substituting his own ambivalence about the intrusion of surveillance technology into everyday life. ("I am willing to give up some of my personal freedoms to stop 9/11 from happening again," the director recently told the New York Times.)

Lacking a consistent view of his source material, Spielberg pulls out all the stops by attempting to roll three wildly different genres--action-adventure, psychological thriller, and futuristic tone poem--into one film. Minority Report is most audience-friendly as an action-adventure in the boyish mode of Indiana Jones, filled with gravity-defying chases, expertly timed sight gags (the most brilliant involves menacing metal spiders that perform eyeball-ID checks), and yucky body stuff (including bloody eyeballs removed from their sockets). To elude his pursuers, Anderton submits to illicit eye-replacement surgery at the hands of a sadistic doctor who, like the fairy-tale figure of the Sandman referenced by Freud, performs symbolic castrations by stealing eyes. It's only to be expected that, in a film about institutionalized Peeping Tom-ism, the eye would be the source of profound anxiety. But by giving us so much to look at--on a visual level, the film is as inexhaustible as it is derivative--Spielberg doesn't allow us any time to experience how it feels to be the object of surveillance. And isn't that experience, of which Fritz Lang was the master, what this film is supposed to be about?

As a vision of a future that combines the familiar and the ineffable, Minority Report is a vast elaboration of Chris Marker's seminal "La Jetée." As in Marker's film, photographic images are posed as keys to the future and the past; but unlike the still frames in "La Jetée," Spielberg's images eddy and flow like water, their multilayered complexity an abstract end in itself. In some sense, the entire film seems to take place underwater, not to mention that a drowning and a poolside abduction figure prominently in the plot. More than our emotions or intellect, Spielberg challenges our perceptions: The shifting relationships of foreground, mid-ground, and background; the enormous differences in light, texture, and focus within any given shot; the way the visual field is bisected and trisected by obliquely angled walls and framing devices; and the demand that Janusz Kaminski's gliding camera makes on our peripheral vision are all meant to knock our socks off, and they do. In terms of visual virtuosity, there's nothing in Spielberg's oeuvre that approaches this film. Minority Report is so interesting to look at, particularly in its first third, that you wish it could dispense with the silly script dragging it down.

The film comes fully to life only when its clearsighted madwomen take over the screen. As Agatha, the pre-cog who becomes Anderton's spiritual guide and savior, Samantha Morton is like a cross between Cassandra and St. Joan channeled through a beatific five-year-old. Morton has emotional resources to match her technical skill; it's not easy to go through an entire film as if you were simultaneously narcotized and in the grip of an epileptic seizure. Lois Smith, who staked a fragile claim on immortality nearly 50 years ago as the whorehouse maid in East of Eden, is equally indelible here as a perverse scientist, climaxing her malevolent rant by planting a sloppy kiss on Anderton's--make that Tom Cruise's--sacred lips. When queried as to the whereabouts of the crucial minority report, she responds, "It's always hidden inside the most gifted of the three [pre-cogs]: the female." On that note, I file my own minority report as above.

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