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Variations on a Theme 

If sci-fi author Philip K. Dick has been obsessed with characters victimized by systems in which they previously flourished, director Steven Spielberg has been obsessed with characters constantly in search of their own identity. What a wonderful match they make with Spielberg's latest effort, Minority Report.

Here Spielberg crafts a movie that is one part futuristic thriller, one part old-fashioned murder mystery, one part social commentary and (better still) one part breezy slice of summer fun. Who would've thought at this stage of the game Spielberg could find a comfortable happy medium between two of Dick's other film-adapted stories: the brooding noir intensity of Blade Runner and the cartoonish bloodbath of Total Recall? For once, Spielberg wants to have it both ways and almost gloriously succeeds.

Thankfully, this ain't A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Like A.I. and virtually every other sci-fi thriller, Minority Report finds humanity suffering yet another backlash of its own hubris. The further we advance technologically, the dumber we are made to look. In fact, Minority Report is filled with what feel like conventions or even cliches: a cop with issues, an elusive mentor, a sympathetic ex-wife and red herrings galore. But at times, Spielberg seems like he's standing them on their heads. The balance is there. Some of the credit has to go to screenwriter Scott Frank, whose funky, snappy wit fueled Steven Soderbergh's one truly complete film, 1998's Out of Sight.

The set-up is classic Philip K. Dick: in the not-too-distant future, murders can be predicted and stopped by a Pre-Crimes Unit, which works in synch with a troika of water-bound teen savants ("Pre-Cogs"), who can for bizarre reasons see only the homicidal future. (If you see John Ashcroft sitting next to you at your screening, please keep him strapped in until the end lest he get any bright ideas, OK?)

There is no more true believer than Washington, D.C., detective John Atherton (Tom Cruise, ready and happy to play the fool), who became a cop out of cathartic need when he lost his son in a public place and never found him. Drug-addled and obsessed with forever catching the bad guy, he has, of course, lost his wife, too -- and perhaps his direction. "Everybody runs," he says at various intervals, mainly to and about himself. We enter the film just in time for Spielberg to show us how the system works, with John swooping in on a domestic dispute right before the scissors hit the chest. One of Spielberg's many delightful special effects comes in clues presented in hologram form, with Atherton looking like a painter-cum-conductor as he assembles and disassembles images in a mid-air puzzle.

But before a national referendum will decide if the rest of the country is ready for this kind of crime prevention, a skeptical attorney general (certainly not Ashcroft in this case) sends investigator Danny Witwer, played by Colin Farrell. Farrell is being presented these days as Ireland's Brad Pitt; he decidedly has that same cocksure presence, a perfect rival for Cruise icy stares. But he's also just as deluded as Atherton is, when clues spring up pointing to Atherton as a future murderer and the chase is on.

While seeking the counsel of his retiring mentor (Max Von Sydow), Atherton tries to clear his name by abducting one of the Pre-Cogs (Samantha Morton, in full, hyper-expressive mode) to help him reassemble his own case against himself. "Can you see?" she keeps asking him, demanding a clarity that Atherton seems incapable of obtaining. So Spielberg builds the curious mystery: is Atherton really going to be a killer? And why?

Spielberg is at his loosest during what at times feels like a gratuitous cat-and-mouse game, a chance to show off his Industrial Light and Magic toys. The good news is, the toys are fun and employed accordingly. Cheeky humor lies everywhere: in the product placements (wouldn't The Gap just love to call out our names in stores?), in pursuing cops flying around with jet-packs that can fire up stovetops, and in "spiders" that serve as the most dogged bloodhounds this side of North Carolina.

As futuristic as Minority Report tries to be, Spielberg appears to have learned from the mistakes of his predecessors and peers, knowing full well that the more things change the more they remain the same. That's true in our love of cotton in our clothing and antiques in our homes -- but not when it comes to driving an even sleeker Lexus. Nice.

It's that passion for the good old days that creeps into the main story. Minority Report ultimately is a murder mystery, but one that comes back to the message just in time for a confrontation that feels surprisingly appropriate. Cruise has rarely been more comfortable here, perhaps taking a cue from Spielberg's balancing act by keeping his obsessive emotional intensity in step with his action-figure machismo. Together, they take another science-fiction story and have their own fun way with it.

click to enlarge Moment of clarity: Detective John Atherton points his weapon at the truth in Steven Spielberg's futuristic thriller, Minority Report.
  • Moment of clarity: Detective John Atherton points his weapon at the truth in Steven Spielberg's futuristic thriller, Minority Report.


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