Tuesday, August 23, 2022

A Minority Report on “Minority Report”

There was a time when I thought the hallmark of Steven Spielberg’s films was their simplicity: straight-ahead stories told with visual flair. Remember Jaws: huge fish suddenly bursting out of the ocean. Or E.T. a boy on a bike, soaring aloft with an extraterrestrial on his handlebars. It’s akin to the lesson I learned from my own mentor, Roger Corman: the poster is the movie. Those Spielberg masterworks were made more than 40 years ago, and Spielberg has long since learned to exploit other aspects of his talent. I deeply admire the panache of the Indiana Jones films, the historical profundity of Schindler’s List (1993), the whimsy of Catch Me If You Can (2002), and the moral complexity of Bridge of Spies (2015). Spielberg’s sensitive 2021 retooling of West Side Story worked far better than I expected. 

 Yet Spielberg’s approach to science fiction is perhaps too visually and thematically cluttered to impress me. I do remember liking 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, because its central focus on a robotic boy who yearns to be human has emotional resonance. Minority Report, a 2002 film based loosely on a story by Philip K. Dick, explores a futuristic society caught up in another conundrum: how to stop crimes before they happen. An elaborate experimental system, called Precrime, halts murderers in their tracks by seeking out and arresting those who are about to kill a fellow human being. Spielberg creates a big visual splash when a team of commandos, led by stalwart Tom Cruise, rappel onto the scene of a domestic quarrel and arrest a man who may (or may not) have been just about to pull the trigger. 

 But philosophical issues of intent aside, Minority Report goes a bit crazy with its production design. As in the previous Dick story that became the futuristic screen classic, Blade Runner, prophetic visuals are all-important here. Such witty touches as cereal boxes that talk to consumers and video-wall ads that address prospective customers by name are amusing enough, showing us a future world, in which consumerism reigns supreme. More importantly, Spielberg obsesses on the architectural look of the mid-21st century. He starts us off slowly by setting his first scene in a classic Washington DC townhouse, full of bookcases and plush furniture. But then we’re whisked into the headquarters of Precrime, in which everything is sleek and high-tech and gadget-driven. Pretty soon good-guy Cruise (who of course is nursing a family sorrow) is suspected of being one of those about-to-kill baddies, which sets the stage for a lengthy, exhausting chase through the streets of a DC that’s now fully space-age. Action fans (and of course Tom Cruise enthusiasts) doubtless love this section, but it hasn’t much of anything to do with the serious intellectual questions with which Minority Report theoretically wants to wrestle.

 Then there’s the source of the information about those soon-to-happen crimes. For all their gadgets, the scientists and tech guys in this film are not dealing with anything so sophisticated as probability tables. Instead, it turns out that the source of their information about future crimes comes from three very bizarre, very water-logged humans, the Precogs, who are submerged in a secret wading pool. Like the seers of old, they know what’s about to happen. Really?  Kinda like the weird sisters in Macbeth? Yup, and all this has something to do with the red ping-pong ball that slides down a chute and announces to the Precrime staff that a murder is about to occur.

 Gadgetry—thy name is Spielberg? Please, Steve, stick to good stories peopled by real characters.








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