"It has a sentimental quality that would never be admissible in film noir."—John Williams
Is it really a crime if it never happens? Ask John Anderton (Tom Cruise), head of PreCrime, a branch of the Washington, D. C., police in the year 2054. If the precogs say it will happen, then it will happen. And according to the law, crime is as much in the intent as in the execution. The crime in this case is murder. The victim: Leo Crow. The killer: John Anderton. The time: 36 hours from now. If the precogs say it will happen…
But Anderton insists he can change his fate. First, he has to get past his own men. Then, he has to outsmart a Justice Department meddler (Colin Farrell). Then, he has to prove his innocence of a crime he does not understand, that he has not yet committed, to a system that insists he is already guilty.
The premise for Minority Report is fascinating. It should be: Philip K. Dick stories are frequently more interested in exploring philosophical terrain than merely extrapolating on some technological premise. Does it matter exactly how that trio of precognitives does their stuff? Not really. What is at stake here is the problem of responsibility: can you be guilty of a crime prior to the crime itself? I suppose if you are a Catholic, the answer would be yes (after all, intent to sin is tantamount to a sin itself), but in the secular would, the proof is in the pudding. A guilty conscience aside, one must commit the crime in order to be guilty in the eyes of the law.
And thus, Minority Report starts strong, promising to tear down our comfortable notions of justice and show us how responsibility is in the hands of individual subjects. Director Steven Spielberg begins with a riveting, almost symphonic, sequence, as Chief Anderton and crew tease out the clues of a crime yet to happen. From the smooth course of the laser-etched balls with the names of perpetrator and victim, to Anderton's playful hands dancing over a virtual display, we see that the process of justice in 2054 has almost become like a dance. Murder has been eliminated; only the game of murder remains.
But Steven Spielberg films have had a problem lately. Look at Amistad. Or Saving Private Ryan. This is the new, more mature Spielberg, who is supposedly ready to tackle tough material and avoid the sentimentality of his earlier films. These films all begin with stunning opening sequences (nobody opens a film like Spielberg—go all the way back to Jaws to see how), then slowly unravel. By the end, he cannot resist sentimentality. This is exactly what went wrong with A.I.: Kubrick, the most unsentimental of directors, mixed with Spielberg like vinegar and baking soda, making a fizzy show that ultimately neutralized itself. Even Schindler's List could not avoid those color sequences meant to tug at our heartstrings, as if the material itself was not enough.
In Minority Report, Spielberg tries his hand at the film noir. Crime and punishment, fate and chance, cool and chaos—the noir requires a certain deft hand, a decidedly unsentimental hand. And so, for two-thirds of Minority Report, things clock along quite impressively. Much of this momentum can be credited to the washed out, post-industrial look of Anderton's world, courtesy of the real heroes of the film: production designer Alex McDowell and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Anderton's D.C. is a hollow and cold landscape of endless freeways shoved violently on top of the "old" world. What is left is covered with advertising that you cannot escape, commercials tailored to your prerecorded eye patterns (like walking cookies). This is Joseph Goebbels meets Madison Avenue.
For all the promise that we will explore this world and the implications of its justice system, Spielberg ultimately seems much more interested in moving the plot ahead with chase scenes. The chase scenes are pretty good, but like his dreadful The Lost World, they seem to have come out of brainstorming meetings with the special effects team than anything that might be organic to the story. "Hey, let's have them fight in an auto assembly line!" or "Wouldn't rocket packs be cool?" Again, I must admit that these chases are slick and entertaining, but they feel like a distraction.
This, in a nutshell, is the new, "mature" Spielberg. Minority Report tries to combine the box-office friendly flash of his earlier films with what is, at first glance, supposed to be a "grittier" sensibility. For instance, Tom Cruise plays Anderton as a flawed character. The chief of PreCrime is a drug addict and divorcee, driven to despair by the loss of his son years ago. But this is still Tom Cruise, the most inscrutable and plastic of Hollywood's elite, so Anderton's flaws never seem to resonate through the narrative. Rather, they feel tacked on to give the film some depth. In this same vein, Spielberg inserts some tasteless gore (you have never seen so many uses for loose eyeballs), making the audience wonder at times if the Farrelly Brothers wandered in during a lunch break and started playing with the cameras. And this from the same man who edited the dirty words out of E.T..
It may sound as if I am being unnecessarily harsh toward Minority Report, and the truth is that for much of the film's running time, the flaws take a back seat to the sort of pace and energy that we usually expect from a Spielberg film. But like Tom Cruise's shallow portrayal of Anderton, the story itself ultimately takes a shallow approach to the moral ambiguities of its premise. Indeed, the very title of the film itself, which suggests a level of indeterminacy inherent in democracy itself ("The existence of a majority logically implies a corresponding minority," Philip K. Dick writes in the original story), turns out to be a red herring—and any philosophical fuzziness that the PreCrime concept raises gets buried in a routine "catch the bad guy" final act that erases Anderton's moral responsibility. It feels like a big letdown, rather than the catharsis a traditional Hollywood film is supposed to provide, if only because Minority Report poises itself to explore deeper issues than the traditional Hollywood film.
Oh well, at least Spielberg is trying something ambitious, and he should get points for that. In the meantime, DreamWorks packages Minority Report in a two-disc set that offers more access to Spielberg's filmmaking process than ever before. Of course, the director still balks at commentary tracks, so Disc One merely presents the film in an anamorphic transfer with 5.1 and DTS audio mixes headlining. All the extras are on Disc Two: about an hour and a half of featurettes and galleries, all fairly serviceable, if not especially memorable. These supplements are presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic, with a Dolby 2.0 audio mix. "From Story to Screen" consists of two segments (each about 10 minutes) giving an overview of the production. In "The Story/The Debate," the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise mutual-admiration society talks about how the project came together. Co-screenwriter Jon Cohen gives props to Philip K. Dick, while his partner Scott Frank wants to make "genre movies for grown ups." There is lots of behind the scenes footage, but these interviews feel like puffery, too calculated and rarely candid. The ethical "debate" only comes in toward the end of the segment and does not go very deep, much like the feature itself. In "The Players," the supporting cast (including Colin Farrell, who easily gives the finest performance in the film as the sharp-eyed Witwer) talk about their characters and working with Spielberg.
"Deconstructing Minority Report" presents a series of five featurettes about how Spielberg went about designing "the ugliest, dirtiest movie I've ever made." We see an overview with comments by the indispensable Janusz Kaminski, then segments on the look of the PreCrime headquarters, the "spyder" surveillance robots, the precogs' visions, and the vehicles. Another section, "The Stunts of Minority Report," presents three three-minute segments on the major action setpieces. In "ILM and Minority Report," we are offered several short segments on the CG and model work in the film. Finally, "Final Report" allows Spielberg and Cruise one more opportunity to kiss up to each other.
An "Archives" section of the disc presents a production gallery, storyboards for the three stunt sequences covered in the featurettes, and some trailers. Of particular note is a trailer for the Minority Report video game. Featuring a ridiculous level of violence and a blonde (!) Anderton, this short advertisement really suggests more about the dark future of American justice and commercialism, given the current political climate, than all the "think tank" work of Spielberg's production team on the feature film.
Minority Report is certainly a step forward for Steven Spielberg in terms of philosophical complexity and narrative ambition, even if it falls short in its last act. Few directors with such a long and successful track record as his can really say that their filmmaking has improved over the years, but Spielberg safely can. Here is hoping that the lessons learned from this latest phase in his productive career pay off down the road in a film that follows through on all the risks he now seems willing to take as a director. Minority Report gets two-thirds of the way there, and I expect that in itself is worthy of some pride.
This court predicted Steven Spielberg would be guilty of mixing sentimentality into his film before we ever saw it. He has already been found guilty. But this court also predicts that he will continue to mature as a director and one day find the right balance of his Hollywood instincts and moral sensibility. Until that time, this court is adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• From Story to Screen
Review content copyright © 2003 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.