If “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Blade Runner” advanced the most provocatively elaborated visions of the near-future for their respective generations, then surely “Minority Report” offers the most persuasively detailed portrait modern Hollywood has created of what the United States may look like 50 years hence. Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into sci-fi territory is also his darkest and most socially relevant, as it outfits a straight-ahead man-on-the-run film noir yarn with extraordinary technological postulations as well as a genuinely thoughtful investigation of the suddenly pertinent subject of thwarting anticipated crime before it happens. This outstanding 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks co-venture may be a shade too serious and contemplative to completely enchant the thrill-seeking masses, while simultaneously seeming too mainstream-minded and genre-bound to be entirely embraced by highbrows. But the film’s success is in line with what American films historically have done best, which is to excitingly tell a strong story with high style and just enough substance. Combined draw of Tom Cruise, Spielberg and sci-fi subject obviously creates outsized B.O. expectations, but fact that pic is pitched considerably over the heads of the lowest common denominator will likely keep enough kids away to make this a commercial extra-base hit rather than a home run.
Both “Blade Runner,” which in 1982 envisioned a densely urbanized Los Angeles of 2019, and “Minority Report,” which depicts a sleek but highly recognizable Washington, D.C. of 2054, are based on the fiction of the late Philip K. Dick.
Both films portray worlds dominated by extremely sophisticated technology but fraught with a grungy underclass and criminality throughout the social spectrum. And while Ridley Scott’s flawed masterpiece, which has enjoyed a sustained afterlife despite a disappointing initial release, was narratively rooted in hardboiled detective fiction, Spielberg’s thriller reps a clever twist on such mid-century noirs as “D.O.A.,” in which a poisoned man has 24 hours to find the person who, in effect, has already killed him.
After novelist Jon Cohen adapted Dick’s story, which was first published in “Fantastic Universe” magazine in 1956, for prospective director Jan De Bont, Cruise proposed the project to Spielberg, who hired Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”) for the rewrite. But even then, the undertaking continued to gestate over a long period of delays, making this one of those occasional films that was conceived in a very different climate but comes out at a moment when its central theme happens to coincide remarkably with current events, a happenstance that will spur significant off-entertainment page commentaries.
Superbly handled 15-minute opening sequence grabs the viewer by the lapels while dexterously illustrating the premise’s central notion of preventing crime by foreseeing it. By analyzing imagery culled from three psychic “Pre-Cogs,” Pre-Crime unit chief John Anderton (Cruise) is able to piece together enough evidence about a suburban crime of passion in the offing that he and his team arrive in time to stop a jealous husband from stabbing his wife and her lover.
The chief’s method of conjuring is marvelously cinematic. Standing before clear panels in his glassed-in control room, Anderton resembles a master orchestra conductor as he vigorously summons images from his Pre-Cogs, wipes them away, reframes them, advances and rewinds the action, requests new angles — anything to pick up clues as to location, identities and sequence of events.
Anderton demonstrably loves what he does, and is brilliant at it as well — so good, in fact, that D.C. has been murder-free for six years. On the basis of this unblemished success record, and the belief that the system is infallible, a vote is pending to take Pre-Crime national.
A visit to Anderton’s apartment off-handedly displays some of the film’s technological propositions for the future: magnetic cars that can maneuver horizontally and vertically, voice commands for home appliances, handy drug inhalers and a 3-D home entertainment center through which is revealed the central trauma of Anderton’s life, the loss six years earlier of his young son. As a cop who no longer lives with his wife and “experiences” his son via this vivid electronic visitation, Anderton is deeply motivated to save others from the same sort of tragedy that he himself experienced with a loved one — a point the film drives home.
Due to the upcoming referendum, a Dept. of Justice “observer,” Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), begins poking his nose in everywhere, and it takes no time for the presumptuous and aggressive former seminarian to put Anderton in his place and announce that his purpose is to find a flaw in the Pre-Crime system.
Anderton, who jealously guards his pioneering position in the field, is further warned by his boss, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), that Justice is poised to take the whole thing away from them.
The protagonist and the film pass through the looking glass at the 40-minute point when Anderton, in the course of observing Pre-Cog visions, is shocked to see projections of himself committing a murder. This prospect seems not only inconceivable but impossible to him, given his absolute faith in Pre-Crime, and it instantly leads Anderton to believe that Witwer has set him up. In any event, it’s off to the races, with Anderton knowing he has exactly 36 hours until the predicted murder to figure out what’s gone awry.
At this juncture, dramatic format becomes more standard, as scenes of Anderton eluding capture and fighting off his former police colleagues are interspersed with one-on-one visits with eccentric characters who can help him toward his goal.
Avoiding detection in this day and age is a significant problem because everyone is ID’d by eyeball imprint; tiny cameras everywhere can identify citizens, usually for work or business purposes (pic gets wonderful mileage out of personalized verbal advertisements bombarding Anderton in a mall), but also for criminal apprehension. The only way around this is an eye transplant, which Anderton undertakes at once in a dingy building with a crazed black market physician (a memorably deranged Peter Stormare).
In a superior sequence in a greenhouse, Anderton learns the meaning of the term Minority Report from the cagey researcher (Lois Smith, brilliant) whose insights opened the door on the Pre-Cog system and its disturbing relevance to the situation in which he now finds himself.
He also visits his ex-wife Lara (Kathryn Morris), whose tasteful seaside cottage shows a preference for a 1950s lifestyle over a 2050s one, and a flashback finally reveals the wrenching accident that resulted in their son’s disappearance.
Inevitably, Anderton’s path leads to the place where the murder he is supposed to commit has been seen to take place. But there are several twists lying beyond this presumed climax, all of which combine to suggest that, in a society such as this — in which everyone is under surveillance and so many things are recorded — there is precious little that can truly remain secret.
But in light of contemporary events surrounding the massive effort to identify and apprehend terrorists before they strike, the concept that will be most discussed is the intervention to stop “criminals” from actually carrying out criminal acts. Pic treats the matter in a very even-handed way, leaving room for consideration and arguments on both sides.
From intellectual conception to technical execution of the tiniest detail, “Minority Report” has been worked out in an exemplary way. Dick’s premise is no more or less provocative than those for many other sci-fi stories, but so much of what’s onscreen feels so close to home that it registers with unusual impact.
The world of the film represents a highly credible extension of the one we know, with life still dominated by personal emotions and work, and the vast encroachments of technology surrendered to for good and ill, changing the way people live but no
t noticeably altering the quality of life. (Spielberg convened a three-day think tank conference in which leaders in many fields — science, crime, transportation, architecture, health, et al. — weighed in on their visions of the future.)
For all its qualities, however, “Minority Report” may in the long run lack the resonance of “Blade Runner” and certainly “2001,” because it is more prosaic than poetic, more concerned with narrative progress, precise predictions and legalistic issues than larger notions of good and evil, fate and the grand scheme of things.
The theological note intriguingly struck by Witwer early on is unfortunately never sounded again, and while the film’s rootedness in a future “reality” is compelling, the emphasis put on this could play a part in preventing the picture from entirely transcending its genre.
Dominated by the grainy, blueish, heavily desaturated cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, pic has a virtually seamless look in which many layers of visual elements have been superbly combined. Initial crime-imaging has a borderline avant-garde tilt, and it would take close study to get a full grasp of the film’s extensive technical accomplishments.
Alex McDowell’s protean production design dazzlingly presents three aspects of the nation’s capital — official Washington, which looks much as it does today; the run-down city proper, with its ancient 20th century structures, and the towering glass-and-steel outskirts which, like the Pre-Crime HQ, is meant to rep the latest in design and construction techniques some 40-50 years hence. Deborah L. Scott’s costume creations are attractive but modest variations on modern notions of hip, and John Williams supplies an energetically supportive score.
On the performance side, this is about as good as it gets where Cruise is concerned. Anderton is both an action and an emotive role, and while the character is an obsessed and distraught individual, Cruise doesn’t overdo it on either score, registering a genuinely involving and effective turn that makes ideal use of his movie star status without relying on it.
As his nemesis, Farrell is outstanding, pugnaciously invading Anderton’s (and Cruise’s) space to establish himself as a genuinely threatening adversary; perf for the first time reasserts the quicksilver talent that was so widely noted in Farrell’s American debut in “Tigerland.”
Samantha Morton, who plays one of the three Pre-Cogs, is confined to lying in a pool for a good stretch but brings a terrific physical intensity to her unique role when she is finally liberated and is central to one of the most memorable scenes in the picture, in which Anderton attempts to elude capture in a mall. Von Sydow has the perfect voice of authority as the “father of Pre-Crime,” and the many small supporting roles have for the most part been expertly filled.