Harry here, um HOOOOLLLLEEEEE SHHHIIIIIITTTTT!!! MUST SEE THIS MOVIE NOW!!!! pant pant pant pant...
Alexandra DuPont's Semi-Spoilerific Gushing Over Minority Report
But first, a sort of "Department of PreScreen" warning: Whatever you do, don't read this review.
I'm only sort of joking about the above. I went into Minority Report with very little foreknowledge, other than reading a couple of reviews and seeing a couple of trailers -- and I was totally overwhelmed. I'd recommend that you take the same path.
Still reading? Okay, here's a quick, spoiler-free review and then you're on your way:
Suffice to say, the movie is an utterly immersive, seemingly effortless, wildly complex futuristic mystery -- one with a tight storyline, some surprising twists, a dense thicket of well-performed really tiny parts, and more than a dash of social commentary, moral quandary, and creepy absurdity. It is, I'd dare say, director Steven Spielberg's best and most cohesive film in 20 years -- other than maybe Schindler's List -- showcasing a surprising restraint and maturity, a light, throwaway touch, and a firm grasp of the tenets of Kafkaesque Big Issue Sci-Fi that proves The Beard was paying attention while he sat at Kubrick's footstool for a couple of years.
For both Spielberg and star Tom Cruise, Minority Report functions as a sort of final draft -- a polished piece of work that seamlessly integrates lessons learned by both men on the sets of A.I., Eyes Wide Shut, and Vanilla Sky. It's also more thematically "Kubrickian" than A.I. (which I sort of admired, despite its flaws) could ever hope to be.
Okay. Now I'm going to say all the above all over again, at length, only I'm going to go into semi-spoilerific detail. Go away.
I mean it. Leave.
Still reading? Okay, fools:
And So But Again: Alexandra DuPont's Semi-Spoilerific Gushing Over Minority Report, Only Now in Excruciating Detail
Steven Spielberg has, for almost two decades now, been compartmentalizing his film output into two categories: "Entertainments" and "Civics Lessons."
For my money, Spielberg's "Entertainments" (e.g., Jurassic Park and its sequel) have grown steadily more inconsequential. Starting somewhere around Indiana Jones and the Bland Crusade, he's seemed more detached from each ensuing "popcorn flick," outside of one or two spectacular set pieces per film -- the marvelous trailer-over-a-cliff sequence in The Lost World, for example.
Meanwhile, The Beard keeps getting more attached to his "Civics Lessons" (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad). These also contain one or two stunning set pieces each -- e.g., Ryan's staggering and indelible and oft-imitated Normandy beach invasion, or Amistad's slave-passage flashback -- but the movies as a whole have, in my opinion, failed to work as cohesive pieces of cinema.
I'm sorry, but facts are facts. Saving Private Ryan is, in retrospect, two jaw-dropping battle scenes bookending a hoary old war-movie plot -- G.I.s musing about their girls and careers back home in the most stereotypical fashions imaginable and then getting blown to ribbons. Amistad features, for pity's sake, Anthony Hopkins telling us -- in his best Doddering Voice of Authority intonations for what feels like 190 straight minutes of Oscar-whoring paragraphs -- that Slavery is Bad. These films (with the exception of Schindler's List, which IMHO actually dared to explore the Nazi psyche with some clarity) have climbed the lofty slopes of Mt. Obvious with Stanley Kramer subtlety -- batting us lightly over the head with giant Salamis of Truth in an annoying directorial bid to be Taken Seriously by The Academy.
But take heart, readers: All of the above categorization will be thrown into disarray this Friday.
Parenthetically: A.I., Spielberg's "transitional films," and perhaps too much attention devoted to Hook
I'd hoped that A.I. represented a sort of transitional film for Spielberg -- much as Hook did -- and not just a fascinating anomaly like the all-but-forgotten Empire of the Sun.
As I've written before about Hook: Thematically speaking, that movie is fairly riveting stuff -- but only if one takes the critically specious step of incorporating Spielberg himself into the analysis. It's a midlife crisis in an elf suit; only when Peter Pan re-embraces his sense of family responsibility can he fly again. It takes very little effort to apply this analysis directly to Spielberg: His post-Hook output has been largely marked by an almost-fatherly (and really, really boring when taken in volume) sense of civic duty. In Hook's aftermath, Spielberg's approach to filmmaking -- much like the adult Peter's approach to flying -- changed, with youthful skill being applied to more paternal pursuits. Yawn!
Bear with me. I do have a point.
I'd argue that A.I. was another transitional work -- the creative act of a director casting about for a way to merge his ability to craft a fable with his urge to create Serious Art. To that end, Spielberg hitched his wagon, with the best of intentions, to Stanley Kubrick's star -- and the result, as we all now know, didn't hang together all that well.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was ambitious as hell and visually stunning and acted with creepy sincerity by that half-pint Olivier, Haley Joel Osment -- but it also lurched from locale to locale with precious little transitional tissue, and it never committed fully to being cryptic or perverse at a Kubrickian level. As a result, the whole enterprise seemed sort of half-assed -- switching between sentiment and grim dystopia with all the subtlety of Patch Adams with a rat cage strapped to his face.
I personally said many times that I would rather have seen an entire movie about one of A.I.'s better subplots -- the robotic Gigolo Joe trying to clear his name against (a) the fierce limits of his programming and (b) a society that conspires against him at every turn.
And it looks like -- against all hope -- I got my wish. In Spielberg's very next movie.
So we're finally talking about Minority Report?
Uh-huh. Sorry about that.
What's the story?Minority Report's central conceit is actually pretty high-concept -- an emotionally dead cop tries to clear his name against the fierce limits of (a) his belief system and (b) a society that conspires against him at every turn. It's the usual Spielbergian Riff on a Big Idea (a la his riffs on UFOs, sharks, adventure serials, and dinosaurs). The pitch, I suppose, would go something like this, only with the appositive phrase "IN A WORLDÃ–" sprinkled liberally throughout:
"A law-enforcement agency can stop murders before they happen. But what happens when that agency's top cop (Cruise) discovers that he himself will murder someone a short while hence -- and has to go on the lam to solve the mystery and/or clear his name?"
Yes, that sounds nifty, if a little like The Fugitive -- but what's the really good news?
Well, the good news is twofold:
(1) You spend much of the movie -- as one would expect, given the above story pitch -- anticipating and making your way to that appointed future moment when Cruise is destined to kill somebody. Then you get there. And the movie, co-scripted by Scott Frank (Dead Again, Out of Sight) and Jon Cohen, just keeps going.
The effect of suddenly being freed from the shackles of High Concept -- of sailing on where most Hollywood movies would end -- is weirdly exhilarating. Like Cruise's character, the viewer experiences the adrenaline rush of sailing into parts unknown. (A.I. tried to pull the same stunt, you may recall, but what followed there was all treacle and sap and Ben Kingsley narration and super-evolved robots that looked like 1970s living-room statuary. Not so here.)
(2) Also, for the first time in a couple of decades, Spielberg merges Art and Entertainment and Civics Lesson without dropping any narrative eggs in the process. He riffs on his Big Idea -- and it's a Socially Relevant Big Idea, at that -- in a very entertaining and organic and delicious way.
So this is one of Spielberg's damned "Civics Lesson" films?
Oh, it's much more than that.
Certainly, in the wake of Sept. 11 and threatened encroachments on our civil liberties in the name of "public safety," Minority Report is probably the most "relevant" film Mr. Spielberg's ever made. Cruise's cop on the lam, John Anderton, lives in a politely semi-paranoid society that feels like a logical, but never ostentatious, extension of our own. Retina scanners are everywhere -- on the subway, in the mall, on every semi-secured door and in every public square. But Spielberg doesn't draw attention to all this gadgetry in a way he might have a few years ago. Yes, one could easily imagine The Beard dollying in on each snapping opti-lens while John Williams' music swells menacingly and Cruise looks frightened with a wind machine tousling his hair -- but this movie consciously chooses to trust its audience and throw such details away, realizing that an accumulation of data about Anderton's world will build in your head. Crowds file by the scanners, blankly going about their business as they're eye-snapped and then targeted with super-niched advertising ("Welcome back to the Gap, Kim! Would you like to buy another pair of khakis?"). Spielberg shows us just enough of this world -- and much of it in the background -- to give us a sense of how much things have changed, how much we've given up.
And then he tells a story with characters.
(BTW, can I also note parenthetically how refreshing it is, in this post-CGI society, to not be clobbered in Minority Report with noisy digitally created background detail in its "world of the future"? How marvelous it is, when we see Cruise standing on a balcony during a dusky climactic moment, to not have the sky behind him filled with flying and/or beeping things? How ginchy it is that this movie frequently looks like it took place today -- with architecture you can recognize and people who aren't wearing silvery jumpsuits or post-apocalyptic trench coats?)
Even better, Minority Report never grinds to a halt so someone can deliver a monologue telling us that "Police Should Never Be Trusted" or that "Civil Liberties Should Be Preserved at All Costs" or that "True Freedom Means Choosing Your Own Future." I mean, people do say stuff like that in this movie -- but they say it while they're on the run, for the most part in casual tones, while interacting with their fellow characters and the movie's jaw-dropping world in sexy and desperate and human ways. Otherwise, these themes and/or messages emerge naturally out of the story. You never feel like you're being told -- as you did in A.I. when William Hurt was spewing out, in his opening monologue, all that Star Trek-ish Pinnochio-lite hornswoggle. Instead, in Minority Report, you're being shown a world -- which you're then allowed to judge on its merits.
This from Spielberg. He finally trusts us to notice details again. Incredible!
Uh-huh. But even then, the movie's not that simple. Minority Report is packed to the gunwales with characters who aren't quite what they seem, with sad little thematic paradoxes strewn throughout. I don't want to ruin the film, but here are a few examples:
(1) One character we all know and care about is a closet drug addict eaten alive by guilt over the loss of his son -- and, when the chips are down, he wrestles with a legitimate but all-consuming thirst for bloody revenge;
(2) The law-enforcement agents can see into the future thanks to three genetically altered "PreCogs" (one of them played by Samantha Morton) -- but these valuable human beings are kept in more or less the same semi-comatose state in which the "pre-criminals" Cruise arrests are kept. Precisely this sort of paradox -- what do you give up to gain "security"? -- is explored consistently throughout.
(2) There are several deliciously creepy moments where we see the film's jailers and law-enforcement pioneers acting totally but quietly fucked-up batshit nuts. Tim Blake Nelson, playing the "Pre-Criminal" warden, talks a bit like his character from O Brother Where Art Thou? and pounds on a church organ like Hell's own Baptist minister. And based on one or two throwaway moments, you can just totally tell the technician attending to the PreCogs (Daniel London) has a quiet psychosexual fixation on Morton's wordless character.
But best of all is Lois Smith as Dr. Iris Hineman -- the so-called "Mother of PreCrime" who's apparently become something of a botany-obsessed hermit In the movie, Anderton, on the lam, stumbles to Dr. Hineman's house, climbs over her retaining wall, and is immediately grabbed by unexplained living vines that apparently secrete some sort of slow asphyxiating hallucinogen. Anderton frees himself and stumbles into her greenhouse, where she seems calmly unsurprised to see him. What follows is the second-kookiest exchange of dialogue in Spielberg's career (the first-weirdest also being in this movie, and involving Peter Stormare making terrifying quacking sounds, which I'll get to below). The good doctor is clearly completely crackers, possibly with regret, and alternately rebukes Anderton, offers him tea, and tries to make out with him, all while tending to a frightening array of living plants. It's an utterly committed, totally alive piece of writing by Frank/Cohen and directing by Spielberg -- and one of the best scenes in movies this year.
What's that first-weirdest scene? Tell me now!
Peter Stormare as a black-market eye-transplant specialist -- who talks to his hard, blonde assistant in what seemed to be a secret language consisting of Finnish and duck quacks -- shooting Anderton full of anesthetic even as he tells the rogue cop how they met before, when Anderton arrested him for setting his plastic-surgery patients on fire.
This is a Spielberg movie? It sounds more like David Lynch!
I know. I won't even get into the business with rotten food and Anderton with an artificially sagged face chasing his eyeballs after they fall out of a baggie and roll into a drain grate. (Minority Report is just packed with eye and sight motifs in an uninsulting way that will give armchair film scholars quite a bit to chew on.)
Huh? Is this a sci-fi action movie or what? The trailer was packed full of action! How are the action scenes?
The one where Cruise plays a sort of vertical Frogger on cars driving down the side of a building is really, really cool -- as is a complicated bit where "Opti-Spiders" are searching a tenement building for Anderton. Otherwise -- and this is a near-inversion of how Spielberg bits usually play -- the action scenes are really sort of clunky and silly and far-between (especially the much-promoted jet-pack chase, which contains the movie's only "silly" bits of business).
Viewers should be warned now: The trailers have been deceptive. This is a smart, chatty, Big Issue sci-fi movie with a few action scenes interspersed throughout. Leaven your expectations accordingly. You'll be rewarded if you do.
For the three obsessive John Williams fans out there: How's the score?
If you're reading this, then you probably already bought the soundtrack CD, and you already know it's not what you'd expect from a Williams sci-fi score -- it's unobtrusive and largely dark underscore that's bombastic where it needs to be. I hardly noticed it, and couldn't pick out any themes or leitmotifs that obtrusively drilled their way into my hippocampus -- which is probably some sort of compliment.
What else is good?
(1) Tom Cruise. He's taken his anguished, tense character from Eyes Wide Shut and merged him with Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, if that makes any sense. You'll see what I mean. His performance is peppered with tiny details.
(2) The twisty, L.A. Confidential levels of misdirection -- particularly as applied to oily Justice Department suit Witwer (Colin Farrell, in a star turn).
(3) The way Spielberg seems to have remembered, all of a sudden, how to encode small, human moments within a Big Movie, just like he used to in Jaws and other pre-1983 classics. Like Cruise, The Beard seems to have emerged from Kubrick's boot camp wheezing from a swift kick in the nethers, and now eager to relax and play again -- only his "playtime" is now informed with a certain discipline, a meticulousness, that he picked up in the trenches. Again, you'll see what I mean.
(3) The opening set piece, in which we see an entire PreCrime investigation carried out from soup to nuts. There's a patience to the storytelling, and some great acting by a softened-up Arye Gross (Arye Gross!) as a cuckolded husband turned pre-criminal.
(4) The way the movie juggles really plausible sci-fi (eye scanners, dense advertising, realistic monitor technology) with totally silly "world of the future" bullcorn (cars on Hot Wheels-like elevated tracks, PreCrime perps' and victims' names carved on balls of wood that roll down long, Habitrail-like tubes). It's like putting an iBook in the same room with UNIVAC -- and it somehow totally works.
(5) The charismatic, blindingly white, buffed-out Neal McDonough as one of Cruise's partners;
(6) A sustained, room-to-room overhead shot of the tenement invaded by the spiders;
(7) The way this movie's cyber-fetish underworld is actually perversely sexual in a way that A.I.'s Rouge City was not.
I could go on and on. But I think you get the idea.
Oh, sure. There's one scene where Morton's PreCog is riffing on a dead boy's alternate future that lays it on a little thick. (That's one scene, mind you.) And students of the noir genre will probably guess a few dramatic beats moments before they happen. There are a couple of dramatic chestnuts. Stuff like that.
Also -- and I'm trying to figure out how to write this without giving away any plot points -- those who like really dark, merciless noir endings will probably argue that there's a point about 15 minutes before the actual end of the film where you fully understand the film's central puzzle and things are at their absolute worst for Anderton, and the movie could and have ended. These fans of really dark, merciless noir are sort of correct; however, if Spielberg had heeded their advice, the movie would be hailed as a dark masterpiece but make only about $50 million at the box office. As it stands, the film's close to perfect as is.
That's right: "The film's close to perfect as it is." And you'll be happy to hear that most of the very same film snots I quoted in my recent "Attack of the Clones review" review agreed with me on that point.