[20 June 2002]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Tom Tom Tom TOM. He is everywhere: Time, Premiere, CNN, Oprah, Entertainment Weekly, flashing his braces, laughing loudly, loving his life with Penelope, taking phone calls from his kids—and all this more than a month after he mowed Rosie O’Donnell’s lawn and made her lemonade! No doubt about it, Tom is most terrific.
The occasion for the current hubbub, of course, is Cruise’s teaming with Steven Spielberg for the definitively ambitious, aggressively affected and strangely affecting Minority Report. While the one-two star punch is surely enough to draw attention to the project, what’s even more striking about it is the earnestness of their collaboration, at least as it’s presented in the press. To hear these enthusiastic Stanley Kubrick aficionados tell it, they are dedicated to making quality, quirky, non-standard art. Coming from two of the blockbusteriest men in the business, such an assertion is either predictably self-inflating or commendably heroic. And, unsurprisingly, their first joint effort suggests the truth lies somewhere in between.
Based on a story published by Philip K. Dick in 1956, Minority Report is science-fiction of the sort that Dick preferred to write—set in the future, but all wrapped up in concerns that are immediately relevant to the present moment (that the same concerns were relevant back in 1956 is not a little unnerving, as will become clear). These concerns have been updated by screenwriters Scott Frank (Out of Sight) and Jon Cohen, and reshaped by Spielberg, whose anxieties about the future inhumanity received a more strained treatment in A.I. Still, the concerns are drawn from Dick’s, and include privacy, surveillance, human rights (and/as property), addictions and obsessions, child abuse, political intrigue and purpose, and legal definitions of criminality.
The film is set in Washington DC, 2054, a time when murder, for all intents and purposes, has been eliminated. The opening scene thrillingly displays the science fictional technology that will become the film’s major metaphor and plot-driver. At the Justice Department’s elite Pre-crime unit, detective John Anderton (Cruise) is downloading information from the pre-cogs, a trio of humans who spend their time floating in a vat of conducting fluid, wired to one another and to a big computer that reads images of murders about to happen, that come to them because they are so marvelously ESP-endowed.
This process looks jazzy, as John “scrubs” the images on a huge screen before him, moving his hands so the pictures slip and slide and become clearer or pull out for longer views, so that the information—where, when, and who is involved, exactly, can be determined in time, so a SWAT-type squad can roar into the area to arrest the perpetrator before he or she completes the deed. After arrest, the pre-criminal is “haloed” (fitted with a head gizmo that leaves you aware and able to dream, but tractable), then whisked off to a warehouse full of tanks, where you’re stored, Matrix-like, apparently forever. (It hardly helps that the prisoners’ guardian is the creepily inept Gideon, played by Tim Blake Nelson in pasty makeup).
Since Pre-crime has been in existence for some 6 years at this point, the murders tend never to be premeditated (everyone knows they’ll be busted), but imminent crimes of passion still crop up, usually only some few hours or minutes before actual occurrence. And so, John’s skills are necessary and revered—he’s good at reading the signs quickly and accurately. He’s also, on his off-hours, a drug addict, miserable because his young son was kidnapped years ago. His anguish and focus make him a determined criminalist/policeman, a la John Walsh. His addictions—to a synthetic he cops off the street, and to holographic discs of his son (who significantly asks his athletic dad to teach him to run fast: “Gotta keep running!”), which he watches incessantly, night after night—make him sappy and tragic, a la Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny in Strange Days.
For those depending on him, John’s “problems” work out fine: he’s driven, meticulous, and increasingly easy to upset. His friends and co-workers call him “chief,” and depend on his instincts, for instance, team member Fletcher (Neal McDonough) and Pre-crime info dispatcher Jad (Steve Harris, with little to do here but manipulate some technological falderal and look serious). John’s superiors have taken note of his good work as well: no murder in the nation’s capital means that Pre-crime founder Lamar Burgess (the exquisite Max Von Sydow) might pursue a political future.
The hitch comes when John sees himself in a Pre-crime vision, shooting a man he’s never met. Instantly, his life comes undone: his own team, plus straight-arrow Justice Department Agent Witwer (Colin Farrell), is hunting him. “You don’t have to run,” says Fletcher; “Everybody runs,” observes John, just before mounting a spectacular escape. Not quite Mission Impossible 2 spectacular, but speedy and digital enough to compare favorably with this season’s impressively slamming action sequences.
Conveniently, following this daring escape, John knows just where to find the research scientist whose work led to Pre-crime, wise and crotchety Iris (Lois Smith). She’s peeved at the way it’s turned into a political platform, because she knows that Pre-crime is an inherently fallible system. This potential for error is human, embodied by the pre-cogs and ignored by those who use them. Mysteriously, their gift is related to their being the children of drug addicts. (And the fact that they are stolen from their mothers to serve in this soupy capacity certainly makes the whole Pre-crime business look shady, not least because it recalls historical “experiments,” in which human subjects were culled from minority or otherwise disempowered populations.)
Even aside from the crooked politics, the system is flawed in its basic design. That is, the pre-cogs don’t always share the same vision, and when this happens, in order to cover it up, the odd vision, called the “minority report,” is filed away, never to be read (just why imperfect systems overseers maintain records of their failures remains unclear). As it happens, the lone female pre-cog, Agatha (Samantha Morton, who is luminous), is at once the “most gifted” and the most likely to register one of these odd visions.
The possibility that Pre-crime might be defective has apparently never occurred to John, since his investment in the system is so wrapped up in his own guilt and rage over his missing son (a flashback shows that he takes his eyes off his son for a few seconds at a public pool, and the child is gone—certainly a timely issue, and yet another version of Spielberg’s usual torture-the-kids-to-get-to-the-parents plotline). Now that John’s been enlightened, he’s wondering if he’s haloed people who weren’t pre-perps. And hey, what about the fundamental cruelty of keeping the pre-cogs, like pets, in their tank?
A neat solution presents itself: to find the presumed minority report on his own pre-crime (to “prove” he isn’t going to commit it), he must free Agatha and get access to her memories, or rather, her visions of crimes that end up not happening because the villains are stopped before they can commit them. Unfortunately, these compelling logical and legal issues don’t get much play beyond plot points, for they up the ante in everything else going on in Minority Report, from the ethics of taking predictions as “facts” to the political and ideological ramifications of a society premised on surveillance.
Instead, the film remains rather resolutely focused on John’s personal predicament—his own simultaneous obsession with avoidance of his past, his self-pity and outrage, his determination to make his world “right” (as if such a thing is possible). And so, John—that is, Tom Cruise—provides a charismatic, chiseled, thoroughly Hollywood point of identification, one that is surely talented and pretty to look at, but also tends to obscure broader, currently pertinent dimensions of oppression and exploitation—say, of populations and communities.
But okay, it’s a Tom Cruise movie. Try to forget, for a minute, all that machinery, and you can notice that Minority Report astutely links such oppression and exploitation with technologies of seeing. During his run, John decides that he must lose those eyes in order to avoid detection by authorities, as retinal scanners monitor activities at every street and in every building. He visits a black market surgeon, Dr. Eddie (Peter Stormare), who replaces his eyes with someone else’s. The grisly episode includes some memorable images: eyeballs oozing in plastic bags; Dr. Eddie propping John’s eyes open in a way that recalls Alec’s reprogramming in A Clockwork Orange; and recovering from one of those noirish moments where some seedy character, say, Humphrey Bogart, gets plastic surgery to hide his identity.
This eye-swap also allows for a brief series of super-FXed set-pieces, including the cops’ “penetration” of the doctor’s apartment building with scanner-spiders, little robots that tic-tic-tic through and read all citizens’ eyes in their homes; a bit where John has to hide in a bathtub full of ice in order to avoid the body-heat-scanners handled by his former teammates; and a follow-up scene, where John disguises himself with a drug that distorts his face, painfully (baggy Tom—it’s a bit of a jolt). The film represents these invasions of self and space in ways that are terrifically disturbing. Though Minority Report makes a few wrong turns (like A.I., it overstays its welcome, with several possible endings strung together, and closes on an improbably cheerful note), this disturbing sequence resonates. Between seeing and being seen, running is not an option.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/minority-report/