Monday, June 29, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Minority Report" (2002)

"Minority Report" is the most un-Spielberg film ever made by Steven Spielberg.

There is plenty of heartbreak and sadness in Spielberg's movies. Certainly fractured families are a central theme. He's made movies about the Holocaust, D-Day and World War I trenches. The film he made right before this one was "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," in which bereaved parents replace their dying son with a robot who's been tricked into thinking he's a real boy.

And yet, there is an undercurrent of light and hopefulness in his oeuvre that I find (mostly) missing in "Minority Report," though "A.I." probably comes closest in its dystopian themes and dour mood.

In both movies technology has led to seemingly amazing achievements to benefit society, but there's an insidious bargain underneath that threatens to upend the balance. That's not surprising since it was based on a short story by the immortal Philip K. Dick, whose fears about the future essentially created its own film genre, tech noir. It was adapted for the screen by John Cohen and Scott Frank.

I remember liking the film when it came out but not being amazed as other critics were. One of the areas I still find it lacking is the sense of an entire world being built around star Tom Cruise. Instead, it seems like Spielberg and his team created just enough pieces to serve as a backdrop, and no more. He doesn't paint in the corners.

There are the automated cars that move both horizontally and vertically, but other than a chase scene where Cruise leaps from vehicle to vehicle, they're not really explored as a (literally) transportive societal evolution. Things seem... pretty well the same as they are now. They even have The Gap, in a self-reflexive bit of product placement.

Though maybe the sameness is a commentary in and of itself.

Set in the year 2054, the film has been pointed to as being prescient in its depiction of coming technological upheaval. We obviously don't have the ability to predict the future or record thoughts into a video stream, though VR headsets can do a pretty good job of putting you into a created reality. And the mind-altering drug people use in the film, neuroin, bears disturbing similarities to the opioid epidemic of today.

All the newspapers and magazines automatically update with the latest headlines, which if you were in the news business in the early Aughts, the talk of "e-paper" being the format of the future was all the rage. Instead we turned to reading on hard, graceless, 4-inch screens.

Most interesting is the ever-present eye scanners, taking a cool gadget that's a staple of the spy and sci-fi genres and turning it into an intimating facet of a world where our movements are continuously tracked -- ostensibly for consumerist purposes, but as we quickly see the government is piggybacking on the gaze.

We don't use "eye-D," as it's called in the movie, so ubiquitously or without consent. But think about how our online explorations are customized through cookies and trackable data. Everyone knows how they've searched for a product and then seen ads for similar wares plastering our web carousing. Or getting a report every month from Google Maps telling you exactly where you've been, and when.

Most of us would be mortified to have our browser history made public. In the world of "Minority Report," everything about us is on continual surveillance and display, up to and including the things we think about doing. Literally, people are arrested and punished for things they were about to do.

The story is at its root a meditation on free will and predestination. Usually such tales are set against a theological backdrop -- if God determines our path, how are we really free to choose?

As a good Catholic boy growing up, I was instructed that thinking about committing an act is just a much a sin as actually doing it. This was taught as a way to forbid sinful thoughts, but as any pubescent soon realized, they're as impossible to shut out as the old saw of "Don't think about elephants."

I think it was George Carlin who observed that the majority of Catholics who lapsed figured out that if you were going to be punished equally for thinking about doing something, you might as well experience the fun of actually doing it.

("I'll take glaring holes in catechism for $1,000, Alex.")

The film largely eschews religious issues, other than the decoration of some people considering the three "precogs" as deities unto themselves. They are children born of early neuroin users with psychic gifts, which used in conjunction can read people's evil intents before even they themselves are aware of them.

Of course, this also involves being imprisoned in a floating "milk bath" that heightens their powers, kept eternally pumped full of hallucinogens and fawned over by a quite possibly lecherous keeper, Wally (Daniel London).

Agatha (Samantha Morton) is the "most gifted" of the three, twins Dashiell and Arthur basically serving as assist men to the true genius. The three are named after famous mystery writers, and were trained by Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith), now living out her days in lonesome regret.

As is often the case in real life, the creative partner was outlasted and outmaneuvered by the business shark, in this case Max von Sydow as Lamar Burgess, who is now desperate to take the "PreCrime" experiment from Washington D.C. to a national stage. This means jumping through small hoops held by big people.

Hence the arrival of the inquisitive mind of Danny Witwer, a wolf-like young assistant attorney general played by Colin Farrell in his breakout role in American films. He instantly focuses his attention on Chief John Anderton (Cruise), who is the heroic public face of PreCrime. John lost his own son in a bizarre abduction at a public swimming pool years earlier, tanking his marriage to Lara (Kathryn Morris) and turning him into a stealth neuroin user.

In early scene, John goes jogging through the shady part of D.C., his real purpose to obtain a fix, which he uses to heighten his mood while watching (crude) holographic home movies of his lost kid. The blind dealer removes his glasses to reveal cavernous empty eye sockets, seemingly revealing his very brains, with the admonishment, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!"

Watching the movie again, this line heralds a lot of high-contrast photography by cinematographer Janusz KamiƄski, including a plethora of shots where one of a character's eyes are turned away or lost in shadow.

For me, the faster the movie's plot-stirring gets, the more I tend to lose interest as it gets into pure chase-chase mode. Neal McDonough plays Fletch, John's former right-hand man now charged with leading the hunt for him. "Everybody runs" is their mantra, leading to some slick action scenes with flying power suits and "sick sticks," glowing batons that instantly make their target retch.

In one of the movie's coolest but most inscrutable sequences, John goes to have his eyes swapped out in a black market procedure to fool the eye-D scans.

Peter Stormare plays the bottom-bucket doctor, who blows snot all over his hand right before sucking out John's eyeballs. In a riveting soliloquy, the not-good doctor reminds John -- now addled by anesthesia -- that the chief locked him away years ago for intentionally setting his patients on fire, and now back-alley eye jobs are the only medical work he can do.

It revs up to a classic "I shall have my revenge" declaration:

"For true enlightenment there is nothing like... well, let's just say taking a shower while this large fellow with an attitude you couldn't knock down with a hammer, that keeps whispering in your ear: 'Oh Nancy, Oh Nancy.' Now that was a lot of fun, thank you so very much John for putting me in there, thank you so very much for giving me an opportunity to get to know myself much better."

As near as I can figure, though, the doc never actually extracts any kind of revenge. He competently performs his job, at less than his usual rate, even. John has a nasty encounter with a putrid sandwich and spoiled milk placed in the fridge of his recovery flophouse, though they appear to be genuine accidents as he blindly reaches on the wrong shelf from where the fresh sustenance lies.

As much as I enjoy Stormare's effortless creepy presence and off-kilter line readings, this whole bit feels like a buildup to an important moment that never arrives. I believe the whole thing could be chopped down to quick montage and improve the pacing. Though this would maybe suck some of the life out of the subsequent house search by tiny "spiders," disc-like robots with wire-thin appendages deployed by the PreCrime brutes to infiltrate and forcibly eye-D people

Hence Cruise's green eyes become dark brown halfway through the movie. He keeps the old eyes in a plastic biggie to sneak back into the PreCrime HQ (no one thinking to lock out his profile, apparently) with the intent to have them put back one day, but comically loses one down a drain.

Tim Blake Nelson turns up as Gideon, the wheelchair-deployed officiate of the PreCrime "prison" where reside people judged and sentenced without actually committing any dastardly acts. They lie forever dreaming in plastic tubes, wearing coma-inducing "halos" around their heads like fallen angels as Gideon plays them orgiastic organ music to calm their prematurely damned souls.

As Nelson brings an innate disquieting anxiety to his roles, one instantly wonders if, like Wally, Gideon is supplanting his official duties with an occasional tug 'n' grope of his comelier charges.

John himself is briefly sentenced to the halo prison, his long run finally ending due to the machinations of Burgess, who is using his protege as the sacrificial pawn to ensure PreCrime is cleared for a national rollout. Lara springs him... surprisingly easily, and many have wondered if the film's entire last act is a big guffaw and everything we've seen is merely the imaginings of John, still trapped in his plastic prison on a never-ending high.

This would, of course, be a mirror of the finale of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," one of my all-time favorite films and a clear inheritor of Philip K. Dick's prescient, precious paranoia. His cinematic children were legion, even without an official credit.

And while I don't think "Minority Report" is among the finest of the adaptations, it's a film that has aged rather well in nearly a couple of clicks down the big highway. There was even a briefly lived TV series a few years ago that came and went without me (or anyone) much noticing.

Things end on a (somewhat artificial) high note -- Burgess slain by his own hand, PreCrime disbanded and the not-yet criminals released, Agatha and the twins relocated from their enforced isolation in the pool to a self-imposed one in a lonely cottage on a Scottish cliff or wherever, free to live in the now and not the future.

John even caresses the swelling belly of Lara, their love reborn with another life and shot at parenthood. It seems that free will does reign, along with happy endings in Spielberg flicks -- even if it takes two-plus hours of haunting parable to get there.

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