Originally Written: June 2002
Some directors and genres go together like “peas and carrots,” as Forrest Gump might put it. Alfred Hitchcock and thrillers. Martin Scorsese and gangster films. John Woo and action. Ron Howard and comedy. John Ford and westerns. Steven Spielberg and science fiction. Inspired by the sci-fi films, books, and comics of his childhood, Spielberg has long ago established himself as arguably the genre’s best and brightest filmmaker. Stanley Kubrick’s forays into the genre- “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange”- were of higher regard with critics, and highly influencial and artful films like “The Matrix,” “Dark City,” and “Blade Runner” have more fervent cult followings, but Spielberg’s early offerings in the genre- “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”- showed Spielberg to be an overtly passionate artist in the genre, fascinated by the humanity and complexities of the ideas surrounding sci-fi, and particularly it’s never-ending belief that “we are not alone.” This passion for the genre has extended to his producing resume, which includes “Men in Black,” “Deep Impact,” the “Back to the Future” trilogy, and the TV series “SeaQuest DSV.” But to fans, his recent directing forays into the genre have been mixed. Despite it’s questionable science, the 1993 dino romp “Jurassic Park” was a smash thanks to the pulse-pounding action that only the director of “Jaws” and “Indiana Jones” could deliver, and- of course- the most realistic dinosaurs put onscreen. And then there’s 2001’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” The beyond-the-grave collaboration between Spielberg and “2001” creator Kubrick left myself and others haunted, but left many more horrified at how such a dark and complicated story could come from a film that was marketed as sort of another “E.T.”-like story. The film started strong, then drifted off to a disappointing- for Spielberg- $79 million take. Thankfully (in my opinion), “A.I.” will hopefully find a second life, and passionate audience, on video and DVD, and become the complex masterpiece “2001” has over the years.
Which brings us to “Minority Report.” Besides being Spielberg’s 6th venture into science fiction as a director (including the 1997 “Jurassic” sequel “The Lost World”), it’s also the first collaboration between the director and star Tom Cruise. It’s been a long time coming as well. Friends since the early ’80s (shortly after Cruise’s 1983 breakthrough “Risky Business”), they’ve been wanting to work together since, but circumstance (Spielberg had to quit “Rain Man” to do “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) and scheduling always got in the way. With “Minority Report”- based on a short story by the acclaimed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (whose stories have also inspired “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” and “Imposter”) about a futuristic United States where crime can be seen (and stopped) before it happens- Spielberg and Cruise were finally to work together. But it wasn’t that easy. Co-stars (like Matt Damon) had to drop out, projects had to take priority (“A.I.” for Spielberg, “Vanilla Sky” for Cruise), and- most importantly- a script needed to be tightened.
Thankfully, the wait was worth it. For brains, action, suspense, and intrigue, nothing we’ve seen this year- except possibly Chris Nolan’s “Insomnia”- tops “Minority Report.” The film represents prime Spielberg, whose confidence as a storyteller was tested last year with “A.I.,” with “Minority Report” confirming how well he passed. The film is the quickest 2 1/2 hour film I’ve ever seen, moving- courtesy of Spielberg’s brilliant editor Michael Kahn- at three speeds- fast, faster, and fastest towards one of the most thoughtfully constructed and unpredictable climaxes in recent cinema. Spielberg stages breathless sequences on a futuristic highway, in a Lexus factory, and on jet packs with the sort of skill only the director of the “Indiana Jones” films could muster. And just try not to get chills during a gripping sequence in a mall or an apartment complex, as Cruise’s John Anderton- who’s been implicated in the most recent visions by the “Pre-Cogs” (the seers used by Pre-Crime to predict the murders)- attempts to hide from Precrime’s mechanical spider scanners while on the lam and trying to clear his name. The former sequence is staged with remarkable timing and clarity, as one of the “Pre-Cogs”- the female Agatha (a haunting and touching Samantha Morton), whom John has “kidnapped” from Pre-Crime- forsees what Anderton must do to outwit his pursuers. The latter- with the spiders- features one of the single most extraordinary shots in all of Spielberg’s career, a stunning overhead tracking shot as the spiders go through scanning residents to find John. Unlike David Fincher’s own bit of genius earlier this year in “Panic Room” (as the camera glided through key holes and down flights of stairs to show the break-in via CG augmentation), Spielberg uses just a fully-constructed set (by the excellent production designer Alex McDowell, best known for “The Crow” and “Fight Club”), a special crane and controlled tracking movements planned by Spielberg’s extraordinary cinematographer Janusz Kamisnki, who is in peak form in this film. It’s one of the most visually powerful films of the year in a year with it’s fair share of striking visuals (“Panic Room,” “Insomnia,” “Windtalkers,” “Star Wars,” “Metropolis”).
Can it be anything but a relief to hear that the script was partially responsible for the delay in production? Though Jon Cohen- a newcomer- is credited as a co-writer, even Spielberg will tell you the man responsible for the high quality of the script is Scott Frank. Frank was last responsible for the award-winning adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Out of Sight” for director Steven Soderbergh, while contributing another superb Leonard screen treatment back in 1995 with “Get Shorty.” Like “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty,” “Minority Report” is clever but not smug, smart but not pretentious, complex but not difficult, familiar but not predictable, and one of the year’s best screenplays. Not since 1998’s neglected “Dark City” has there been a sci-fi film as gripping, intelligent, and tightly-constructed. More on that in a moment.
Much has been made of the fact that Spielberg was inspired by the idea of turning “Minority Report” into a futuristic film noir, engulfing himself into the classic noirs of old such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” to get himself into the right frame of mind. Personally, I don’t see the similarities, not just with “Falcon” and “Sleep,” but with the standard bearers of the genre within sci-fi, specifically Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” Alex Proyas’ “Dark City,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville.” “Blade Runner,” “Dark City,” and “Alphaville” all placed their futuristic stories within the hard-boiled atmosphere and archetypes of noir, like the gumshoe detective, the femme fatale, and the corrupt cop (though “Report” does find a place for that last one). For me, “Minority Report” plays more like “The Fugitive” than “Chinatown,” though I will say further thought into the matter has led me to see comparisons with two of my favorite film noirs, Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” and Orson Welles’ brilliant “Touch of Evil.” Both- especially the Welles’- are gripping morality plays disguised as police thrillers, and “Minority Report” is no different. If future murders can be seen, why can’t the person just not commit them? Whose to say they would? Whose to say they don’t have a alternate future? The Pre-Cogs are known to have disagreed at times. These rare occasions are called by the creator of “Pre-Crime” (played with scene-stealing possibilities to spare by Lois Smith) “minority reports,” which are filed away by the most talented of the Pre-Cogs. Is Anderton’s a “minority report?” I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.
As important to Spielberg as the story of “Minority Report” are the characters and performances. Cruise turns in a terrific star performance to rival Harrison Ford’s in the “Indiana Jones” films, and surpass his own in his coveted “Mission: Impossible” series. It’s primarily a dramatic turn, but Cruise manages some sly wit and charisma all the same, especially when he first goes on the run. When the story takes some unexpected emotional twists in the second half, Cruise brings it home brilliantly. Colin Farrell (“Hart’s War”) plays Ed Witwer, a government official sent in by the Attorney General to examine Pre-Crime as the country is on the verge of voting for it to go national. It’s a compelling, breakthrough performance that Farrell brings a sense of danger to, setting Witwer up to be the film’s heavy, and a very good one at that. Max von Sydow (“The Exorcist,” “The Seventh Seal”) shines as Anderton’s superior and the head of Pre-Crime; he reminded me of James Cromwell’s sharp turn in “L.A. Confidential.” Another standout performance I thought was Kathyrn Morris as Lara Anderton, John’s estranged life. She left John after their young son Sean was kidnapped many years ago, and is only brought into the story after John starts running. It’s a telling, surprisingly strong performance as she grounds John’s longing for his son with force and feeling.
I think I understand why John Williams’ score for “Episode II” felt so derivative when experienced with the movie? He was focusing his attention more towards Spielberg’s futuristic thriller. While it left for a disappointing “Star Wars” musical installment, the trade-off is substantial. “Minority Report” is the combination of his breathless “Indiana Jones” style of writing with his futurist “A.I.” drama, resulting in a score of vitality and ingenuity from one of the best film composers ever. Like Elfman’s “Spider-Man” score, it’s unlikely you’ll be humming any one piece when you exit the theater, but that’s not much of the point. The point is to follow Anderton on his mission towards discovering the truth about his future. It’s one of the year’s best.
In developing “Minority Report,” Spielberg enlisted the help of several futurists and scientists to try and figure out what they thought would be around in the year 2054. In this future, you see magnetic cars, holographic video (it’s more compact and clear than even DVD), creepy spiders that scan your eyes, retinal scans in general, wicked-cool “stun” guns, and new little toys for druggies to play with. Stanley Kubrick had similar sessions while he was developing “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Unfortunately, 2001 has come and gone, and most of the things Kubrick envisioned- save for videophones- are still a pipe dream. By 2054, will Spielberg’s future in “Minority Report” be the same way? Probably not, but one can dream. That’s what science-fiction is for. To inhabit our dreams, and every once in a while, our nightmares. “Minority Report” isn’t the first dark vision of the world in the future. “Blade Runner,” “Metropolis,” and “Escape From New York” beat it to the punch. Still, few visions have ever been more compelling. Once again, Spielberg returns to the genre that inspires him most, and comes up with a classic.
The Science Fiction of Steven Spielberg, Director:
1) “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)- A+
2) “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001)- A+
3) “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)- A+
4) “Minority Report” (2002)- A+
5) “Jurassic Park” (1993)- A+
6) “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997)- B