Stanley Kubrick may have gotten his revenge on Steven Spielberg with A.I., but he pays him back in Minority Report. Not only is it Spielberg’s best, but it could have been one of Kubrick’s as well. The latter’s influence is all-pervasive, but not overwhelming, and there are shades of Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alfred Hitchcock — not to mention Shakespeare, Dante, and Sophocles, to name just a few. But the unrepentant Steven Spielberg of old is in the mix, too, that calculating maestro of sentimentality, simplemindedness, and platitudes; fortunately, he’s in the minority (say, 25 percent, and I won’t say which part).
And of course, Philip K. Dick, on whose 1956 story the film is based, is heard from as well. One of the few science-fiction writers who can be called visionary, Dick spun futuristic tales demonstrating how experience, memory, and identity can all be synthesized and manipulated (what else, indeed, is filmmaking?) — and probably are.
Mere metaphysical musing, perhaps, until you add the element of paranoid conspiracy, whereupon the speculative becomes political. The mixture of surreal urgency and cynical despair makes Dick’s work germane to every age, and especially so during Republican administrations. So it’s surprising his fiction has fared so poorly on the big screen. Screamers? Impostor? Some parts of Verhoeven’s Total Recall are memorable, but the best adaptation has been Scott’s bravura but flawed Blade Runner.
Until now. Where else, for example would you find any serious commentary on the country’s current dismemberment of its own civil rights? For a look at John Ashcroft’s dream of America (not entirely; in this future people still enjoy pornography), welcome to Washington, DC, in the year 2054, where murder has been eradicated by the Pre-Crime system.
Three "precogs" — latter-day crack babies whose birth disorders have given them the ability to see the future, float in an amniotic vat hooked up to a brain scanner that projects their visions of crimes of the future. Meanwhile, a ball pops out of tube with the name of the perp, then another with the name of the victim in a procedure that combines the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, the Oracle at Delphi, MTV, and the lottery.
The culprit is arrested — before the crime, which now never happened — and incarcerated in a Dantesque limbo of towering test tubes. The innocent are punished before they can become guilty. Unfair, perhaps, but the streets are safe, and people are willing to endure the injustice for security. As I’m sure they would today.
What threatens the system is not its essential paradox, however, but its oft-referred-to "human element." Chief Paul Anderton (Tom Cruise, his grin looking reptilian) grieves the loss of his kidnapped son — it’s the reason he got into Pre-Crime in the first place. He passes the lonely nights watching virtual-reality home movies of the boy and sucking on a next-generation drug called "Clarity."
He’s in a vulnerable state when FBI agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) comes snooping and insists they enter the inviolable domain of the "Temple," the vault housing the precogs. An alluring fetal-faced precog named Agatha (Samantha Morton) reaches out and touches Anderton, and the next ball down the chute has his name on it, fingering him as the future killer of a complete stranger.
Has he been set up? The plot, which never fails to engage even when it becomes predictable (from the moment Max von Sydow hits the screen as Atherton’s avuncular boss, Lamar Burgess), becomes secondary to the densely layered, multiply allusive mise-en-scène, a cinematic, pop-cultural collage of image and quips that is sardonic, dazzling, and hilarious (I’d make a comparison to the much maligned Vanilla Sky, but most would not see that as a compliment).
The highpoint of A.I. was the flight through a dystopian future city, and Spielberg exceeds that here as Anderton tries to evade the diabolical enforcement system he had formerly overseen and so learn his true fate. Along the way, Spielberg shows a flair for astonishing and revelatory special effects that puts Lucas to shame. He also indulges a flair for black comedy that belies his own weakness for the cornball. A sequence with Peter Stormare as a black-market eye doctor (eye-scanning identity-recognition technology has been refined to a nightmarish level, and a walk through a shopping mall is the hellishly logical development of telemarketing) equals Kubrick at his most gleefully perverse, and Spielberg also evokes Roger Corman with such "sight gags" as a shot of eyeballs, desperately pursued by their owner, rolling down a grate.
But then you’ve got the inevitable Spielbergian bad faith. It’s not so much his insecurity about his audience’s intelligence — the hammering home of key points like "seeing" and "running" and his dumbing down of the narrative. It’s that he can’t pass up the schmaltzy moment. Here it’s the otherwise uncanny Morton delivering a mawkish homily about family love from which the film struggles to recover. Yet recover it does: Minority Report gives one hope for the future, if only of film.