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Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002


Future shock

Minority Report

Rating: * * * *
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 145 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Imagine being convicted of a crime that you had only thought of committing and being incarcerated indefinitely in suspended animation. No, this isn't President George W. Bush's latest innovation in the name of "homeland security," but rather the premise of Steven Spielberg's sci-fi suspense blockbuster, "Minority Report."

News photo
Tom Cruise as a pre-crime cop in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" © TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX AND DREAMWORKS LLC. ALL RIGHTS REVERVED.

The place, Washington, D.C.; the time, about 50 years from now, and the homicide rate in one of the United States' most dangerous cities has dropped to near zero, thanks to an experimental new "pre-crime" program. A special police unit headed by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) employs a team of "pre-cogs" -- genetically mutated humans with the ability to sense the future -- to predict murders that will occur in the near future.

After the pre-cog team's revelations are "witnessed" by a panel of judges, Anderton's pre-crime unit swings into action and apprehends the potential killers, often before they're even aware of what it is they're going to do. As such, premeditated murder has ceased to exist, and all that remains are crimes of passion, which -- due to their sudden nature -- are detected with less lead time.

In a Kafka-esque twist, Anderton walks into work one morning and receives a shocker: The next accused murderer is him. Within the next day or two, according to the pre-cogs' tele-visually recorded visions, he will shoot a man he doesn't even know. And the pre-cogs, as Anderton himself has boasted, are never wrong.

Anderton finds himself trapped by the very system he's been championing, but when it comes to his own future, he can't believe it's preordained. Like any sane person who believes in free will, he flees, hoping to prove his innocence. His only hope, as he's told by Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith), the geneticist who established pre-crime, lies in the pre-cogs' heads. Occasionally the most gifted pre-cog, Agatha (Samantha Morton), will have a different view of the future, in what is called a "minority report."

The problem is that such dissenting opinions are suppressed by the cops. As Hineman puts it, "obviously for pre-crime to survive, there must be no suggestion of fallibility." So Anderton's only hope is to somehow sneak back into the police headquarters, kidnap Agatha from the flotation tank where the pre-cogs are kept in a state of perpetual lucid dreaming, and somehow download proof of his innocence from her mind.

Heady stuff, and it's no surprise to learn that the premise was developed from a short story by Philip K. Dick, the king of metaphysical, paranoid science fiction. Dick was never afraid to wrestle with the big questions, and "Minority Report" takes on a few. The notion of destiny is tackled head on -- is it preordained, or do we have freedom of choice? -- and Dick's favorite bugbear -- a manipulative, Orwellian government -- also makes an appearance. Indeed, the two themes blur, with the state assuming almost godlike powers in observing our lives and judging our futures.

Believe it or not, Spielberg is actually making a statement here, one that cautions against relying too much on security technology and the government to solve our problems. In the contemporary U.S. -- plagued by fears of snipers and terrorists, obsessed with metal detectors and security monitors -- "Minority Report" takes on an unmistakable relevance, and that must be a first for a Spielberg film.

But Spielberg being Spielberg, he has a lot of fun with this creepy, pacified utopia, reveling in some wildly imaginative sequences involving future tech. Any film that invokes P.K. Dick knows that it will be held up against "Blade Runner," and "Minority Report" accordingly kicks out the jams, creating a compelling -- and all too plausible -- vision of future shock.

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There's an amazing chase scene in which a squadron of jetpack-equipped cops try to apprehend Anderton, employing "sick sticks" and shock-wave stun-guns (tech that's actually currently in development), scrambling up the sides of buildings, and crashing through a factory's robotic assembly line. Another nice touch comes as Anderton tries to escape: In 2054, it's impossible to blend into the crowd, as even riding the subway requires a retinal scan, and advertisements for jeans and beer address you by name. (All of which has created a black market in secondhand eyeballs, for those wanting to assume a new identity.)

The film's stroke of genius, though, is undoubtedly the police scanning techniques, in which they unleash a swarm of intelligent, spider-like robots to comb a tenement building and apply retinal scans on everyone within. Whether they're cooking dinner, making love or on the toilet, citizens have to comply with this metallic creature zapping their eyes. After all, it's a small price to pay for security, as we hear so often these days.

This darker, cynical vision of a society so fixated on security that it resorts to intrusive, totalitarian techniques is clearly reminiscent of "A Clockwork Orange," especially so when a robot-spider's spindly fibrous legs forcibly pry open Anderton's eyelids for a retinal scan. The pre-crime headquarters, meanwhile, recalls the aura of "2001," with Cruise using a virtual-reality interface to manipulate imagery on the monitors like an orchestra conductor, set to the strains of Schubert. The pre-cogs, bald and immersed in amniotic fluid, bear more than a passing resemblance to the starchild of "2001."

"Minority Report," far more than "A.I.," feels like a Stanley Kubrick homage, and that's no bad thing. Just as Cruise has matured as an actor -- never for a moment does he rely on charm alone here -- Spielberg is allowing himself to ask questions and take risks. If the ending feels a bit too pat, the typical Spielbergian return to hearth and home, we can indulge him; this film is the only blockbuster of the year that dares to move beyond formula.

If George Lucas had the courage of his convictions and tried to meld his serious side of "THX1138" with his more crowd-pleasing "Star Wars" instincts, this is the kind of film he might have made. Let's be glad that at least one of the wunderkinder has grown up.

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