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Minority Report   A-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Scott Frank, Jon Cohen (based on the short story by Philip K. Dick)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Max von Sydow, Colin Farrell, Tim Blake Nelson, Kathryn Morris, Peter Stormare, Lois Smith.

Review by Rob Vaux

Steven Spielberg's been a much more interesting director ever since he started walking down the dark side of the street. Apparently reaching the creative limits of cute aliens and heartwarming family adventures, he decided to turn his talents to murkier ends... and his work has been all the better for it. It started quietly, with the underrated (and nearly forgotten) Empire of the Sun, then expanded to the likes of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. He never completely shook his early tendencies, but the results were far preferable to the saccharine nightmares he might have yielded. Now comes Minority Report, an attempt -- like last year's A.I. -- to marry this new improved Spielberg to his old big studio sensibilities. The effort is less surprising than the impressive and often spectacular way in which it succeeds.

Science fiction films run the risk of repeating themselves, especially so-called "visions of the future" like this one. A.I. benefited from a unique and largely original universe, and you'd think that Minority Report would suffer in comparison. Not so. The world placed before our eyes is as different from A.I. as night from day, but no less stunning to behold. Spielberg takes familiar images, such as the cityscape of Washington D.C. and the consumer comforts of suburban shopping malls, and blends them with breathtaking imaginings of the not-too-distant future: tiny robots that scurry through buildings, scanning the inhabitants for retina identification; a freeway system that looks like the world's coolest slot racer set; and most importantly, the "Pre-Cogs" a trio of genetic mutants with the ability to see the future. Kept in a floating tank of nutrients and hooked up to machinery that displays their visions like DVDs, the Pre-Cogs have helped Washington's police force anticipate and prevent every murder in their city before they happen. Some elements on display have been seen in earlier works, but Spielberg shapes them into such a fascinating package that you simply don't care: you're too busy waiting for the next rabbit to pop out of the hat.

A world of this potency would derail most pictures, content to sit on their laurels and show us the pretty pictures. But Minority Report has only scratched the surface. It uses the images to unfold a compelling story of what happens when cracks appear in the Pre-Cogs' perfect system. As the previews indicate, the trouble centers on Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the cop in charge of interpreting their visions and hunting down any murderers-to-be. Anderton joined the force after the abduction (and presumed death) of his son, a trauma that led to a slow descent into shattered memories and drug addiction. That looks like a walk in the park, however, once the Pre-Cogs finger him for a future murder... turning an already compelling sci-fi piece into a smart whodunit and an exhilarating man-on-the-run thriller.

The storytelling on display here is first-rate and Anderton's efforts to prove his innocence flow quickly and easily through the complicated plot. But though the film works exceedingly well as summer popcorn fare, it also displays a sharp intellectual side. The script has changed dramatically from the Philip K. Dick story upon which it is based, yet Minority Report often feels like a written work of science fiction, meditating on challenging questions and developing concepts to their fullest without being seduced by visual effects. How do you get away with murder if every murder is stopped (and you can get away with it, as the film ingeniously demonstrates)? What does precognition imply about free will, and how does that reflect upon a country whose ideals are based on freedom? Even the old chestnut of dehumanization in the name of collective safety -- a concept as old as fiction itself -- sees new life in Minority Report, from the slot-box prisons where "pre-criminals" are entombed to the enforced catatonia of the Pre-Cogs themselves.

Spielberg deals with these questions intelligently and thoughtfully, without skimping on the flashier parts of the story. His direction expertly plumbs the dark currents of the material, yet never becomes lost in gloom and doom, and his usual ensemble of collaborators (Michael Kahn editing, Janusz Kaminski shooting, the ever-present John Williams soundtrack) earn high marks as well. Cruise is terrific as the flawed yet focused Anderton (you're officially forgiven for Vanilla Sky, Tom), but he gets help from a ton of fascinating supporting players -- most notably Tim Blake Nelson's oily prison warden and Peter Stormare's ghoulish back-alley surgeon. Alternately a neo-noir mystery, a stylish action picture, and a philosophical supposition of destiny and human will, Minority Report keeps everything together without missing a step.

If the film has a failing -- and I hesitate to label this nitpicking as such -- it's the cloying sense of optimism that Spielberg has never quite shaken. The man is such a relentless humanist that even with such relatively bleak material, he can't help but add a rosy glow here and there. It crops up periodically, most prevalent in scenes involving Anderton's missing son. The denouement is particularly susceptible, though the final shot is more ambiguous than it first appears. None of it detracts from this near-masterpiece (certainly not the way it did in A.I.), but I found myself wondering what might happen if Spielberg ever abandoned those instincts, just once. What dark marvels could a filmmaker of his caliber show us if he ever stopped pussyfooting around and looked the Gorgon in the face? Minority Report never answers that question, but it very badly wants to... and with a film this good, wanting to is more than enough.

Review published 06.21.2002.

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