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Arts & Culture
Fri June 28, 2002
Steven Spielberg's latest creation is an Oedipus story retold as a futuristic thriller.
By Stephen Metcalf
"Minority Report" is an eyeful all right, but is it also an airhead? Director Steven Spielberg's rendition of an old Phillip K. Dick short story is so crammed full of homage and genre riffs, so packed with futuristic backstory, it would be tough to call it vacuous. Nonetheless, it's a frenetic plenitude; we spend half the movie just catching up to the world of 2054, the year "Minority Report" takes place. There's this pre-crime unit, staffed with pre-cognitive seer types, cars go up and down the sides of buildings, and, and ... Bored and overtaxed is not a winning combination, and one soon wonders: What ever happened to that wonderful young filmmaker, the boy genius who made Jaws and Raiders?
"Minority Report" starts with a long set piece, precisely the kind of sequence the young Spielberg would have pulled off with ?lan. Three clairvoyants lie in a kind of aqueous slime, electrodes hooked up to their temples, and dream about murders that have yet to happen. When something definite comes to them, a blood-red ball falls through a lotto-style contraption, naming the victim and the perpetrator. The pre-cognitives, or "pre-cogs" as they're called, start to judder in the slime, and their dream-like premonitions of the crime are thrown up onto a glass panel. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) sifts through them looking for clues, then jetpacks off to stop the impending homicide.
The opening sequence gives us a typical day in this so-called "pre-crime" unit, but just as I was supposed to be thinking "Tom Cruise!," "Steven Spielberg!," the words "Mighty Morphin?" kept flashing before me, pre-cog style. Sci-fi is, always and every time, a hokey genre -- it either pulls you in to its hokiness or forget it. Brimming with a lot of straight-faced pop theology concerning predestination and free will, "Minority Report" has as its intended precursor Ridley Scott's 1982 cult-Hollywood masterpiece, "Blade Runner." Also based on material by Phillip K. Dick, "Blade Runner" was moseying and dark, populated with dust motes and art-house dialogue, and some great sham-existentialist maundering. Scott held it all together with a triple-thick, queasy atmosphere, and great performances down the line, from Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young.
Here, in contrast, no one seems to be in charge: a jokey visual aside out of a Bond movie butts up against satirical set-pieces, a couple of which are so ham-handed they could be courtesy of Oliver Stone. Is our gadget-filled future a dystopia, or just plain nifty? Afraid to lose a single ticket-buyer, Spielberg won't decide. "Minority Report" is getting some good reviews -- it's a genre picture, we're told, some old-fashioned Spielberg with a splash of "Blade Runner" noir. But, for the life of me, I only see a humorless and long-winded chase movie.
The movie's selling point, as it turns out, is its terminal flaw. The pairing of Spielberg with Tom Cruise (Mr.Cha, meet Mr. Ching) will work magic on the domestic receipts, but it's worth reflecting on what this alliance actually results in: the absence of any recognizably human rapport. For years Spielberg has diverted attention from his lack of inner conviction by making movies that masquerade as courageous: he simply reaches for the consensus-inspiring piety -slavery, the Holocaust, the Greatest Generation- and lets his reputation carry him. In "Minority Report," we see just how deep his shallows really go: every human relationship in the film is functional, trite, and hastily drawn.
As always, Cruise merely imitates himself. This is to be expected, as he's always been a brand more than an actor. Yet, increasingly, the brand is designed to please foreign markets: he embodies "American" the way Pepe Le Pew once embodied "French." In "Minority Report," his Captain John Anderton has lost a son to kidnap and murder, hence his unwavering faith in the virtue of arresting people before they've done anything. Appropriately, Cruise rages, cries, and then flashes that grin. But never once does he establish any real connection with another actor. (Half his scenes seem to be about little more than his own triceps. When will the average moviegoer be repulsed watching an actor who works out five hours a day?)
Spielberg's over-direction, Cruise's mildly berserk acting style -- together they add up to a strenuous two-and-a-half hours of movie going. Which is too bad because, as the outlines of the script actually begin to peer through, you realize that with a little modesty and control, this could have been a remarkable film. The story is filled with some genuine cunning, rewriting the Oedipus story as a futuristic thriller, where character is fate, and eyes get ripped out to fool the ubiquitous retinal scans. And there are two tremendous scenes: one clever suspense sequence worthy of the young Spielberg, in which little mechanical spiders crawl through a tenement searching for Anderton; and a terrific false ending that draws all the Star Trek brainteasing about altering the past and the future, to the surface. But just as Spielberg invests a moment with the proper "come again?" creepiness, he feels the need to spell out every paradox and dilemma for the dimmest possible viewer. It's as if reaching for satire and "Blade Runner"-like vision of techno-dystopia, Spielberg panics, can't help himself, and has to achieve audience-building consensus. The result is a gimmick-stuffed fraud.