Saturday, April 30, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXVI: If there's a flaw, it's human—it always is


Much smarter in some ways than others, Minority Report is just smart enough for you to avoid thinking about it too much while one pure image after another lands upon your eyes.  But, hey, if you do want to think about it—well, that's okay too!

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Scott Frank and John Cohen (based on the story by Philip K. Dick)
With Tom Cruise (Chief John Anderton), Samantha Morton (Agatha), Steve Harris (Officer Jad), Neal McDonough (Officer Fletcher), Patrick Kilpatrick (Officer Knott), Jessica Capshaw (Officer Evanna), Daniel London (Wally the Caretaker), Kathryn Morris (Lara Clarke), Colin Farrell (Danny Witwer), Lois Smith (Dr. Iris Hineman), Peter Stormare (Dr. Solomon Eddie), and Max von Sydow (Director Lamar Burgess)

Spoiler alert: high, and severe for the source material

Steven Spielberg's Minority Report is the great philosophical actioner, they say, and I am not very sure why: it is great, and it is an actioner—and its philosophy boils down to one pretty mundane idea, which is that human beings, possessed of the ability to predict the outcomes of scenarios, can sometimes change those outcomes.  Indeed, Minority Report, praised for forwarding a profound argument in the everlasting debate between the proponents of free will and the partisans of mechanistic determinism, fails to feature anyone who actually believes in determinism.  It revolves instead around a group of mutant "precognitives" who have the means to predict murder (and only murder, and not rapes, assaults, or tax evasion), and manage their feats of prestidigitation through a method of psychic data collection that is (essentially) magic—yet the magic powers possessed by this trio of precogs, Agatha, Dashiell, and Arthur (do you get it?), have a ready analogue in good old human sensory processing.  They simply sense more; and, in their way, they process better.  When they report their visions to the police agency that has more-or-less enslaved them, the police act upon their predictions.  Typically, then, the murders are prevented, and the "pre-criminals" punished.  As a result murder has been all but banished from the District of Columbia, where these precogs and the prevision-armed police force they serve operate.  This is all explained in dialogue with a simple but apt analogy, involving gravity, a falling ball, and a character's choice to catch it.

Thus, when it comes time for our hero, John Anderton, the chief of D.C. Precrime, to slay the man his precogs have said he'd slay, and Agatha, the most talented precog, tells him "You can choose!", one is bound to reply, after reflection, "Of course he can choose.  Just like every pre-criminal could choose; just like the Precrime cops can choose to smash their way through a skylight and put a stop to it.  On no level whatsoever has anyone's idea of ontological free will ever been truly called into question, especially considering that the information you get from the future is almost always actually wrong."

(For the record, I tend to believe that determinism and "free will," whatever the hell that actually means, are largely the same thing: if our wills were really free, they couldn't also really be ours.)

And so it is difficult to say what, if anything, Minority Report's sci-fi premise grapples with on a genuinely philosophical level, except that it's clear from the outset that its writers are stacking the living fuck out of the deck against the Department of Precrime, when they build Precrime's murder-free utopia atop the imprisonment, drugging, and exploitation of these three mutants, like this movie was actually based on some kind of Ursula Le Guin novel instead.

Of course, it's really based on the Philip K. Dick story, and the Philip K. Dick story—surprise!—cares so little about any possible free will/determinism debate that it barely even raises the damned issue, except in its very plotty way, where Dick's tale depends on a disagreement between the three precogs.  But no, Dick is much more concerned with studying the personality of his fascist protagonist, who (after a bit of soul-searching, no doubt abbreviated owing to the constraints of the format) winds up committing the murder just as two of his precogs have predicted—and totally and completely of his own free will, all in order to prove that the precogs' minority report was wrong, thus preserving the self-abnegating, failure-prone system he's spent the last thirty years of his life servicing.  Because whatever its awful flaws, it does prevent crime.

Naturally, then, the film takes its lead from Dick.  (Though not entirely, even in this particular regard: Spielberg's hero, initially unaware of his system's flaws, abandons his adherence to it by the end—if only after some rather more visible soul-searching.)  Minority Report becomes, instead, about profiling and predictive crimefighting, and, thanks to its release not long after 9/11, about counterterrorism too (though if 2005's War of the Worlds shall teach us anything, it's that we need to be extremely thankful that Report entered pre-production before the Towers fell).  And that's how it comes to debate—somewhat philosophically, I suppose, albeit at a much lower level than the bigger cosmic question it pokes at, but does not truly disturb—the pros and cons of a state that has come to value security far more than liberty.  It thereby asks us to consider not just the techniques of Precrime itself (though the previsions serve as the readiest of stand-ins for some seriously invasive surveillance).  The film also wants us to think about the warrantless search executed upon a whole damned apartment complex by robotic spiders, the nonlethal but unpleasant thought-scrambling "halos" that have replaced handcuffs, the psychological torments of Precrime's poor frozen prisoners, and—above all—the deep, dark corruption of it all, the kind that liberal-minded folks believe is inherent to power itself, and cannot ever be truly guarded against.  (We're not supposed to think about the what happens when the Precogs predict something outside of the D.C. police's jurisdiction, but I do.)

Hey, is this supposed to be a disturbing future?  I can't tell!

Of course, when it comes down to it, Minority Report throws the baby out with the bathwater (quite literally), by framing Precrime as a ridiculously false dichotomy: either Precrime works perfectly, and we therefore chuck our society's pre-murderers into a cryonic hole in the ground; or Precrime doesn't work perfectly, and it is therefore worthless, even though it has been demonstrated to be extremely useful and has saved dozens or hundreds or even thousands of lives.  Whereas a huge middleground is left unconsidered: after all, when Precrime is foremost a rescue squad, where exactly is the fucking (intrinsic) harm in it?  A team of men and women, who have access to the future, and are trained to stop murder is not, by my lights, a categorical evil, and I fail to see where the basic concept of Precrime, stopping murders, logically must be followed by an insanely-run justice system, pleased as punch to violate the most basic legal precepts in the Anglo-American tradition.  Meanwhile, even some of the more prosaic aspects of Minority Report's panopticon are, to my mind, at least somewhat attractive.

But then, that's why Precrime depends on slavery—just in case you thought this was an argument, and not a harangue, and on the off chance that you might hold an opinion that differed from Spielberg and his screenwriters, Scott Frank and John Cohen, about whether it might be nice to live in a panopticon.  But just for starters, a world with Precrime is a world without those murderers who wear a badge, too.  (And, lo, it turns out that's exactly what this movie's about: a relatively well-disciplined police force that hunts down one of its own in order to keep him from effecting the extrajudicial killing of the murderer of his son.)

Well, maybe it's not the highest-falutin' philosophy, but I guess I have to admit that if Minority Report can generate this much discussion about a made-up society that runs on the sci-fi equivalent of pixie-dust—and I've added but the thinnest fraction to the literal millions of words written about it in the last fourteen years—then what we're dealing with is one truly fascinating film.  It's headier than it is cerebral, really, but it is, after all, from the mind of Philip K. Dick, the greatest sci-fi author 1st century Judea ever produced.

Oh, I get it.  John Anderton's drug problem is an homage!

Now, I should probably at least feint in the direction of a plot summary in case you've somehow forgotten what happens in a movie that we both know damned well you've seen; but then, Minority Report comes with such a wonderfully detailed premise that it probably was wise to get that out of the way first.  Either way, let's go: in 2056, we find Chief John Anderton running Precrime in D.C., and he's as happy as any man whose son was murdered just months before Precrime was invented could be, which is to say, he's not very happy at all.  Latterly divorced from the mother of his dead child, he throws himself into his work; and when he's not on duty (or, maybe, even when he is), he indulges his habit for PG-13 Future Drugs.  The pressure mounts when the Justice Department sends its prickly investigator, Danny Witwer, to audit the Precrime facilities and look for flaws in their apparently flawless program, in preparation for a national rollout of Precrime and the expected creation of an essentially perfect world.  And it's at this point that we understand that the 13th Amendment has been rescinded, since Danny could not care less about John's precog slaves; the visit does give John the opportunity to exposit, however, since apparently the Justice Department's picked man has so far only barely even glanced at Precrime's Wikipedia page.  (It also gives John the impetus to sling a homophobic slur that is, right there, the single most obvious failure of world-building in a film that supposedly takes place in 2054, especially when it was already retrograde at the time of its writing.)  In any event, Danny's visit and hostile attitude have occasioned John to look deeper into the Precrime program himself, and he's begun to notice a curious glitch or two in the supposedly-perfect system.

Well, we've gone through all that stuff, so let's get to the exciting part: when a new prevision appears upon John's enormous screen—and he sees himself.  John is named the murderer; his victim is "Leo Crow," a man he's never met.  He knows—he is certain—that he is innocent.  And so he runs.  But, as he says—as he repeats—in one of the film's most subtle character moments, "Everybody runs."

His journey takes him into the primordial past of Precrime, and he discovers the possibility of a "minority report"; this leads him back to headquarters, where he steals Agatha, hoping to get inside her head and find for himself an alternate future.  In fact, he doesn't have one, according to her—and he meets Leo Crow precisely as predicted, and he discovers he has an excellent reason to kill him after all.

"If only I'd just taken a nice, long road trip."

There's a perfectly awesome movie that wraps up with this scene, and Crow's death.  Yes, I know: thematically, it's pretty much the opposite movie.  But I almost wonder if it might be better—at the very least, it'd be punchier.  But, as you know, then there's the twist: John's been set-up in order to re-bury the unsolved crime he's unwittingly dug up—the murder upon which all of Precrime is based, the murder of Agatha's mother, staged to look like one of the precogs' "echoes," their nightmare-memories of murders past, when in fact it happened in a future that they foresaw.

Let's not avoid it: I'd compare Minority Report's plot to swiss cheese, but that would be a serious insult to swiss cheese.  Most of it is more-or-less forgiveable, for it allows the film to grow into its own wonderfully weird riff on the usual time travel tropes (for Minority Report is, in all the essentials, a time travel film, only with information, rather than bodies, coming back from the future).  But the one plot hole that's almost too hard to swallow is also the one that's the least necessary for everything else to function: the precogs tell John the names of the victim and the murderer.  Obviously, it goes without saying that, in light of this fact, the villain's evil plan is completely idiotic—and it's a little obnoxious that Spielberg and his scenarists apparently think you're a complete idiot, too.

But the real crime is that by giving John and his colleagues the names, the precogs diminish our time-cops as detectives.  This must seem terribly ungrateful, I suppose, in light of the legitimately brilliant crimestopping prologue that first establishes so much of John's world—and without any recourse to the blunt exposition that comes later (and which also functions, very cleverly, as a meditation upon the act of filmmaking itself).  But then, when you've got the names, the officers of D.C. Precrime are turned into hardly anything more than a quick-response combat team—and one devoted principally to punching angry cuckolds in the face, at that.

Look, I love it, and I want more of it, okay?

Well, that just means that it's an awfully good thing that Minority Report doesn't have any particular intention to be a rigorously worked-out plot-mechanical thriller in the first place.  In its plot, anyway, it is content to merely be springloaded fun.  And while it would be far too much to say it doesn't want to be a sober meditation on philosophical concepts, too, it's still pretty exceedingly clear that this isn't its primary function either.  Instead, Minority Report wants to be two things more than it wants to be anything else: first, an extrapolated vision of the future to rival Blade Runner in its scope and 2001 itself in its technological plausibility; and second, an astonishingly exciting action-thriller, where logic takes a backseat to the most bitchin' chase scenes since Indy.

It honestly seems like these two things shouldn't be all that compatible, but that's the film's genius for you.  Working with a conclave of futurists, production designer Alex McDowell translated their 90-page "2054 bible" into stunning images of a tomorrow that looks, increasingly, like today.  Maybe you can overpraise those damned gestural intrerfaces, and maybe you can even overestimate Spielberg's futurists' prescience—but you sure as hell can't overstate their influence, both onscreen and off.  (Even if, in comparison to real UIs, these are way more cinematic than they are legitimately functional.)  But that's just one small facet of Minority Report's immersive, thought-through world, and hardly the most impressive aspect to found in this future of self-driving maglev cars, backalley eye transplants, evil police drones, omnipresent retinal scanners, and the absolute deluge of intrusive (and quite literally oppressive) advertising.  (Frankly, I tend to love the product placement in this movie: it's so curdled in its cynicism that it's shocking that any company ever actually paid for it.)  And, yeah, it's got some dumb jetpacks, too—but jetpacks are fucking cool, so don't be a killjoy.

Yet I will readily admit that the 3D TVs of 2054 are so psychotically shitty that it is never for a moment believable that anyone would ever buy one of these horrifying things for any other reason than staging an interesting shot for a master director.

The thriller and the speculative fiction come together completely when the unending chase that closes Minority Report's first act reaches the workerless Lexus factory.  Perhaps the film's most famous scene, this is where Spielberg dusts off a discarded setpiece from North By Northwest, and says to the ghost of Hitchcock, "Anything you can do, I can do bigger."  Oh, yes: it comes close to being destabilizingly stupid—but, standing right on the edge, it finds its balance perfectly.

Those two modes would no doubt feel united anyway, thanks to our old friend and occasional enemy, Janusz Kaminski, and I'm deliriously happy to report that for all that Minority Report is everything I usually hate about the Spielinski style—and all of it punched up to eleven—it is absolutely flawless here, where Kaminski's form matches Spielberg's function in a way that only his black-and-white Schindler's List and his less-characteristic A.I. could hope to compete with.  In Kaminski's bleach-bypass desaturation, his razor-sharp figures, and his overweening, blinding whiteness, 2054 claims itself as a sterile heaven, with all the humanity torn out of it.  (And, of course, because this does remain a very Dickian future, heaven only belongs to the haves.  As for the other half, they get hell—here, McDowell takes a page from his own work on Fight Club to render John's journey into an almost-cartoonishly squalid underworld.  And Kaminski follows along, capturing the ugly rottenness of it all.)  Altogether, it's a rather beautiful motion picture—but unnervingly so.  No mood could suit it better.

And then there's Spielberg, finding novel ways to do a close-up in the 'Scope frame, all tied together in Michael Kahn's best editing since List itself.

Finally, in the film's hard center, we find no less a figure than Tom Cruise—that wonderful man, whose films have tended to beat the average for going on three decades now.  It's a superb performance—not one that stretches the actor too far, unlike his work with Anderson and Crowe, nor one that deviously uses his persona for subversive ends, like his collaborations with Kubrick and Mann.  But it's perfect casting all the same, a star turn in a role that calls for precisely this star: Cruise, the believable superhuman who moves with a purpose in every damned frame, yet can (more subtly) grow and grow in his self-loathing and self-doubt, until he's not the man we started out with.  Samantha Morton, on the other hand, is called upon to be mystical and weird, and pulls her stock type off nicely—until we reach, at last, the most unexpected swerve into sentiment in the Spielberg canon, and somehow one of the most effective, as Morton recites the future that never was for John Anderton's young son.  It is, naturally, cloying, but there's a melancholy beauty in it.  And it belies the other thing that Minority Report was always about, although it was often too kinetic for anyone to notice: the study of a man who lives his life in the past, choosing instead to have a future.  It is a kind ending, typical of Spielberg, and as much as I might have enjoyed a bleaker ending, even the ending to Dick's much bleaker original, I can't help but love this one, too.

Score:  9/10


  1. Having rewatched this film yesterday, my reaction was roughly equal parts “This is good stuff” and “That was Lily Rush from COLD CASE … with DARK Hair!?!”

    I shan’t let you know which of these thoughts left me more delighted, because one wouldn’t want to depress you.

    1. In all fairness one should note that the lady in question would actually be Ms. Kathryn Morris - the actress - rather than the character, but we all know how the imagination works.

    2. I had to look *all* of that up.

      Screen debut in Cool As Ice!