Minority Report 2002 ★★★★★

Director Steven Spielberg’s previous science fiction movie, A.I: Artificial Intelligence, was a remarkable demonstration of the director’s ability to confront and even undermine the sentimentality he is known for. It was an assessment of the very sweetness that was always at the heart of Spielberg, but with an undercurrent of unreal need that approached an emotional despair. Despite its colourful sequences it showed Spielberg at least addressing his darker and more pessimistic assessment of human nature. Now comes Minority Report, a stunning adaptation of a short story by the master of paranoid speculation Philip K. Dick. There has been a loyal following for the screen adaptations of Dick starting with Bladerunner and going on to include Total Recall, Screamers and the undervalued Impostor. Although Bladerunner remains for many the distinctive adaptation it was a commercial and critical flop when first released. Not so Minority Report, which with star Tom Cruise in the lead role has proven a treat for fans of intelligent science fiction spectaculars. But the design of Minority Report reveals an almost experimental Spielberg, applying his populist optimism to the somber mood of film noir, a genre whose brooding moral despair seems at first glance at odds with Spielberg’s faith.

Minority Report has a complex plot that fully rewards and demands viewer concentration and involvement. In the future, circa 2054, the murder rate in Washington DC has been almost eliminated thanks to the development of the pre-crime unit. At the center of this criminological speculation are three psychics known as the “pre-cogs” who foresee visions of murders and give the names of victim and murderer to police who then rush to apprehend and arrest the murderer before he actually commits the crime. These are the new thought police. Cruise plays such a policeman, a father who has lost his son and seeks partial escape in illegal narcotic use, the top cop of the pre-crime unit. When an outside investigator (Colin Farrell) usurps his authority, Cruise’s fate takes a turn for the worst when the pre-cogs predict that he will commit a murder. He is thus forced to flee, convinced that he is being framed, however the future may indeed be certain and he must wrestle with the possibility that he will commit murder when the situation arises. The situation does arise. To unscramble the mystery he kidnaps the main pre-cog (Samantha Morton) to assist him uncover what he considers must be a conspiracy.

The film’s pre-crime angle is of course a timely theme, tying as it does into the renewed American doctrine of pre-emptive strikes that followed 9/11. However, Spielberg adds an initial ambiguity to his vision, depicting the police raids as violations, recalling the totalitarian roof-bursting tactics depicted in such dystopic Orwellian visions as Terry Gilliam’s film of Brazil. The world view Spielberg depicts in Minority Report is paranoid and despairing, a future where the need to eliminate murder has led in essence to a system that arguably denies the individual the free will to control their own destiny. The film thus establishes Cruise’s faith in the system, that the future is certain, unchangeable and that what the pre-cogs see is a certainty. However, it also thus entails a belief that an individual cannot change his mind, that a man seen committing a future murder cannot choose, even at the last moment, to not do it. Thus the film poses a dilemma between a foreseeable future that is certain and a belief in absolute human free will. However bright and technologically advanced is the film’s society, its authorities have reduced it to a subtle totalitarianism by eliminating and denying the validity of human free will. Cruise must confront this philosophical conundrum when he discovers that there may be flaws in the system he believes in, flaws that are buried and eliminated as so-called minority reports. The film reveals the nature of these minority reports, what effect they have on Cruise and how his plight boils down to a choice between pre-determination and free will that turns the story into yet another thrilling direction.

The suspense and energy level never lapses and the story continually evolves into new and challenging twists as Spielberg desperately searches for a way to renew optimism in such a world and deny film noir its oppressive destiny. Spielberg’s masterful accomplishment in Minority Report is to confront these dark themes in a vibrant, exciting style that indeed applies his vision to the somber world of film noir. It is no surprise that the film’s central motif is perceptual. Vision is stressed throughout and the pre-cog’s question to Cruise is “Can you see?” Amidst an overwhelming visual complexity, the film charts the discrepancy between awareness (truth) and perception. Images and visions must be analyzed, constantly interpreted and reconstructed to find the truth they reveal, and Cruise’s analysis of the pre-cog’s visions is a cleverly self-reflexive comment on the nature of interpreting cinema, inviting the audience in a sense to question and analyze the images they see. Precognitive vision is a burden and the pre-cog when in the outside world is full of fear, until she senses the love at Cruise’s core. It is the faith in his own free will, his ability to see the truth through layers of images and appearances, that ultimately offers Cruise the opportunity to triumph, and Spielberg to find hope in despair. Even if the future can be predicted, there will always be those who seek the perfect crime. The brilliance of Minority Report is its ability to deliver an intelligent, speculative murder mystery with technical mastery amidst a coherent, relevant and provocative philosophical basis. It is an outstanding science-fiction movie.

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