Having made the nor’ by nor’west “collaboration” with Stanley Kubrick of A.I., Steven Spielberg seems to have decided that he is Kubrick. (A character named Burgess and eye-clamps applied to Tom Cruise are obvious references to A Clockwork Orange.) The simple fact is that he’s not Kubrick — a truth he evidences again and again in the always fascinating, frequently brilliant, but strangely uncohesive Minority Report. No, it’s not a bad movie. But neither does it strike me as anything like an unqualified success, not in the least because Spielberg has just tried too hard to be “adult.” Time and again he hits the viewer with unpleasant images — a policeman accidentally hits another policeman with his electrically charged baton and is vomited on; a seedy renegade surgeon sneezes and it runs all over his face; Tom Cruise accidentally eats a rotten sandwich and drinks milk so spoiled that it’s gone green. In each case, the unpleasantness of it all seems totally grafted on. None of these “adult” touches have much of anything to do with effectively conveying the story at hand. Kubrick’s unpleasant images of violence and sex (this being Spielberg, sex is conspicuously absent) were the order of the day, yes, but this was because they were inherent in the material. And that’s what’s missing here. Spielberg is said to have told his cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky that he wanted to make “the ugliest, dirtiest movie I’ve ever made.” Well, he got his wish. But, again, making an ugly and dirty movie is not the same as making an “adult” movie. It’s hard not to suspect that Spielberg took this approach to avoid charges of emulating Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — which, like Minority Report, was based on a Philip K. Dick short story, and presented a bleak view of the future, wrapped around a plot that was essentially a variant on the film noir. Where Scott opted for a rain-drenched, pulsating neon world, Spielberg went for a chilly gray-blue look that scarcely lets up for the film’s entire 137 minutes. (There’s a notable exception in a flashback sequence involving Cruise and his late son, which is shot in Kodachrome-like home-movie hues.) The sad thing is that Minority Report, stripped of all the fussy surface business, actually is a solid adult thriller, offering so many good things that it’s a pity not to be able to endorse it completely. The story is certainly solid: An experimental “pre-crime” program in Washington, D.C. has almost completely obliterated murder by 2054. Murders are detected before they occur, by the precognitive power of three “precogs” whose visions are transferred to computer images that are read by pre-crime units, allowing them to arrest the murderer and prevent the killing. There’s something like genius — or at least brilliance — in such touches as having Cruise’s examination of the precog evidence set to Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, since these are unfinished crimes, and the central moral question posed is whether or not they would end as predicted were they allowed to play out their normal course. The plot itself is pure film noir, with the Cruise character, John Alderton, finding himself at the mercy of his own pre-crime unit when the precogs peg him for the future murder of a man he’s never met. In classic noir tradition, this sends Alderton into the lower depths, forcing him to rely on criminals he once fought and break the law he has heretofore so staunchly upheld. Fans of the genre will find numerous references to the noirs of the 1940s, the bulk of which are well done and to the point. Other film references — such as a clip from Rouben Mamoulian’s Mark of Zorro, projected on the wall of the criminal surgeon who replaces Alderton’s eyes so that he can’t be nabbed by a retinal scan — are no less nicely judged. The sequence where the “spiders” (robotic creatures designed to seek out life forms and scan the retina in search of a specific fugitive) invade the tenement in which Alderton is recuperating from his operation is stunning — a perfect and perfectly chilling choreographed set-piece that alone justifies seeing the film. Similarly, the scene where Alderton evades his pursuers with the help of Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most advanced and important of the three precogs, is a masterpiece of clever writing and direction. If the film finally errs when it gets to the long-telegraphed surprise ending, it’s a small price to pay for the brilliance of these sequences. That Minority Report isn’t the full-blown masterpiece it might have been is inescapable. That Spielberg has crafted a deliberately unpleasant film with a strong moral, but no real emotional center, is the price you pay when a filmmaker takes the risk of trying something very different. At the same time, it’s a risk that any true artist has no choice but to make. After this and A.I., I’m far more inclined to the view that Spielberg deserves the term “artist “than I ever was before.
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