Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Minority Report (2002)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Minority Report (2002)

Spielberg's follow up to AI was another sci-fi film, this time based on the short story 'The Minority Report' by P. K. Dick, an author famed for writing stories based on the nature of reality and self, and also for often writing while being on drugs. The original short is great, but the adaptation is only loosely based on it and is much more of a thriller than a sci-fi film.

John Anderton (Tom Cruise) heads the Pre-Crime Division of Police in Washington D.C. - it's a trial division that is on the verge of going national under the auspices of its director, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow). Pre-Crime works off the predictions of three mutant 'precogs' who can see future murders before they happen, allowing officers to swoop in and stop the killing. Pre-meditated murder is now a thing of the past, and only murders of passion take place anymore in the D.C. area. At a personal level Anderton is a messed up individual who takes drugs to numb the pain of losing his son some years earlier and subsequently separating from his wife (Kathryn Morris). The main narrative kicks off when Anderton himself is predicted by the precogs to commit (inexplicably, as it turns out) premeditated murder in the near future, something he believes to be impossible. Determined to prove his innocence, he runs and is pursued by FBI Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a hotshot gunning for Anderton's job. Anderton learns of the possibility of a 'minority report' - a future vision by one of the precogs, Agatha (Samantha Morton), that differs from the other two - and seeks it out in the hope that it will clear his name.

'Minority Report' is a 'man on the run' thriller with sci-fi trappings; as a thriller, it's excellent, but as sci-fi film, I'm a little mixed. The themes of the film are similar to the original novel, dealing as it does with the concept of free will vs. fate, the morality and logic behind arresting people for crimes they haven't actually committed, and the messy consequences of being able to see the future. The stories are, however, quite different, and in fact the titular minority report doesn't even really come into play in the movie. Both plots involve the mechanics of precognition; I seem to recall the short story's plot being more satisfying, involving multiple potential timelines causing havoc, though I can't honestly remember the details (but I'm certain that it would have been too complex to have a chance of appearing in a mainstream film). In the movie there's a temporal paradox at play, where Anderton is set on the path to potentially commit murder only because he was predicted to do so in the first place. This paradox is an interesting conundrum, but the film doesn't really dwell too much on it. In fact, one of the irritating aspects of the story is how this paradox is essentially brought about by a character (in order to cover up another crime), implying that he understood it well enough to exploit it, yet it is never explained how he did it.

The film does, in the end, address the ethical aspect of arresting people who are destined to commit a crime, albeit only after addressing the free will vs. fate question, which is a bit of a cheat as it changes the rules of the game before committing itself. The ethics of the scenario presented at the start of the film are still somewhat murky and dubious, but then again this is a quite dark and somewhat dystopian future. Also disturbing is the manner in which pre-crime is handled - those arrested are judged beforehand and incarcerated immediately in a facility where they experience hallucinatory visions for the duration of their imprisonment. Other disturbing elements of this future are the complete erosion of civil liberties, the forfeiture of privacy thanks to ubiquitous retinal scanning systems, massive social inequality, and the obnoxious encroachment of advertising into all walks of life. Hang on... did I say the future?

Tom Cruise is fairly good as a man with his back against a wall desperately struggling to stay ahead of his pursuers, though the emotional stuff relating to his son comes across as a little forced. Farrell is great as the cocky and ambitious FBI agent who, despite being an arrogant prick, is damned good at his job. Samantha Morton is the standout as the precog Agatha, seeming completely screwed up in the head but not in that showboating way that gets on your nerves. Max von Sydow is solid as the experienced and dignified mentor figure, while Kathryn Morris is fine as Anderton's wife. Also very memorable is Peter Stormare as an unhinged unlicensed surgeon Anderton turns to to get a new pair of eyes in order to avoid the ubiquitous biometric systems.

Visually the film has a very distinctive, bleak look completely drained of colour that matches the generally dark and sometimes grungy atmosphere of the film and makes it very arresting. At a design level, much of the technology in this future is fantastic, such as the autopilot cars that drive up buildings right to an apartment, the re-usable digital newspapers, the funky computer user interfaces, the holographic display technology, and the virtual reality systems. Sadly, some of it is also kinda silly - like, for instance, the vomit sticks that cause their targets to... vomit. Why would you design something like that? The crawly mechanical spiders that are used in one scene are cool but have a little too much of a cutesy personality to them that rings false. And then there's the flying around on jetpacks that seems to serve no purpose other than to create an admittedly quite entertaining chase scene. That scene actually highlighted one of my beefs with the film - Spielberg's inconsistent tone that mixes a serious thriller atmosphere with jarringly out of place humour that takes you right out of the film. Overall though, the film is well directed and is suspenseful and exciting. The excellent special effects and fairly decent musical score (again, somewhat uneven from John Williams) round out what is a very slick package.

'Minority Report' is a very good film that has a few annoying flaws that almost ruin it for me. I don't like it much, and I think that its sci-fi trappings are often window dressing for a thriller and not integral to the story or all that well thought out, leading to some lapses in logic - a criticism I lay at the feet of the writers, since the film excels in almost every other regard. It's definitely a worthwhile cinematic experience, and judging from other opinions my relatively mixed review is something of a minority report itself (sorry, I couldn't resist).

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