Sunday, December 11, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.15: Steven Spielberg's Minority Report

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, Minority Report.

Grade: 87 (A-)

A.I. kicked off a new, intellectually adventurous part of Steven Spielberg’s career. It was also the first part in his unofficial “Running Man” trilogy, in which a character searches for answers while running from the authorities. Spielberg’s next film, the 2002 sci-fi noir and thriller Minority Report, was bourn out of a longstanding friendship with actor Tom Cruise, who had wanted to make a film with Spielberg since they met on the set of Risky Business. The result was a film that melded the sci-fi weirdness and exploration of A.I. with the kinetic energy of Spielberg’s finest blockbusters.

John Anderton (Cruise in one of his finest roles) heads the Precrime division of the Washington, D.C. police force. Precrime, founded by Anderton’s mentor Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), involves the use of three psychics (or “precogs”) who can see into the future and predict any murder within the city. As a result, there hasn’t been a murder in six years. Not all is perfect, however. Anderton is still reeling from the disappearance of his young son six years ago, and his ensuing drug habit has broken up his marriage. When career-minded FBI Agent Danny Witner (Colin Farrell) arrives, Anderton only smells trouble. It comes in the form of a predicted murder: Anderton will kill Leo Crow, a man he doesn’t even know, in three days. Now Anderton has to race to find an answer: who set him up, and does he have the all-important “minority report”, a prediction from Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most gifted of the precogs, that might prove his innocence?

The film’s opening sequence is as audacious and thrilling as anything Spielberg is ever filmed. A series of hazy, watery images are shown out of order. It’s clear there’s some sort of a crime going on, but the weirdness of it all is incredibly unnerving. Samatha Morton’s face then appears out of a clear, brightly lit liquid, whispering the word “murder”. Cruise and company then go about their business solving the crime with whatever images the precogs throw at them. They only barely save a woman and her lover from her jealous husband. Spielberg doesn’t explain what’s going on until after the opening sequence, and we learn the details of the Precrime program through the clever use of an advertisement. The next twenty minutes give us everything we need to know about the world in an engaging matter as the officers explain to Witwer exactly how Precrime works. Spielberg’s use of exposition is strong: we only learn about the world because Witwer needs to know about it. The set-pieces, meanwhile, are necessary to move the story forward.

Since Jurassic Park, Spielberg has been a master of mixing CGI with practical effects. Cruise and company work with complex digital systems, but the tactile set gives the film a weightier feel than an all-digital background would have. One of the best examples comes in a set-piece in which the police, looking for Anderton in a seedy motel, dispense “spyders” (small, spider-like machines that scan the eyes of the patrons). The spyders are digital, but the set is real, and as they move throughout each room, scanning the various customers, there’s a real sense of danger and liveliness to the proceedings.

Spielberg influences of old are back: his mastery of Hitchcockian suspense is as strong as ever, and there’s a new kind of Howard Hawks “man on a mission” storyline here. Hitchcock shows up again with John Williams’ score, which recalls Bernard Hermann’s score for North by Northwest, and the “wrong man” plot device. New influences pop up, too: the use of garish, invasive advertisements isn’t too far off from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (both films are based off of short stories by Philip K. Dick), as are the film’s futuristic vehicles. Spielberg’s good friend Brian De Palma shows up as an influence as well. De Palma often used Hitchcockian suspense to explore his fascination with voyeurism: who’s watching who, and when. Spielberg uses that to great effect in two set-pieces in particular: one involving the spyders crawling throughout a stunning motel-set, and one in which Cruise and an escaped Morton avoid the police via Morton’s ability to know where and when to stand to escape their eyesight.

The film’s biggest influence, however, is the noir genre. Like Blade Runner, Minority Report is a noir set in a futuristic world (albeit a more action-packed one). Spielberg borrows old noir tropes from the films of Howard Hawks, John Huston, and Billy Wilder: there’s the man of the law finding himself on the other side of justice; there’s the tricky, complicated plotline about murder and deception where nothing is as it seems; there’s creepy side characters like Peter Stormare’s shady doctor; there’s both a red herring and a macguffin. Even the precogs are named after famous mystery writers: Agatha (Christie), Arthur (Conan Doyle), and Dashiell (Hammett).

Spielberg’s Stanley Kubrick influences carry over from A.I., from the invasive, dystopian future a la A Clockwork Orange to the bizarre, surreal images that aren’t immediately explained. There’s an obsession with eyes in Minority Report: eyes can be scanned for identification, and Anderton goes through a process to switch out his eyes for another set so as to avoid being scanned. The sequence is so reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange that the shady doctor (Stormare) even uses Clockwork-style eye-clamps to keep Anderton’s eyes open. Kubrick’s nightmarish, sterile future of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange is perfectly represented here as well: Spielberg deliberately overlit the film, which gives an uneasiness to the proceedings (the film’s design, by the way, inspired the design for this blog).

There’s another Kubrick theme in there: dehumanization. With the creepy, sterile computerized world, the film makes a case that there’s a dark side to technology. Precrime exists entirely because it exploits the powers of three precogs, who developed their powers as a side effect of their mothers using drugs during their pregnancies. The three have horrifying visions every day, and the only thing the government can do about it is dope them up and use them to stop crime. It’s an undignified life, and it suggests that maybe these great technologies aren’t justified by the means.

And what of the ends? It’s another case of “could have, not should have” in Minority Report. No one involved with Precrime considers how they might violate the rights of prisoners by arresting them for what they might do, not what they have done. All of this, not to mention that there may be a minority report that suggests that some of said prisoners won’t do what the other two precogs predicted. If the details sound familiar, consider the film’s release in mid-2002. Spielberg and Cruise developed the project for years, but the film’s world takes on a special meaning in post-9/11 America, where the Patriot Act invaded the rights of Americans to keep them safe. The addition of invasive advertising (advertisements scan each person’s eye to better cater to their needs) and the Washington, D.C. location only adds to the creepy undertones of the film.

Those modern undertones inform a story of untrustworthy authorities, men motivated by selfishness, and men forced to face what they once believed in. Anderton believes in a system that violated the rights of everyday men, a system which now is out to get him. He is forced to deal with the fact that he might have put innocent men away in the name of “justice”, and that some men might have been set up like him. Why? Because men in power willed it. Witwer wants Anderton’s job; whether or not he’s behind Anderton’s set-up isn’t clear at first, but it’s known that he found Anderton’s drug paraphernalia and planned on getting him fired before Anderton was charged with murder. Furthermore, Anderton’s mentor Lamar only wants to hang on to what little he has; he’s a sad old man who can only help John so much, and any indication that precrime is unethical won’t go over well.

SPOILER, SKIP AHEAD TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM. As it turns out, Witwer is a red herring: he wanted Anderton’s job, but he didn’t set him up, and when he finds an “orgy of evidence” at the crime scene, he knows John was set up. Unfortunately, he takes it to the wrong man: Lamar, who kills Witwer. It turns out that the precogs’ mother wanted to take them back, and Lamar killed her in order to keep Precrime alive. Anderton nearly found this out, so Lamar set him up. Lamar’s selfish need to hang on to what he has blinds him of his treatment of John, of the precogs, and of others.

Anderton’s story is motivated by two major feelings: his responsibilities as a parent, and his free will. Anderton’s son was kidnapped and murdered when he lost track of him at a public pool (De Palma again: who’s watching and when). Spielberg has always sympathized with parents, and the death of a child is so catastrophic and all consuming to Anderton that it wrecks his marriage. He’s not alone: Agatha’s late mother, Ann Lively, was a drug addict who only wants her children back. She doesn’t quite get there. Anderton eventually becomes a protective father figure to Agatha (an early draft of the film ended with him taking her in and taking care of her).

SPOILER: The minority report turns out to be a macguffin. Anderton was going to kill Crow, no doubt about it. Except that he knows his fate, and he can now choose to change it. This question, whether or not free will is real, is another exploratory question from a more adventurous Spielberg.

Minority Report is one of Spielberg’s most thought-provoking films. Alas, it is not a perfect movie. A major plot hole involves Anderton sneaking into Precrime headquarters. He’s had his eyes switched out, so as not to avoid the eye-scan identification, and he’s found a way to disguise himself. However, he still uses his old eyes to get into the building. But he’s been on the run for at least a day, and every cop in the city is looking for him. Wouldn’t Precrime have made sure he would have been arrested had he tried something like that? It’s often difficult to predict plot-holes and logic jumps when developing complex sci-fi worlds, but this particular plot point is a doozy. As soon as its past, it doesn’t matter anymore, but it’s a jarring slip up nonetheless.

More problematic is the ending. A.I. defies the “Spielberg can’t end his films” charge that’s frequently thrown around these days, but most of his other films from the 2000s don’t manage the same feat. The film ends with a modern whodunit plot, where the villain is revealed, his motive explained, and the day is saved. It’s not a bad sequence, and it’s as energetic as anything that happened before, but it’s slightly clich├ęd and too predictable by a hair. The film then ends with Cruise’s narration, which explains that Precrime was shut down, and the prisoners pardoned (though watched for years). Anderton and his now pregnant wife are back together, and the precogs have been set free and moved to an undisclosed location. This wrap-up is far too neat and tidy for such a complex world, and it doesn’t take into account the consequences of Precrime shutting down and the murder rate almost certainly skyrocketing. It’s a happy ending for a dark film, and it shows Spielberg slightly losing his nerve at the end.

There is some belief that the final twenty minutes are Anderton’s dream, in a Brazil-like fashion, in which he escapes and solves the mystery at the center of the film. It’s a nice theory, but it reads more into Philip K. Dick’s stories (and other Dick adaptations like Blade Runner and Total Recall) then it does the actual film. As it is, the film’s ending could stand a little more ambiguity.

It doesn’t change the fact that Minority Report is a stunning film, a thriller with the intellectual heft of A.I. and some of the most stunning Spielberg set-pieces since Raiders of the Lost Ark. It represents a further darkening of Spielberg’s sensibilities and a willingness to ask bigger questions. Its explorative nature and its look at the possibility that families could be irrevocably damaged paved the way for Spielberg’s later film the same year: Catch Me if You Can.

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