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Spielberg in the Aughts: Minority Report (2002)

When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s film  Minority Report in theatres back in 2002 (the only time I’d seen the film until I watched it again on DVD last week), I remember it becoming startlingly clear to me that the man has trouble with the endings of his films.

I recognize that the present-day epilogues to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are overloaded with schmaltz and are completely unnecessary to the story, but I’ve never been bothered by those endings (the way others have been, most famously William Goldman, who eviscerated Saving Private Ryan in his famous review).  I was so emotionally engaged with the stories and characters in both of those films that I was not bothered with their endings (even though the logical part of my brain did realize that Mr. Spielberg was laying the emotion on a bit thickly).  But as I wrote last week, I thought the final 25 minutes of A.I. were abominable and possibly the worst 25 minutes Steven Spielberg had ever put to film.  The ending of Minority Report isn’t quite at that level of jaw-dropping terribleness, but I think the first hour and 45 minutes of the film are a very solid, dark sci-fi thriller that is completely undone by the last 35 minutes or so.

At first, Minority Report kept me very engaged.  It’s easy and popular to hate on Tom Cruise these days, but I think he’s a far better actor than he gets credit for, and he’s an engaging lead here.  Mr. Cruise plays the generically-named Tom Anderton, the top-cop at the new Pre-Crime division that has been set up in Washington, DC.  Using three “pre-cogs” (psychics kept under sedation), the Pre-Crime team are able to intercept murders before they happen.  After six years of operation, in which the team has virtually eliminated homicides in DC, a national referendum has been set to determine whether Pre-Crime divisions will be set up in other cities across the U.S.  In advance of this, John and his team are under investigation by Federal Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell).  Everything goes to hell when the psychics predict that John himself is about to commit a homicide.  He goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence, but finds himself setting in motion events that might undermine the legitimacy of the entire Pre-Crime unit.

For that first hour and 45 minutes, Minority Report is a solid, gritty little film.  It goes to some surprisingly grim places.  There’s an early scene in which we learn that apparent super-cop John Anderton is actually a rather broken man.  With the rain falling outside, John sits in the dark in his cluttered apartment, watching holographic projections of his lost wife and child.  We don’t know, at that point in the film, what happened to them, but it’s clear that something devastating has happened in John’s past, something from which he has not recovered.  This scene reaches a compellingly Blade Runner vibe (not all that surprising, since both films are based on short stories by Philip K. Dick).

The design of the film — enhanced by a lot of terrific visual effects — is stunning.  There are some elaborate futuristic set-pieces — the Slave I looking jets that the Pre-Crime unit uses when heading to intercept a target; the glimpses of DC’s futuristic highway system (I absolutely adore the look of the sleek future-cars in this film) — but also a lot of wonderful smaller touches, as well, like the stun-guns the FBI troops use, the spiders, and the whole look of John’s apartment.  The omnipresent retinal-sensors that enable the city’s billboards to target ads directly to the person walking by are a chillingly possible glimpse into the world-to-come.  I mentioned above the sequence with the holograms in John’s apartment, and it’s a terrific example of how the effects are able to be dazzling (as they show us devices beyond today’s technology) but also mundane.  (I love the moment when the camera pans around to the side of John, and we see him merely inches away from the holographic projection of his wife — a projection that, from that angle, is just flickering light with barely a suggestion of his wife’s image.)

One of the center-piece visual effects sequences of the film is the depiction of the screen that John uses to decipher the glimpses the pre-cogs generate of future-crimes.  John uses his hands and arms to manipulate the images on the huge transparent screen before him, zooming in, moving things around, and wiping files away.  It’s easy to forget what an eye-catching image this was when Minority Report first came out.  I have seen this effect emulated by a zillion sci-fi movies and TV shows in the years since (heck, M even had a screen like this in her office in Quantum of Solace), but it remains a great effect here.

My only real objection to the first two-thirds of the film is the silliness in the sequence in which John goes to a shady tech-guy to get new eyes (so he can fool the retinal-scanners).  Peter Stomare (Fargo) is great as the creepy and gross doc who John visits, but I don’t understand why the film makes a point of revealing — just as John is about to go under for the operation — that Stomare’s character Dr. Eddie hates John because John put him in prison years ago.  That’s a gut-clenching moment, as it seems that John is entirely at this dude’s mercy and so is about to get brutalized — but then John wakes up and we see that Dr. Eddie has performed the surgery just as he said he would.  He even left a nice sandwich for John to eat as he recovers from the anesthesia!  I don’t get that at all.

But that’s a small quibble.  Over-all, this first hour and 45 minutes of Minority Report is a beautifully well-shot (Janusz Kaminsky’s cinematography — balancing washed-out bright white lights and deep, dark blacks – is stunning) sci-fi noir.

But then we get to the moment that the pre-cogs predicted.  John Anderton discovers Leo Crow and the secret he holds, and suddenly finds himself holding a gun on him, ready to murder him.

And the whole film pretty much crumbles from there.

It’s impossible to avoid SPOILERS from here on in, gang, so beware.

It really would have been much more to my liking for John to have gone through with the murder of Leo.  After all, the pre-cog Agatha had revealed to John that, despite his hopes, there was no “minority report” for the murder they foresaw — meaning that ALL three pre-cogs saw John committing the act.  And nothing in the film to this point leads me to believe that the angry, broken John wouldn’t kill him.  But it’s a mainstream, Steven Spielberg movie, so I guess I was kidding myself that that could possibly happen.  So, OK, I can go with the idea that John exercises super-heroic restraint and arrests Leo rather than killing him.  This isn’t what ruins the film for me — though it’s the point at which everything goes south.  Little of what follows makes any sense — and from this point forward Mr. Spielberg and his collaborators consistently avoid any of the dark story-lines the film has suggested, opting instead for the easy, Hollywood happy ending.

John gets caught and the pre-cog girl, Agatha (who he had kidnapped in the hopes that she could prove his innocence, or at least help expose the flaws in the Pre-Crime system that he had begun to discover) is put back into her pool with the other pre-cogs and plugged back into the crime-predicting device.  OK, maybe this film is going to have an unhappy ending after all, I thought!  But no.  First, the film’s villain — who to this point has been extraordinarily careful and skilled at covering his tracks — makes a ridiculously obvious slip to John’s wife, who of course notices right away.  Then the villain leaves the room, and John’s wife looks down at the box of John effects which he just gave her — which apparently includes John’s service weapon!!  AND the bag containing John’s real eyes!!  (I’m not sure which is more unlikely!!)  So of course John’s wife uses those two things to break into the Pre-Crime unit and free him (meeting no resistance along the way, luckily for her!).

So now we get to the ceremony where the villain is about to be rewarded for his service.  John takes control of the video screens, and shows everyone the murder that this fellow committed several years back.  This sort of thank-goodness-everyone-can-discover-that-the-bad-guy-is-REALLY-EVIL-and-our-hero-is-really-good is such a silly, easy way to go — and feels like a total about-face from the noir-style of the film that had been unfolding until this point.  It’s also ridiculously too-easy.  We see the pre-cog Agatha having a vision of the murder, which is what John plugs into the video screens so everyone could see what happens.  Except a) what a silly coincidence it is that Agatha had that vision at EXACTLY the right time to embarrass the villain, and b) we already saw her have that vision several times earlier in the film, and those times she (and we) couldn’t see who the perpetrator was, while this time it’s conveniently clear as day.

Also, I should add that the whole scheme of fooling the pre-cogs (by the villain paying someone else to try to murder his victim — who the pre-cog senses and sends the cops to arrest  — then dressing up exactly the same way and carrying through with the murder — which the pre-cog will sense but which the Pre-Crime techs will dismiss as an echo of the earlier vision) doesn’t make any sense.   The film has already shown us that while the Pre-Crime cops have to do a lot of work to interpret the where and when of the crime from the pre-cogs’ vision, the pre-cogs are able to know IMMEDIATELY the identity of the victim and the would-be murderer.  As soon as they see a vision of the future crime, the machine they’re plugged into spits out balls with the names of the victim and murderer carved into them.  So even if the vision looked the same, the machine would STILL SPIT OUT A BALL WITH THE VILLAIN’S NAME ON IT, since the pre-cogs should be able to sense his pre-meditated crime-to-be.

But, whatever, John publicly humiliates and defeats the villain.  Then we get a closing montage that is even more terrible.  We see that John has magically reconciled with his wife (she’s pregnant which implies that they’re now healed emotionally and able to replace the son that they lost), the Pre-Crime unit has been shut down and the pre-cogs have been freed to grow out their hair and read books out on a nice safe farm in the countryside.  The end.

Oy.  Let’s forget the WAY TOO EASY happy ending that John is given and focus on the shut-down of the Pre-Crime unit.  The golden light in which these final scenes are bathed leads us to think that the filmmakers think this is a sweet, happy ending.  But without the Pre-Crime unit — whatever its flaws might have been — doesn’t that mean that, whereas we had been told that the Pre-Crime unit had brought the homicide rate down to zero, people will now be able to start killing each other again?

This film could have built to a wonderfully complex and ambiguous ending — in which John chooses to destroy the Pre-Crime unit in order to save the one person in a thousand who might not actually have gone through with the murder that the pre-cogs predicted, even though that means that the hundreds if not thousands of murders that the Pre-Crime unit prevented will now happen.  But the down-side of John’s decision is completely ignored by the filmmakers.  Who cares that people can kill each other again now!  At least the pre-cogs can be free in the countryside.  Everyone lives happily ever after!

What a disappointment.

I have enormous respect for the talents of the many men and women who worked on Minority Report. The film looks beautiful, and there’s a lot there to enjoy.  But what could have been a complex piece of work is undone by Mr. Spielberg’s apparent desire for an easy, happy ending.  A shame.

Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad (1997), The Lost World (1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985).

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