Steven Spielberg, noir criminal.

Steven Spielberg, noir criminal.

Steven Spielberg, noir criminal.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 28 2002 2:05 PM

Steven Spielberg, Noir Criminal

Minority Report: un-noir noir
Minority Report: un-noir noir

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen Minority Report yet, this may ruin a few surprises.
The consensus is in: Minority Report is (except for the last bit) some kind of masterpiece. But what kind? Spielberg insists it's science-fiction-cum-film-noir. "Mixing the genres really interests me now: film noir, mystery, science fiction. I'm in my mid-50s, I'm no longer afraid of the dark," he said at the Minority Report Seattle press round table. In fact, Spielberg thinks his film is something of an improvement on the noir genre. "I looked at all the mysteries that I remembered as a young film student loving," says Spielberg, "like The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second), North by Northwest, Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Key Largo. I had a field day looking at them—what's the protoplasm that makes these mysteries work?"

Noir is flawed, he discovered. "A lot of them actually don't work, [they're] so confusing you never really find out who did it. …They were kind of going off the star power and the sexuality of Bogart and the film noir style, which made everything seem more gripping than it actually was." Spielberg is proudest of the element that most critics have liked least in Minority Report: the plotty whodunit denouement.

Bogat and Bacall's racy talk
Bogat and Bacall's racy talk

But Edmund Wilson could've told him: What's good in noir stories is not the puzzle solved—it's the malaise along the way. In choosing clean logic over dirty sex, Spielberg makes the opposite choice that Howard Hawks made in the noir The Big Sleep. In the original 1946 version, a long scene spelled out precisely who killed who and why; that scene made viewers take a Little Nap. So Hawks replaced it with new scenes of gratuitous sex chat between Bogie and Bacall. It was a hit because of the sloppy yet evocative plotting that Spielberg deplores—and because it revels in filth like a kid crafting mud pies. How did Hawks ever get away with those racetrack metaphors? Bogie wonders how far Bacall will go; she cracks, "A lot depends on who's in the saddle." With horses, she likes to "see them work out a little first, see if they're front runners or come from behind."

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Minority Report does give us the odd peek at illicit sex—but it's so healthy-minded! There's no noirish coming from behind— its zeal is missionary all the way. (Pauline Kael on Close Encounters of the Third Kind: "I could use a little dirty friction.") Instead of femmes fatales and lubricious librarians, we get harmlessly concupiscent crones, a fond platonic ex-wife and a saintly asexual psychic. The Big Sleep's rotting greenhouse flower Gen. Sternwood and his nymphette daughter fuse into old Lois Smith, planting a dry kiss on Cruise. The scene is pure creepy genius but unsexed—the plants are hornier to finger Cruise than the woman is.

Minority Report has virtuoso grit, but it wipes off with one swipe, like waxy buildup in a commercial. Philip K. Dick's original hero dreads noir betrayal by his dame; Tom Cruise's wound is the morally irreproachable loss of a child. (Cruise says boosting the kid theme was his big script contribution.) Cruise is great, huffing street drugs like the Bad Lieutenant— but his grief lets him off the moral hook. What's his depraved kink? Watching 3-D home movies of his angelic son and his perky ex blushing coyly in a PG negligee.

Minority Report is packed with noir elements, artfully updated (and, incredibly, it's not derivative of Blade Runner). But it omits noir's essence. Noir is about circumambient evil whose tendrils reach for your heart and about your horror at seeing your own heart reaching back to greet them. Everything's stacked against the anti-hero, including his own nature. Ungovernable passions drive him to jail, death, or worse. When Seattle Weekly's Brian Miller asked Spielberg, "Can you talk about free will and Original Sin that's embedded in these cops as inquisitors?" Spielberg said, "Ooh, heavy!" and laughed. "Is your destiny sealed and you have no vote, or [not]?" said Spielberg. "It probably takes every ounce of effort you can possibly gather, [but] I'm among those who believe you can take control of your life." Minority Report makes Cruise's fate suspenseful, but Spielberg is incapable of buying the icy nihilist determinism of John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock, the three main influences on the film. For Spielberg, evil presents an opportunity for self-improvement through self-control. Fate can be dodged, like Indiana Jones' rock.

Noir is about ruined American dreams; Minority Report is about a man and society redeemed. Spielberg can't help but celebrate the triumph of the nice-guy will. He gave kind hearts to Michael Crichton's maleficent greed-head Jurassic Park developer and stony, opaque Schindler, and he gives Minority Report a happy ending. He gives Max von Sydow a Minority Report role echoing Huston's Noah Cross in Chinatown—but after the final betrayal, von Sydow begs his victim's forgiveness. If you put von Sydow in Minority Report and Huston's Noah Cross in the scales of evil, your balance becomes a catapult, and Max goes flying like ET on a bicycle over the moon. Uffdah!

Spielberg is as good as Huston, Kubrick, and Hitchcock. But if he thinks Minority Report is real noir, he is, as Chandler put it, "crazy as a pair of waltzing mice."

Tim Appelo writes about the arts for Seattle Weekly, the New York Times, and People.