Minority Report is a fabulous, witty totalitarian nightmare.

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June 21 2002 1:14 PM

Blame Runner

Minority Report is a fabulous, witty totalitarian nightmare.

Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton testing fate
Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton testing fate

For slightly under two hours, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (DreamWorks/20th Century Fox) is even greater than the sum of its parts—a roller coaster in which the loop-the-loops are philosophical as well as visceral. It's one of the drollest projections of the future ever put on film. The movie is adapted from an early short story by Philip K. Dick; and while it strays from Dick's narrative, it nails the basic premise and some quintessential Dickian motifs. The year is 2054, and in and around Washington, D.C., murder has been eliminated by a private corporation with governmentlike powers of detention. The company, Precrime, has developed technology to tap into the minds of "Pre-Cogs," psychic humans who float in a sort of sacred amniotic pool, their synapses wired to video terminals. What they visualize, and what shows up on screens in the company's control room, are not "thought crimes" but crimes that definitely will be committed.

Sounds invasive, no? Shrewdly, the screenplay (by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen) adds a cliffhanger aspect to engage our sympathies. With crimes of passion, the Pre-Cogs' vision can come mere minutes before a murder is destined to occur, which means a race to discern the location and stop the killing. While his hovercraft SWAT team waits to swoop down on the perpetrator-to-be, the unit chief, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), reviews the Pre-Cogs' tapes on a giant glass screen like some sort of forensic Leonard Bernstein, commanding the computer to shift the grid, try different angles, and zoom in for close-ups. Anderton also has a direct video link to a pair of judges, who by rote give their legal blessing to go forth and apprehend.

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I must admit that I find elements of this future attractive—and so, according to MinorityReport, does the populace of 2054. A political advertisement for Precrime is stunningly effective: It shows people who would have been murder victims expressing gratitude for their lives. As the movie begins, Precrime is on the verge of a referendum that would make its policies the law of the United States, and a smirky Justice Department honcho called Witwer (Colin Farrell) has arrived to scrutinize the company's inner workings—to ensure that the data that sends would-be culprits into suspended animation for the rest of their lives is reliable. The movie presents us with a classic totalitarian trade-off, upgraded by technology and the paranormal: Would you surrender a slew of civil liberties for a world without crime? Assuming that the right people were always jailed for the right reasons, I'd think about it long and hard.

The hero, Anderton, doesn't have to think too hard. He has a vigilante's worldview and a fanatical loyalty to Precrime director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow). A drug user and fantasist, Anderton spends most of his spare time with his holographic home movies, reliving the life he once led with his wife and young son, the latter abducted and (presumably) killed a mere six months before Precrime came into existence. Six months earlier and he'd still have a family! Nothing can come between Anderton and his Precrime religion—nothing, that is, until the Pre-Cogs have a vision of him killing a man he has never heard of, until the entire apparatus of the company is turned toward apprehending the former apprehender.

The idea that an individual could have a hidden life that even he doesn't know about is pure Dick, and it gives the suspense an extra kink. Unlike the heroes of most blockbuster thrillers, Anderton isn't simply running away from special effects; he's running toward his future. He's trying to learn the identity of the man he's fated to murder—to prove that he won't commit the crime, that with knowledge he can change the future, that even in a universe with Pre-Cogs, no one's actions are predestined. The search leads him back to the Pre-Cogs he regarded as both holy and subhuman: They're like floating star-children, hairless, in a druggy state of suspension. The one he abducts, Agatha (Samantha Morton), has never lived in the present, only the twilit world of other people's futures. Morton comes with her own lyrically disconnected aura. She can't move too fast, but a Pre-Cog proves a handy thing to have in a chase. You know what's going to trip you up a minute or so down the road.

It has been a long time since a Spielberg film felt so nimble, so unfettered, so free of self-cannibalizing. When he sheds his pandering mannerisms, he really is one of the most wittily dexterous filmmakers alive, and he gets a fine, focused performance from Cruise, who's better when you can't spot him acting. Spielberg was gun-for-hire on Minority Report (Cruise's company developed the project), but nothing feels impersonal. Having publicly taken issue with his old friend George Lucas' paeans to digital video, Spielberg makes a passionate case for celluloid. Janusz Kaminski's palette is cool, desaturated, blue-washed, with a grainy texture suggesting the unstable molecules of reality.

Digital video is the instrument of the state, of Precrime, of the corporation: It's a world in which marketers identify you with a retinal scan and tailor billboards to your purchases (an extension of Amazon's technique of greeting you "personally" with a list of recommendations based on books you've bought before). Precrime tracks with retinal scans, too. There's an amazing sequence—a showstopper—in which a team in search of Anderton dispatches a horde of mechanical spiders into a fleabag hotel, the robot insects skittering from room to room, crawling under doors, lasering the eyeballs of the building's inhabitants.

This script is so smart and the editing (by Michael Kahn) so crackerjack that every freaky black-comic element works like gangbusters. Take the squirmily funny scene in which an underground surgeon (Peter Stormare)—a druggie sadist—gives Anderton a new set of eyeballs, but not before taunting him with his defenselessness: It's a Saturday Night Live sketch in hell. As the reclusive Dr. Iris Hineman, the inventor of the Precrime technology, Lois Smith manages to be forward and evasive in the same instant—a hilariously discomfiting combination. It is Hineman who lets slip the existence of "minority reports"—alternate Pre-Cog visions of the future that are swiftly suppressed, for fear of undercutting the cases against people who as yet haven't actually done anything.

This thread of Minority Report has prompted lively commentary, from Dahlia Lithwick's deft comparison to the Jose Padilla case to Jeremy Lott's provocative assertion that the movie will be to the Bush administration what Wag the Dog was to the Clinton team—a crystalline metaphor for political expediency. But neither Lithwick nor Lott has seen the film, and I'm sorry to report that, unlike Dick's story, it doesn't stick with that idea and develop it. In fact, the minority report becomes the casualty of the last 20 minutes, which play more like a third-rate episode of Murder, She Wrote than anything by Philip K. Dick. I can't believe that the same screenwriters who fashioned the first two hours had anything to do with the scene between von Sydow and Anderton's estranged wife, played by Kathryn Morris, who emerges from nowhere to save the day. Whose idea was it to turn Minority Report into a mushy declaration of humanism? It ends up as less of a warning about an Orwellian police state than a protest that Pre-Cogs are people, too. It's Dick-less.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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