Drained of both color and sap, stretched in unpredictable directions on the gangly framework of a cynical story, Minority Report erases any lingering preconception of what constitutes a Steven Spielberg movie. This near-future story of murder, psychics and PG-13 mayhem is not a cuddly teddy bear of a film. It’s a monster, creeping up behind us with actual moral dilemmas and, dare we say, a pessimistic viewpoint. It’s enough to make E.T. call a cab.
For all his wealth, respect and obvious storytelling acumen, Spielberg always wore a caveat on his career simply for his profound fuzziness. His obsession with the wonder and innocence of childhood compromised his genius with both the visual and dramatic aspects of filmmaking. His movies became a catalog of stunted innocence, rather than the résumé of a gifted auteur. There’s a definite place for these movies and themes. It’s just not a very important place.
But after spending his life making movies about children’s dreams, Spielberg has taken a surprising detour into their nightmares. Even if you thought A.I. was a sloppy, overdone pastiche of dazzling visuals and overwrought emotion when it arrived last year, you had to admire the brass balls Spielberg showed in making it. He picked up the banner of Stanley Kubrick in both pictures and words, taking the dystopian genius’ ideas to places Spielberg had never been. Once he got there, he had no idea what to do, but we got to see the pictures from his exciting trip.
This amalgam of Spielberg’s new storytelling sensibility and his decades-old cinematic virtuosity grows in Minority Report, which turns a short story by pulp prince Philip K. Dick into a gorgeous science-fiction noir. This film is blue and gray, in both its visual composition and its attitude. These aren’t colors Spielberg normally wears, but he looks fantastic in them.
Buried in this film is a nearly subterranean performance by Tom Cruise, whose magnetism is on mute as a Washington police detective named John Anderton. Midway through the 21st century, he’s in charge of an experimental “Precrime” program that uses psychics to detect crimes before they happen, allowing Anderton and his colleagues to arrest murderers before they murder. Anderton is a shell, sitting alone in his apartment during his off-hours doing drugs and remembering his son, who vanished from a swimming pool shortly before his wife left him, and our childlike wonder fades by the frame.
He’s on the run soon after the psychics (or “precogs,” for precognition) announce Anderton will murder a man he’s never met in the next 36 hours. Chased by a former colleague (Colin Farrell, very good) and forced to doubt the program to which he’s dedicated his life, Anderton connects with one of the psychics (Samantha Morton, quite creepy) to uncover what’s really going on as he slides deeper underneath the belly of this near-future beast.
It’s not a perfect movie. Spielberg would probably admit it meanders while setting up the premise, and the ending provides an unwieldy combination of tidy resolution and mystery, when it should have stuck with one or the other exclusively. But Minority Report serves heaping portions of inspiration and execution. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: wring emotions, thrills and genuine wonder from the same trip to the theater without making us hate ourselves for falling under Spielberg’s spell.
So do Minority Report and A.I. signal a complete change in direction for Spielberg? If so, where does he go from here? Will the next Indiana Jones film be a seedy, revisionist portrait of a hero in decline? It seems unlikely. Spielberg is most likely just flexing muscles he has never used before. He’s demonstrating his capacity to excel in any genre, with any star and any story. Just like Young Indy, he’s finally starting to get interesting.