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The Future Is Wow

Spielberg's Cruise missile scores direct hit

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Steven Spielberg's most recent summer outing, last year's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, had as many detractors as admirers, but I'm betting that Minority Report won't fall victim to any such see-saw analysis. The film is an unqualified success, a great film that (like most movies worth their weight) will doubtless deepen and expand upon repeat viewings.If there was initially any reluctance on my part to award this a four-star rating, it was because, for all its merits, it doesn't quite belong on the same level as all those other Spielberg four-stars, movies like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Saving Private Ryan. Yet on a more generous sliding scale, this is so markedly superior to almost everything else that's been in theaters over the past several months, it reduces the competition to also-ran status. As a popcorn picture, it makes even Spider-Man and Attack of the Clones seem a little less exciting, and as a thoughtful adult drama, it makes Insomnia and The Sum of All Fears appear slightly trivial. There are many reasons to rake Spielberg over the coals -- his desire to needlessly "improve" E.T.; his overzealous need for universal approval; the mere fact that he foisted Hook upon us; etc. -- yet when it comes right down to it, perhaps no other director since Alfred Hitchcock has been able to so masterfully (and so consistently) blend art and entertainment into one irresistible package.

Expanding a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick (whose works also inspired Blade Runner and Total Recall), screenwriters Scott Frank (Get Shorty) and Jon Cohen plunge us into the Washington, DC of the year 2054. For the past six years, there have been no murders in the DC area, thanks to a branch of the Justice Department known as the Pre-Crime Unit. Brought to fruition by kindly creator Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow) and largely run by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the unit relies on three "Pre-Cogs" who have the ability to see murders before they even occur, which in turn allows Anderton and his men the opportunity to arrest the killers before they've actually killed anybody. It's a perfect system, everybody keeps insisting, but with the Pre-Crime Unit on the verge of possibly going national, pesky government agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) suddenly shows up and starts asking the difficult questions. Whether Witwer hopes to shut the operation down or replace Anderton as its main man remains shrouded, but things certainly appear to be swinging in his favor either way when Anderton gets pegged by the Pre-Cogs as a murderer, destined to assassinate a man he hasn't even met in approximately 36 hours.

It has long become a cliche to gush over the ability of a motion picture to create its own self-contained world, yet there's simply no other way to describe the sights and sounds of Minority Report. From the very first frame, Spielberg and production designer Alex McDowell transport us to a fully realized universe, a place that basically looks like today but with some logical technological advances added for good measure (in that respect, the movie draws comparison to gritty futuristic flicks like A Clockwork Orange, RoboCop and, of course, Blade Runner). In this brave new world, cars drive up the sides of buildings, animated characters on cereal boxes sing and dance for the pleasure (or annoyance) of the consumer, and headlines on newspapers automatically change with each breaking story. Most ingeniously (and surely the most natural progression from where we stand today), ads on billboards directly address each person walking by, making modern society's Internet impersonality seem quaint by comparison (as an added credit, this is that rare movie in which product placements are woven into the fabric of the story rather than merely left hanging as extra cash incentives for the filmmakers).

Following 9/11, it became easy for critics to bring up the tragedy in relation to all sorts of films. Yet although the timing is coincidental, Minority Report gains additional immediacy in its look at the lengths Americans are prepared to go to give up their personal freedoms. At a time in which polls show that many citizens are willing to let the government usurp their individual rights in the name of feeling a little bit safer -- and facing the machinations of a rabid administration happy to accommodate -- here comes a work that shows exactly the price that must be paid for such a comfort. The movie is more subtle than, say, A Clockwork Orange or the two screen versions of 1984 in its indictment of the erosion of personal responsibility and individual freedom, yet its message is unmistakable. In one of the most chilling sequences, the Pre-Crime Unit sends out mechanized spiders to enter an apartment building and scan the eyes of each individual to make sure that the fugitive they're pursuing isn't on the premises. Using a shot he borrowed from his old friend Brian De Palma, Spielberg, working with his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, takes a bird's eye view of the apartment complex, showing the spiders barging into the rooms, crawling up the inhabitants (most are terrified but also apparently used to this), and scanning their orbs as if they were bar codes on supermarket produce. Eyes, in fact, play a large part in this future society: The eyes of citizens are scanned as they disembark from subway cars, they're scanned as people enter department stores, and they're often scanned when employees arrive at work. Eyes are also critical to one of the film's most morbidly humorous scenes, as Anderton is forced to chase his own eyeballs down a twisting corridor -- I'll leave it at that.

Cruise delivers a forceful, stabilizing performance as a flawed hero made even more vulnerable by the slow dismantling of his belief system, yet it's the supporting rank-and-file who add immeasurably to the film's far-reaching appeal. As Agatha, the most vital of the three Pre-Cogs, Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown) is both spooky and sympathetic, while Peter Stormare (Fargo), playing a cracked quack, appears to have stepped in from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. The hunky Farrell, a star-in-the-making, is the right antagonist for Cruise's Anderton, and veteran Lois Smith registers in one formidable sequence as a Pre-Crime architect who quickly lost faith in the entire situation.

A genuine puzzle for most of its running time, Minority Report nevertheless spills the beans before it should, making the finale feel somewhat protracted. Still, this is a minor quibble for a picture that successfully works as a sci-fi yarn, a film noir drama, an adventure romp, and a message movie. All that, plus popcorn, for roughly 10 bucks? It's the sale of the season -- and perhaps the year.

Minority Report****DIRECTED BY

Steven Spielberg

STARS

Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell,

Samantha Morton

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