A warning to readers: This review reveals elements of the plot of the film Minority Report.
Maybe Steven Spielberg is trying to exorcise the specter of Stanley Kubrick. Or maybe he's trying to make sense of their boggling 2001 collaboration, A.I. Whatever the case, Spielberg's latest film, Minority Report, is a much finer recasting of that artistic marriage than A.I., which was an unhappy tug-of-war (with viewer as rope) between Kubrick's cold, crystalline sensibility and Spielberg's warm and fuzzy one. While many of A.I.'s themes run through Minority Report -- Kubrick's dark, dystopian vision of the future, Spielberg's filmic leitmotif of a boy and his family lost from each other -- this time Spielberg has achieved a more harmonious balance. Minority Report isn't a perfect film: Remember, this is the director who clubs audiences like baby seals to get the tears he wants. But with his latest attempt, it seems as though Spielberg has found a bit of Kubrick's backbone, and that rigor helps keep his humanistic warmth -- one of his strongest assets as a filmmaker -- from backsliding into his usual sentimental downfall.
I've always liked Kubrick, the silent co-creator of Minority Report; this despite the fact that he never liked me. Kubrick's movies are a giant "screw you" to his audiences, who are forced to squirm and suffer through his endless tracking shots and cold, self-absorbed meditations. Kubrick was the intriguing, distant lover you could never have; Spielberg, by contrast, is the smurfy one who comes over every day with chocolate-chip cookies. That's why A.I. gave me whiplash: I would have been happily depressed with the Kubrickian ending we very nearly had, a literal and figurative freezing-over of hope. But Kubrick died, and so we got a Spielbergian coda, a hideous gush of dark-hued sentimentality that disfigured the whole movie.
For the most part, Spielberg avoids such gooey temptation in Minority Report. Again, he is given the choice to leave his audience behind, the way Kubrick would. Again, he doesn't take it. This time, though, he doesn't kill us with a force-feeding of meaning. Still, he is Spielberg: a gentle brontosaurus from his own Jurassic Park who is guaranteed to take a little dip in the happy Hollywood marshmallow pit at the end.
But watching Minority Report, I almost didn't mind. After the sheer visual punch of the film and its breakneck pace, the marshmallow pit looked quite inviting.
Minority Report fully showcases Spielberg's visual genius -- his ability to tell a story in a sweep of startling, beautifully composed images. The opening has the force of a revelation, which, in a sense, it is. A jangly montage of images -- a despairing husband, a wife locked in the embrace of another man, a gleaming pair of scissors -- ends with the shot of a lone eye, the pupil contracting in horror at what it has just seen.
That eye belongs to the psychic being who has visualized this premonition of murder -- a "pre-cog," one of three whose visions fuel the work of the Department of Pre-Crime, which arrests and imprisons perpetrators before they kill. The year is 2054, the place is Washington, D.C., and there hasn't been a murder in the city in six years. The system seems perfect, especially to the man who is chief of the department, John Anderton (Tom Cruise). Perfect, that is, until the pre-cogs produce a vision predicting that Anderton will murder a complete stranger in less than 36 hours.
Although all the Kubrickian touches are there -- the ironic use of Beethoven, the sardonic humor, and the cold, dark settings -- Spielberg keeps his wit and ability to elicit a flash of recognition from the most unfamiliar surroundings. Cartoons on cereal boxes cavort and dance, a hypermodern version of irritating, ever-present advertising. And Spielberg puts a funny spin on a scary subject these days, the sacrifice of privacy and civil liberties to security efforts, by showing how even a visit to The Gap is invasive. After scanning a character's retinas, a computer voice chirps, "Welcome back, Mr. Yakamoto," and suggests items for purchase.
It's a good thing that Spielberg gives us these moments of levity, because the darkness of his themes, and the way he chooses to illustrate them, are overpowering. Can a tortured man resist the pull of fate, or is free will just wishful thinking? Can memories of a fractured family ever heal? We see a recorded projection of Anderton's wife, provocatively smiling, but the pall of rain outside his apartment shows through the warm image. Anderton replays and speaks over a conversation with his son, his real and recorded voices overlapping in a fugue of sadness and loss. All the warmth of Spielberg's usual direction -- the nimbic, golden backlighting -- is countered with looming darks and grainy whites. In one sequence, Anderton looks for clues by "scrubbing" the images the pre-cogs produce, his hands moving in an elaborate dance to separate layers and isolate elements. He looks like an intent, rapt conductor, and one can't help but think of Spielberg himself, shaping his richly conceived world. The movie continually asks us, "Can you see?" and there is no other director who is more equipped to answer with virtuoso visuals.
There is also no other director who could better find the heart beating under the film's noir surface -- a welcome change from this summer's fare of bloated war movies and George Lucas's ongoing love affair with inhuman drones. Of the pre-cogs, someone says, "It's better if you don't think of them as human." But for Steven Spielberg, that's impossible: His films are imbued with a near-religious devotion to humanity and family. While others seem the pre-cogs as freaks or deities, floating in an amniotic fluid in "the temple," he knows them as children torn from their mothers. Spielberg digs just as deep into his star's performance -- underneath Tom Cruise's shiny, vapid, Scientologized surface is a relentless tenseness, a superhuman will for hard work. Spielberg taps into that intensity, and it shows in the way Cruise's Anderton clasps the pre-cog Agatha (Samantha Morton) in one of the film's trademark images. They make for a strange Janus -- one face looking back, one forward. The past and the future are inextricably bound up, as tight as their embrace.
Even if Minority Report's ending is a little pat, it can't undo the power of what came before. When I came out of the screening, I was staggered and disoriented by the Washington, D.C., in front of me -- the careening, yellow taxicabs and saturated color of the flowers in a streetside pot -- so completely had I been submerged in the D.C. of Spielberg's invention. A.I. was Spielberg's first excursion into fantastical darkness, and it was a rambling, ambitious failure. But if it helped get him to Minority Report -- a near-perfect meld of the best of Kubrick with the best of Spielberg -- it was a small price to pay.