"I don't try to predict the future," Ray Bradbury used to say, "I try to prevent it." And isn't that the function of science fiction in general, to ward off tomorrow before it gets here? Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, which is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, imagines a future United States in which, for the first time in our country's history, nobody's trying to kill anybody else. Oh, they may try, but they won't get very far, because the Department of Precrime (currently but a gleam in John Ashcroft's eye) will take them into custody before they've had a chance to commit the crime. Starring Tom Cruise as a cop who's taken profiling to either its logical or its illogical conclusion, Minority Report opens with a line that's supposed to send a chill down the ACLU's spine: "I'm placing you under arrest for the future murder of...." In 2054, the police will serve as jury, judge and prognosticator.
The prognostications come via a trio of "precogs," members of the Psychic Friends Network who've been drugged, hooked up to wires and suspended in what appears to be amniotic fluid. By waving his hands around like a magician, Cruise's John Anderton is able to work a set of precog-linked computers so as to conjure up the scene of an upcoming crime. After that, it's only a matter of picking up the perp before he or she has perpetrated. An experimental program that's only been tested in Washington D.C., Precrime has all but eliminated murder in our nation's capital. And Anderton, who lost a son to a kidnapper several years before, was drawn to the program's promise of perfection. (Instead of the perfect crime, perfect crime prevention.) Then a glitch occurs: The system spits out Anderton's own name. But is it really a glitch? Is Anderton being framed? And if so, why?
That we're not particularly interested in the answers to those questions can be attributed, in large part, to Spielberg's preoccupation with the way the future will work rather than with what it will all mean. Minority Report is somewhat shapeless and, at times, all but incomprehensible (as sci-fi often is when it tries to wrap its mind around various futures), but there's always something to look at ' Cruise's bod, for instance. In Dick's short story, Anderton is described as "bald and fat and old." That character description has more or less been assigned to Max von Sydow, who plays the retiring director of Precrime. As for Cruise, he does shave his head, but mostly he furrows his brow and flexes his muscles ' not his acting muscles, mind you. In Minority Report, it's the scenery that chews the actors.
I enjoyed the scenery, especially the cereal box that has cartoon ads embedded on it, but I kept feeling like I'd been here before. Which I had. Conceptually, Minority Report owes a large debt to Blade Runner, which was also based on a Philip K. Dick opus. There's the same two-tiered society, the rich scraping the sky in buildings that are hundreds of stories tall, the poor scratching out a living in a ground-level slum known as "the sprawl." And there are billboards everywhere, a Dickian trademark updated to include personalized appeals to passersby. (Nokia, Lexus and the Gap all paid to be included in the future of shopping.) The thing is, Blade Runner was about a world where everything was for sale, even our hearts and souls, whereas Minority Report just uses commercialism for window-dressing. The movie's vision isn't integrated with its themes, which have more to do with surveillance.
For the first time, Spielberg's entered the shadowy realm of film noir, and what he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have done is bleach the world of color; everything's fading to black-and-white. In some scenes, the light is so diffuse that it pours through the windows, like smoke. Alas, it takes more than a look to achieve a vision, and Minority Report has some problems with the vision thing, despite countless references, both audio and visual, to the power of sight. "Can you see?" a precog (Samantha Morton, looking appropriately embryonic) asks Anderton, who answers this rhetorical question much later in the film when he exclaims, "How can I not have seen this?" Throughout the film, the eyes have it, from the opening close-up of Morton's retina to a scene in which Anderton chases his own eyeballs as they roll down a corridor. How unsightly!
And how determinedly metaphorical. Dick published his short story in 1956, when the Cold War was fanning the flames of paranoia. And although he wasn't yet juggling reality and virtual reality, as he would do so often in the novels, he did insert a MÃbius strip that turned the plot back on itself a couple of times. For whatever reasons, Spielberg and his scriptwriters have removed Dick's MÃbius strip and inserted one of their own. The plot still turns back on itself, but Anderton is no longer faced with the impossible choice of either admitting that Precrime can make mistakes or being sent away for murder. He's no longer caught in an existential vise. In the movie, there are bad guys and good guys, although it's often difficult to tell which is which. In the short story, reality itself is the bad guy. Life is a riddle for which there is no solution.
A paranoid writer writing about paranoia, Dick inhabited a world of double and triple agents, of hallucinations nestled inside other hallucinations, of machines acting like humans and humans acting like machines. But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean somebody isn't following you, and "Minority Report" picks up on J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and Joseph McCarthy's files and the HUAC hearings ' that whole '50s atmosphere of guilty until proven innocent. And if Spielberg's movie version doesn't resonate as much as Dick's story, it's not for lack of things to resonate with. Take capital punishment, which hinges on the kind of certainty that Precrime fails to deliver. Take racial profiling, which zeroes in on suspects before they've committed a crime. Or take the war on terrorism, which redefines a "defendant" as an "enemy combatant" so as to avoid the hassles of habeas corpus.
Minority Report is what some people call "hard sci-fi"; it's set in a plausible future. And yet it feels a little too removed from today, if only because Spielberg doesn't firmly ground it in emotion. The script tries: Anderton is a guy who always gets his man but will never get back his son. And Cruise dutifully sheds tears when asked to. But there's simply too much clutter around, literally and figuratively. Anderton's apartment has so much technological foofaraw that you finally long for the good ol' days when all we needed, in order to be wowed, was the Clapper. And the whole knowing-the-future-can-change-the-future thing can strain the brain. It strains the brain in Dick's story as well, but Dick was the master of alternative realities, lining them up like dominoes and then tipping over the last one. Spielberg seems more concerned with shooting the dominoes in the best possible light.
You can sense the director of E.T. and Close Encounters trying to shed his skin in A.I. and Minority Report. Not only has he darkened his palette, he's jiggered his mise-en-scÃne. A pity, because the old Spielberg was one of the most fluid filmmakers in movie history. Some of his sequences ' the UFO sighting at the railroad crossing in Close Encounters, for instance ' are masterpieces of sight and sound. Here, his timing is off. And the action sequences, like the one set in a robotics auto-manufacturing plant, are both frenzied and perfunctory, as if Spielberg didn't allow them to stew in their juices. There's one great scene, set in a greenhouse, where Anderton encounters the woman who invented Precrime. Lois Smith, looking for all the world like an elderly gardener, manages to fill the screen with malevolent dread through the sheer force of her personality. If only the rest of the movie could have done the same.