Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Minority Report

[This is a contribution to the Steven Spielberg Blogathon, hosted by Icebox Movies and Medfly Quarantine, running from December 18-28.]

It is fitting, and much remarked-upon, that for a film about seeing the future, eyes and vision are incredibly important to Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. The film literalizes the idea of seeing the future, removes the concept from the realm of the metaphysical and places it into the context of a gritty forensic police thriller. The future world it imagines, by way of Philip K. Dick, is one in which a trio of powerful precogs — savants with awesome mental abilities — are harnessed by the police department to prevent violent crimes before they happen. The precogs see — literally see — murders that are going to happen in the future, and their visions are harnessed through computers into video records that can then be played back, manipulated, and enhanced, their details thoroughly dissected by the precrime investigator John Anderton (Tom Cruise).

The business of cop shows, the sifting through of evidence and unearthing of clues, is translated into this futuristic milieu as Anderton analyzes these videos in order to discover the soon-to-occur murder's location and actors. Spielberg stages the introductory scene of Anderton leading an investigation as though the detective was conducting a symphony, using a complex computer system that responds to his every movement. He waves his hands and video fragments dash across the screen. Segments are looped and repeated, details are zoomed in on and snatches of sound are amplified, and every nuance of the video becomes a potential clue pointing towards the scene of the future crime. Detective work becomes a process of looking deeply and intently, examining the image — in other words, the detective becomes a figure analogous to a film editor, or perhaps a film critic, an analyzer of images, fitting together the bits and pieces of a scene in a way that makes sense and reveals the meaning of the scene.

The film's literalization of seeing the future is so potent because it's a metaphor or a model for the cinema, but even more poignantly it's compared to home movies. Anderton spends his days looking into the future, but his nights are spent immersed in the past, in home movie recordings of his young son, who disappeared and is presumed dead. We never say that we are seeing the past in the same way as we talk about seeing the future, but when we look at home movies or a photo album, we are in fact seeing the past, visually engaging with memories. When Anderton pulls up the footage of his son playing on the beach, selecting it from a larger collection like a connoisseur, he engages with it in much the same way as he does with the precogs' visions of the future: looping and rewinding, revisiting key passages as though hoping to extract some meaning, some tangible clue, from these images of his laughing, energetic son. It places Anderton's work in heartrending relief, as an effort to find the truth in these video images of the future, the truth that eludes and mystifies him when trying to make sense of the loss of his son through video records of the past.

The directive to look, to see deeply, is also central to the character of Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most powerful of the precogs. Agatha wants a witness, wants someone to look closely at a particular vision of hers, a vision of a crime that has long been thought "solved," the murder prevented before it happened. Agatha's quest becomes linked to Anderton's when Anderton sees himself in one of the precogs' visions, and sees his own name come up as the next would-be murderer for the police to apprehend. Anderton is forced to go on the run, eventually joined by Agatha, who he liberates from her weird imprisonment in the tanks that house the precogs and make them look like exhibits at an aquarium, an aspect of the whole precog system that everyone seems, curiously, morally blind to until Anderton rips Agatha out of this housing and is forced to confront her humanity.

That moral blindness is another form of seeing and not seeing, the motif that Spielberg seems fascinated with here. Is it really possible that this future society is so indifferent to the humanity of the precogs that a system where these people are permanantly chained, physically and mentally, to a computer system that channels their visions, is not only accepted but is soon to be unveiled on a larger scale? Before Anderton goes on the run, he and his fellow cops make some nods to the moral and philosophical dilemmas at the root of precrime — how do you arrest someone for a crime that hasn't actually occurred? — but they easily shake off the deeper doubts of FBI agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), dismissing his concerns as inconsequential whining. In (broad) contemporary political terms, Witwer is the bleeding-heart liberal concerned with rights and morality, while the rest of society seems poised to side with the law-and-order conservatives who view the sacrifice of these abstract values and ideals as secondary to the gains of preventing murders. Spielberg never taps too deeply into this subcurrent of the story, but it's there nevertheless, teasing just below the surface.

Instead, there's a lot more fun with eyes and seeing. Anderton, grieving for his son, buys his drugs from an eyeless man whose hollow, empty sockets unseeingly bore into the center of the suffering Anderton. Later, he goes on the run but his eyes identify him wherever he goes. In this future society, eyescans are so routine that even advertisements scattered around on billboards scan the eyes of passersby in order to target spoken ads at individuals. As a result, wherever Anderton goes, his name is being shouted out amidst cheery slogans; Big Brother sees him everywhere because big companies see him everywhere. There's something to be said here, probably, about the reversal of the usual couch potato dynamic of consumers staring at ads. Now the ads stare back, and get personal, the logical outgrowths of online ad targeting and spyware. Spielberg, again, doesn't really go there, just leaves it as intriguing loose thread. For him, the eyescans are a plot device, necessary to give Anderton an obstacle to overcome.

This problem results in the ingenious sequence where Anderton goes to a disreputable doctor who gives him an eye transplant, which in this society where eyes are the windows not only to the soul but to one's entire person, is the equivalent of a new name and a new identity. Spielberg stages a brilliant sequence where the blind and blindfolded Anderton, who has to shield his eyes for some time after the surgery, is forced to hide from an army of spider-like miniature police robots. Spielberg's camera follows the robots on their skittering journey through the dilapidated building where Anderton is hiding, the camera seeming to creep through walls, finally arriving at the room where Anderton tries to slow his pulse and hide his breathing by submerging himself in cold water, before being forced to reveal his new eyes for the robots to scan.

All of this is set-up and preparation for the film's best gag, the slapstick chase sequence between Anderton and his own eye, a slippery connection to his past identity that he finally holds onto by the barest thread. Literally. This sense of humor — black, grisly, sometimes positively naughty as in Anderton and Agatha's visit to a virtual reality sin palace — enlivens the film, as does Spielberg's predictably fluid action staging. Minority Report is tense and visceral, balancing man-on-the-run suspense with bursts of action and those moments of piquant humor that give this dark film a surprisingly playful sensibility.

The finale drives home the film's multiple takes on seeing — to see the future, to see the truth, and not always at the same time or in the same sense — while first imprisoning Anderton in a way that mirrors the fates of the precogs at the beginning of the film, then unleashing him for the climax. Spielberg, as always, can't resist tying things up for the finale, resolving the darker undercurrents of the film in a tidy denouement where the bad guy is caught, the precog program ended, and everything set right. The rest of the film raises unsettling propositions about justice and morality: that justice could miscarry; that the illusion of moral certitude is just that, an illusion; that predicting the future can be the same as creating it, as Anderton is, paradoxically, set on the path to murder by the prediction that he would commit a murder. The film's ending tiredly suggests a more benign justice that will, eventually, win out in the end, but the torturous, unlikely machinations required to reach this happy ending only wind up enforcing the limitations of justice and law. Spielberg, no matter how hard he tries, can't erase the disquieting implications of his own film, and Minority Report is all the richer for this final lingering tension.


Craig said...

All of this is set-up and preparation for the film's best gag, the slapstick chase sequence between Anderton and his own eye, a slippery connection to his past identity that he finally holds onto by the barest thread.

God, I remember exploding in laughter at that sight gag, along with the entire audience. It's the kind of visual humor that Spielberg does better than anyone, and which frankly I've missed.

It's an interesting, maliciously funny movie, with a problematic third-act pile-up that is Spielberg's M.O. You covered it well.

Ed Howard said...

Never has the phrase "sight gag" been more appropriate. I've seen this film many, many times by this point and I still can't help laughing everytime that scene comes on.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As late Spielbergs go it's not bad. Colin Farrell, needless to say, wipes Chipmunk Boy off the screen every time he appears. But for me the film belongs to the great Lois Smith who in her one scene ( hell, it's an aria) shows us all what Grand Scale acting is all about.

Ed Howard said...

I don't know, I thought Chipm... um, Cruise was good enough in this. His performance in Collateral is still his best, though, because it makes such good use of his (seemingly inborn) chilly arrogance.

Tony Dayoub said...

The film's ending tiredly suggests a more benign justice that will, eventually, win out in the end, but the torturous, unlikely machinations required to reach this happy ending only wind up enforcing the limitations of justice and law.

The real MINORITY REPORT we've been seeing, the noirish one best exemplified by the blackly funny scene where Anderton visits Stormare's "crime" doctor, ends with the arrest and imprisonment of Anderton in Tim Blake Nelson's menagerie of pre-crime convicts. I always try my hardest to ignore the problematic third act (virtually lifted from THE FUGITIVE).

Ed Howard said...

The ending's a letdown, Tony, no doubt about it. It's weird that Spielberg can be so blackly comic, so dark and fun, but then feel the need to pull back from those qualities for the denouement. It's like he's afraid to follow through on the sensibility that makes the film so great for at least 2/3 of its length. In some ways, though, that very sense of conflict and uncertainty makes the resolution more interesting, like the happy ending is kind of poisoned by the unavoidable sense that it's a copout.

Damian Arlyn said...

Nice piece, Ed. I love MINORITY REPORT and tend to feel that it doesn't quite get the respect it deserves.

I might disagree with you a little bit on the scene where Cruise chases his eye around. That was a little too much slapstick for me at that point in the story (especially after that amazing sequence with the tub and the mechanical spiders that featured that Brian DePalma-ish extended overhead shot). However, your contention that sight/seeing and eyes are incredibly important to the themes of MR is spot on. Incidentally, I don't know if you've ever seen the episode of "Night Gallery" that Spielberg directed (the one where a blind Joan Crawford has an operation wherein her eyes are replaced with those of someone who can see) but it prominently features a merry-go-round in a park at one point. I think Spielberg's inclusion of the merry-go-round in MR's tense opening scene is in a way him giving a nod to his younger self, sort of looking back at far he's come ("engaging the past" as you said).

Ed Howard said...

Damian, I'm definitely a sucker for films that handle extreme tonal shifts well, so the black comedy in Minority Report really works for me, both the slapstick eyeball chase and the interaction with the sleazy underground doctor. For me, these scenes resonate in interesting ways with the more serious treatments of similar themes and ideas elsewhere in the film.

I haven't seen that episode, but that's definitely a cool touch, that nod to his past - and maybe also a nod to the fact that he's going to be drawing on pulp tropes in this film, as in Night Gallery.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Chipmunk Boy declared war on me awhile back. Consequently my feelings about him are less than copasetic.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I've always felt that MINORITY REPORT is the closest thing not named BLADE RUNNER we'll get to a perfect Philip Dick adaptation. The ending is indeed problematic, but that's to be expected with Spielberg. It's not the first film of his this past decade where 2/3 are brilliant (I'm in the minority, I think, in claiming WAR OF THE WORLDS to be some kind of masterpiece).

I loved that you went with the sight motif for this post. It's always been a favorite of mine concerning this film, and I'm glad that you and Craig are emphasizing the "sight" gag as a wonderful moment from Spielberg -- the type of moment, as pointed out already, that Spielberg was so damn good at. It's moments like that that makes the Spielberg's joy and love of filmmaking so palpable; now, however, it is all but absent.

One scene that is the perfect example of the kind of energy and elan Spielberg brings to genre films like this is the scene with the little spiders, which you mention in your piece. This scene in so brilliantly storyboarded and executed that I always find it hard to believe that it exists in such a mainstream summer blockbuster film (not to be film-snobby or anything). That sweeping bird's-eye shot through all of the rooms is masterful, and the tension of the scene in the bathroom reminds me every single time I watch it what a master Spielberg is.

Fantastic piece, Ed.

Adam Zanzie said...

Ed, I'm writing my own piece on Minority Report as we speak but, as always, I'm afraid my writing is not going to be as eloquent and as precise as yours! Maybe not even my own insights into the film: your thoughts about Anderton being "a film critic who solves crimes" have only enrichened my love for this movie, one of Spielberg's most effortlessly entertaining.

One thing I will do in my piece, however, is defend the ending, which many of you here seem to dislike a lot. I agree with Tony that it's a bit derived from The Fugitive (and I'll go even further than that, Tony: it also borrows heavily from the ending of L.A. Confindential), but I think that for everything happy in the film's ending, there is something far darker, far worse still looming by the end.

I was saying this over at Craig's place, but I think the reason why Spielberg doesn't give Minority Report a Brazil-type ending is because to give the film such an ending would only make the movie a total condemnation of this sort of limited democracy. And, truth be told, I don't think that's Spielberg's intent. Spielberg has said in interviews that if America had a perfected Precrime system, he would support it. He'd be willing to give up some of his individual rights if it meant he and his family's safety would be guaranteed. So Minority Report is not a condemnation of limited democracy: it's a portrait of a noble attempt at one that is, finally, unsuccessful.

Just want to say to David that I can definitely see, from clicking on that link, why he holds a grudge against Cruise. I gotta say, though: I love his performance in this movie and I think he should have gotten an Oscar nomination for it.

Oh, and Damian: thanks a bunch for the Night Gallery plug. I KNEW the eye-extracting scene reminded me of something from Spielberg's previous work!

TheLoneStranger said...

I will never understand why, with Minority Report, when Spielberg goes to such lengths to allow the audience to choose the ending that best works for them, people again and again decide to pick the ending that they like the least. Because that's exactly what happens in Minority Report; Spielberg creates a natural tangent where the audience can decide if the conclusion is either a literal, genuine happy ending or an invented creation of Anderton's imprisoned, haloed mind. I can only assume that most people aren't even aware of this choice in the first place.

There are several reasons why I believe the ending is actually all in Anderton's head:-

1) Just before the Prison Guard, Gideon, halos Anderton, he says the following: “They say that you have visions. That your life flashes before your eyes. That all your dreams come true.” What are the subsequent events if not a summation of Anderton's dreams coming true? Burgess’ unlikely slip-of-the-tongue to Lara about Anne Lively’s murder; Lara’s unlikely freeing of Anderton from prison; Burgess’ unlikely suicide; Anderton and Lara’s unlikely reconciliation; the Pre-Cogs unlikely freedom - all of these contrivances can be explained by this being Anderton’s fantasy, his dream.

2) When Anderton is haloed, Spielberg shoots it in a particularly revealing way. The camera locks on Anderton, who stares straight out at the audience, the frame goes black (like the lights dimming in a movie theatre) except for the beaming blue glow of the halo (like a film projector), which 'projects' Anderton's thoughts directly at the audience. In a film littered with so many references to cinema, Spielberg surely knew exactly what this moment implies. Indeed, the first words that are spoken in this projected dream are Burgess confessing outright that “This is all my fault”.

3) Moments that were revealed as fantasies previously in the film are repeated in Anderton's dream. A customer at the virtual reality fantasy club, Dreamweaver, is seen at a party being surrounded by people congratulating him, just as Burgess is at the end of the film. Another customer tells Dreamweaver’s proprietor, Rufus, ‘I want to kill my boss’, and in a round about way Anderton ends up doing precisely that.

4) The final scene of the three Pre-Cogs sitting in a loose triangle, trapped on an island, surrounded by water, isn’t a million miles away from their previous predicament. Indeed, the helicopter style reveal of their house references the final shot of Solarys, which shows its own particular house to be a fantasy/recreation.

5) Is it not in keeping that a film so concerned with visions and seeing, with deception and blindness, with reality and fantasy, might have a potentially hallucinatory ending? Does this not, in fact, turn the film itself into a 'minority report'; one in which the same event is viewed by all yet not everyone agrees on what that event actually shows?

6) It's just so Dickian. It may not be found in the short-story, but it's definitely in keeping with Philip K. Dick's metaphysical credo.

7) Spielberg used a false happy ending in AI (which just happened to be the film he made immediately prior to Minority Report) so it's actually not even out of keeping for Spielberg either.

Now, what Spielberg doesn't do is self-consciously draw attention to this ambiguity. There is no Brazil-style reveal, nor even an Inception style nudge. Spielberg has never been a tricksy, hipster type director; if you want to see it as a happy ending then nothing is standing in your way. The ambiguity isn't designed to be overt and make the audience gasp at the 'clever' slight-of-hand (thereby surely robbing it of its true ambiguity?). But if you want to dig deeper then you can do that too. “Do you see?”, we keep being asked;“See What Others Don't” suggests a holographic advert. Maybe we should pay more attention.

Kevin J. Olson said...


I've heard the "all-in-his-head" theory before. It's a great theory, but I personally feel that there is no hard evidence that Spielberg, working from his own ideas (read: not Kubrick's vision for A.I.), isn't the literal filmmaker we know him as. I just have never seen a Spielberg movie that sacrifices the third act of a summer blockbuster, major-star vehicle in the name of ambiguity.

I could be wrong, of course, but my guess is that Spielberg was being literal with his ending to MINORITY REPORT, and , to be honest, that he was trying to have his cake and eat it to by knowing that people would project their own ambiguous endings onto the film.

I may be alone in this, but I've always seen Spielberg as a very literal filmmaker.

Ed Howard said...

Hah, I forgot about those letters, David. Really bizarre.

Kevin, agreed about that spider scene. There's something so visually precise about it. And it's also packed with all kinds of visual humor, like the couple who pauses in the middle of a fight to get eye-scanned, then goes right back to brawling.

Adam, I'm really looking forward to your Minority Report piece. Those are interesting thoughts about the idea that Spielberg doesn't see the precrime system as inherently flawed. That kind of fits with my image of him as overly naive: if he thinks that this kind of system is theoretically workable, or that it's desirable to have the government reading people's thoughts, that says a lot about him, and nothing good in my opinion. And it explains why the film doesn't really go as far as it could in dealing with the implications of this kind of system.

LoneStranger, you're certainly not the only one to point out the "all in his head" theory of the ending. I just don't find it very convincing, and never have. I think any ambiguity you see in the ending is being read into it; it's not intrinsically there. The ending can be read as a dream in the same way that virtually any scene in a movie can be read as a dream if we want to: that is, there's nothing preventing us from reading it that way, but there's not much in the actual film to support that reading, either.

Instead, I see the ending the way Kevin does. I think Spielberg is trying to leave that open space for people to read this darker ending into the film, without really going there himself. It's a copout. Going by the text of the film, there's little choice but to read the ending literally - and thus to be put off by its silliness. You can imagine that the ending is just Anderton's dream, but if Spielberg wanted that ambiguity in the film, he should have signaled it more clearly. Or, you know, at all. Otherwise, it's just your wishful thinking that the ending is better than it is.

TheLoneStranger said...

Oh, I absolutely agree that this is very much a 'have your cake and eat it too' decision by Spielberg (and it definitely lacks AI's thematic, intellectual reasons for its false happy ending), but I do believe that it is a conscious decision by Spielberg. No director of his visual acuity would film Anderton's haloing in that way without being fully aware of its implication. And I don't think the ending, if taken at face value, is a complete sacrifice - it does have its own charm. But it definitely works better when thought of as a hallucination.

As for Spielberg being a 'literal' director, I would agree for the most part. But both Empire of the Sun and AI show that he is actually quite adept at the surreal and the sub-conscious - Empire of the Sun in the way that much of it occurs within the protagonists head, and AI in the way that it subtly disguises a tragic ending as a happy one. One thing I've learnt that we should never do is underestimate Spielberg.

Adam Zanzie said...

Guys, meet LoneStranger. LoneStranger, meet the guys.

LoneStranger and I go way back--we've been corresponding on the Internet Movie Database for the past five years, where I go by IceboxMovies. Personally I think he's the wisest voice on Spielberg anywhere on the 'net.

It's interesting because he and I both love Minority Report even though we see the ending differently. I prefer to think of the ending the way it appears, while LoneStranger prefers to read in the ways he has described.

You oughtta come around these blogs more often, LoneStranger!

DavidEhrenstein said...

A. I. has a "happy ending"? All of humanity is dead and the only thing that's left is a loop of a "memory" that repeats in the brian of an android bowing to a statue it thinks is real and will grant him actual life.

Much blather about whether Spielberg lived up to "Kubirck's vision." But the simple fact of the matter is Kurick tried to build a mechanical child -- and failed. So he handed the project over to Spielberg who wittily cast Haley Joel Osment (still fully-fuctioning at that time) and for his pal "Gigolo Joe," Jude Law.

Law's climatic "I am. I was." is one of the greatest moments in all Spielberg. Haley Joel bowing in prayer before the Blue Fairy (like one of those bobbing drinking cup birds) makrs A.I. as Speilberg's most Jewish film. Kubirck (in panicked flight from his Jewishness) could never have produced such a moment.

Yes Kubrick's the greater filmmaer but let's give credit where credit's due.

Adam Zanzie said...

Agreed, Mr. Ehrenstein. I also think we should point out that the entire ending of A.I.--with David being revived by the Supermechas, only to commit suicide--was envisioned by Kubrick from the very beginning, and wasn't imagined by Spielberg at the last minute. I'm always irked when people say that Kubrick would have ended the film at the bottom of the ocean.

Joel said...

Great review. I haven't seen this one in a while but I'll have to revisit it now that I've been gifted the film.

There was a comment about this being a "not bad...late Speilberg," but that seems incredibly tepid. Between A.I. and Munich, Speilberg has made some of the most interesting films of his career. I'd agree about the general frustration with the way he end(ings)s most of these pictures, but they're all still exceptional works for a director from whom I frankly wouldn't have expected such psychological introspection and moral ambiguity.

I fear he's returning to his late 80's/early 90's excess with his upcoming projects, but maybe he will continue to surprise me?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Joel. I'm not as big a fan of recent Spielberg as some, but I do agree that he's been doing at least interesting work, worthy of discussion - and this blogathon has done a good job of adding to that discussion.

Mia Manns said...

I like the idea that the ending was a hallucination because I don't think Spielberg was really going for the demonization of technology that we get with the end of PreCrime. The movie is conspiracy-driven, but in the end we're not given any real reason to believe there is actually a flaw in PreCrime. The two possible minority reports we have access to are resolved as misinterpreted or non-existant, and Lamar murdering Ann Lively is hardly reason to get rid of a crime-busting system that has put a stop to murder in Washington entirely. To me, it makes more sense than this is Anderton's fantasy about taking down the corporation that has imprisoned him. That way, we can still believe that technology is making the world a safer place.