MINORITY REPORT, THE STORY OF A COP WHO FINDS himself a prisoner of the crime-prevention system he has helped build, is a terrifically entertaining specimen of Spielbergian sci-fi, incomparably better than A.I. and as dark a movie as the director has made since Schindler's List. Indeed, the movie has more in common with Schindler's List than might appear -- as were graduating from college and passing on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, making Minority Report is part of Spielberg's belated growing-up project. The movie is based on a characteristically bleak short story by Philip K. Dick, which predicates a social order that has all but abolished privacy, civil rights, the separation of powers and, for that matter, the integrity of the individual. The protagonist, John Anderton, is an aging commissioner of "Pre-Crime" who falls victim to his own brainchild -- an apparently watertight system of prevention based on the detection, by three mutant "pre-cogs" who can predict the future, of crimes before they are committed. The "offenders" are shipped off to detention camps without trial before the deed is done, which is why America hasn't seen a murder in six years -- until, one day, Anderton, already paranoid about the arrival of an ambitious younger colleague named Witwer who wants his job, discovers that he himself has been fingered for the future murder of a man he's never met, and is forced to flee from the very subordinates he helped train.
For an author who's had several visually arresting films adapted from his work -- he died at 53 of a heart attack in 1982, just as Ridley Scott was putting the finishing touches to the first, Blade Runner -- Dick is almost perversely un-cinematic. He showed scant interest in the techno-toys and superhuman life forms that quicken the blood of most sci-fi fans today. By his own admission, science fiction was his chosen genre only because he found it convenient for the expression of big ideas. Dick was a sociologist and a philosopher of the near future, and reading "The Minority Report," which was published in 1956, one gets the sense that he had the turn of the millennium pretty much nailed, right down to a startlingly prescient reference to "self-seekers" trying to get rich by a quick raid on the stock market.
Dick's story is almost all dialogue, with only the barest description of the pre-cogs or the lab that houses them, or the heli-ships that carry the police from place to place. The United States it tersely sketches is a featureless landscape filled with rubbish and defaced by a crippling war with the Chinese. The story's chilly paranoia has been skillfully tailored for the screen in Scott Frank's elegant rewrite of Jon Cohen's original adaptation. For Spielberg, Minority Report has been set in Washington, D.C., in the year 2054, where by day John Anderton, played with his usual serviceable professionalism by Tom Cruise, is a high-functioning wheel in the Pre-Crime apparatus. He scans and sorts images from the fried brains of the three pre-cogs (one of whom bears a striking resemblance to the young British actress Samantha Morton) as they languish in their baby-blue liquid suspension chamber, dreaming of the murders that Anderton, along with a posse of lantern-jawed deputies, will pre-empt, sending the suspects into perpetual limbo in form-fitting prisons of their own. But both Anderton's boss, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), and Witwer (Hart's War's Colin Farrell), a young upstart from the District Attorney's Office, suspect that there's a flaw in their colleague's total commitment to Pre-Crime. Anderton's marriage, and his life, were destroyed years before when his little boy was kidnapped from a public swimming pool. By night, Anderton is a wreck, jogging through the city's decrepit ghetto, the Sprawl, looking to score the drugs that keep him afloat, or sitting in his apartment, or watching old home holograms of his wife and son. "Gotta keep running," he mutters under his breath, and when the red ball that identifies future murderers pops out with his name on it, Anderton is soon on the run through a high-tech fun house of futuristic machinery and grotesque life forms just waiting to engulf him as he tries to find out why, or whether, two out of three pre-cogs may have turned out a faulty majority report.
SPIELBERG HAS STYLED MINORITY REPORT AFTER '40s film noir, yet, in rummaging through his toy box for what's new, he's constantly lifting the movie from its broody alienation toward an impish visual wit that serves its larger themes. Never has product placement been such fun -- there's some genuinely funny business with a Lexus that was specially designed for the film (a well-guarded model sits outside on the Fox lot near the screening room), and Anderton has only to step inside the Gap in a streamlined super-mall, and -- thanks to eye-print identification -- a God-like voice announces who he is and exactly where his taste in clothing lies. There's a marvelous set piece in which Anderton seeks out retired Pre-Crime researcher Iris Hineman (played with ghoulish relish by Lois Smith) for information on the pre-cogs: She greets him in a greenhouse full of whispering, writhing mutant plants. But it's the body's most vulnerable external organs -- the eyes -- that provide the movie's most trenchant comic horror, not least when the residents of a tenement in which Anderton is holed up must interrupt their domestic activities to submit their eyes to examination by a swarm of computerized surveillance spiders.
With Minority Report, Spielberg means to enjoy himself while doing justice to Dick's paranoid vision of big government overstepping itself. But being the bright-eyed boy he is, Spielberg can never travel all the way with Dick, an incorrigible pessimist who gave his readers no quarter. Dick pursued the black heart of the corporate state to its unlovely conclusion -- in the short story, when things go awry, it's through an unintended consequence of the system, and we're forced to consider the most un-American proposition that the individual may have to sacrifice himself for the system to survive. The old-fashioned humanist in Spielberg will go along with this just so far before he starts restoring both the individual and the system to their better selves. Minority Report is, finally, a celebration of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. About the fate of the first two Dick had his own morbid ideas: He saw little in life to celebrate, and few possibilities for liberty. As to the third, for the often-divorced, frequently ill, periodically doped and perennially anxious Dick, happiness was always a foreign country -- which is why his story ends with a dry, cynical chuckle. Spielberg must redeem his heroes -- which is why his movie ends with family ties.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.