Minority Retorts

Post-Cogging Spielberg's Action Allegory

VISION QUEST

"You know I'm blind without them," says a would-be murderer at the start of Minority Report. Let's keep that antecedent unclear. It's an apt first line for a film so relentlessly concerned with the dangers of visualization—and at the same time so generous in its capacity for spectacle. In a world of murder-mapping ESP and retinal ID scans, heartrending holograms and massive surveillance, the metaphoric and literal burdens are such that it's no wonder the eye becomes the site of trauma. Faces without an eye: A child scissors out peepholes in an Abraham Lincoln mask; a dealer in what look like illicit asthma inhalers has wormy voids instead of orbs; Tom Cruise's John Anderton, the chief of the Department of Pre-Crime who finds his name on the guilty boccie ball, submits to eyeball replacement surgery—Un Chien Andalou set to A Clockwork Orange. It's enough to make you cancel that Lasik appointment.

Blade Runner was a first-rate re-imagining of a first-rate Philip K. Dick novel; Minority Report is in some ways more impressive in its elevation of much weaker PKD material, a 1956 short story with little to offer beyond its premise. Both films are, at heart, detective stories. Beneath its F/X whistles and bells,* Minority Report made me think of that inexorable murder in Borges's "Death and the Compass" as filtered through Plato's allegory of the cave (the images pulled from the grotto-dwelling "pre-cogs" appearing on the ultimate flat-screen monitor), as well as recent Cruise vision quests Eyes Wide Shut and the Dickian, ridiculous Vanilla Sky.

"Can you see?" Secret sharers Morton and Cruise
photo: David James/Dreamworks
"Can you see?" Secret sharers Morton and Cruise

I can hardly be the first viewer to have noted that the names of the mutants, Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell, correspond to three grand masters of popular detective fiction: Christie, Conan Doyle, and Hammett. Anderton, hunted by his own agency, essentially dons the mantle of private eye, a slave to grit and revelation. He plucks from the "temple" (as the pre-cog lair is called) his private eye and secret sharer, Agatha (bald and bloodcurdling Samantha Morton), "returning" to the scene of the imminent crime in order to defeat what the fates have decreed. "Can you see?" Agatha repeatedly asks. For much of Minority Report, before the filmmakers give in to rote conspiracy (Dick, in this case, fared no better), those words seem charged with ancient horror, in that voice as old as tragedy. —Ed Park

*And I love the whistles, I dig the bells: the animated cereal box, the beautifully vertiginous cascading traffic, Anderton hiding in the tub from the police spiders like it's Fear Factor 2054. (The show has a chance, as Cops will apparently still be on the air.)


QUESTION AUTHORITY

If I could return from the future to prevent the bad parts of Minority Report from happening, here's what I'd do: impound the steam-iron-shaped police cruiser (stolen from Boba Fett) and all the telephone-receiver-shaped cars (stolen from Tron). I'd arrest the whole black-suited police force (on expired visas from Brazil). Above all, I would take whatever action was necessary to prevent John Anderton (Tom Cruise) from getting back together with his estranged wife (a family drama straight out of E.T.). When I was done, the movie would consist of only a handful of images: three androgynes twitching in a bathtub; the artfully shaky Agatha guiding the shakily artful Cruise through the mall of the future; the mutants dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.

As a writer, I feel an affinity for the pre-cogs: They survive only under particular conditions, and they don't relate well to the outside world. They have their bathtub; we have Yaddo. In Dick's short story, the pre-cogs don't see the future; they speak it. "All day long the idiots babbled," Dick writes, "imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs, held in one rigid position by metal bands, and bundles of wiring, clamps." It's the only part of the story that really comes to life; one imagines that Dick (chained to his desk by penury) knew his material well.

Spielberg's pre-cogs, on the other hand, are not author figures, despite that last scene where they read New Directions paperbacks and grow out their hair. Can you imagine Steven Spielberg in a see-through shirt, bathing in goo? Don't try. If Spielberg has a counterpart anywhere on-screen, it's Cruise, making power-mime gestures at a sheet of Plexiglas. The pre-cogs, meanwhile, stand in for the audience: immobilized in our comfy seats, imbibing sugar-rich fluid in bluish darkness.

It may seem like a small difference, but it means everything. Dick's story is about seeing the future; Spielberg's film is about being stuck with the present. Consider the features of Minority Report's 2054: ads that know your name, universal surveillance, preemptive attacks on potential wrongdoers. It's a vision of the future the way the shadow of a falling piano is a vision of the future: You see it; you look up; splat. Of course, Spielberg is a moralist; he wants us to believe that our gloomy predictions don't have to come true. Look, he says, if Tom Cruise can change the future (he does so twice in the course of half a dozen final scenes), why can't you? But the question rings false. If we're really dissatisfied with the way things are going, we'll have to get out of our comfy seats and do something, and the film doesn't encourage that. Unlike Dick's fiction, which was depressing but new, Minority Report is about being happy to sit through what you've seen before. It's enough to make you leap out of your bathtub and whisper, "Murder!" —Paul LaFarge


AGATHA SPEAKS!

At the end of Minority Report, Agatha and her pre-cog colleagues have been removed from their awful jobs and are happily reading rare editions of storybooks in a cottage. Bald Agatha has curls now.

Now I don't have to be cogging day and night in that bathtub, while Tom is conducting a symphony and later Mr. Witwer's nose is bleeding—though I was of tremendous social value. Now that's all over and I can sit upright without clinging to Tom and finally just reflect for a change, rehash the past—call me Harriet Hindsight—instead of dwelling on the future all the time, which gave me a stomachache.

I have a DVD player in my room and I just saw Blade Runner, the original and the director's cut, and I just want to say that Minority Report, well, except for my starring role—sigh, I wore no mascara—there's no comparison. Minority Report is just about society and ambition. Oh, there are questions of good and evil . . . whoops, I just slid down in my chair. My backbone had a reversal. I could just go on about the baloney references to Blade Runner, but they're so obvious—eyes; car in country; mean blond man, kind of like Rutger Hauer.

I'm on the Web constantly reading everybody's reviews—though I have to be careful I don't see too many movies or it's like my old job and I'll become brain damaged again. But I was amused to note—I remember turning to my colleague Dashiell, who had his nose in a Little Lulu comic—that Mr. Spielberg gave himself a crash course in noir, watching Double Indemnity or something because he wanted to "make the ugliest, dirtiest movie . . . "

Doesn't Mr. Spielberg know that you have to be born noir—the world's at an angle, no one can be trusted, especially your parents. Noir isn't something you can just learn. It comes from having a terrible childhood—like mine (my mother was a drug addict!)—or Philip Dick, whose mother moved them around because they didn't have any money and then there were all those cats. Though I suppose a person could become noir in adulthood from a war or massive depression. But anyway, does Mr. Spielberg think that by using a bleach bypass and getting rid of blue skies that abracadabra—everything's going to be noir? Oh, here's where I get really worked up—Tom's wife's stomach! How many noirs end with childbirth? True, The Player, a neo-neo-noir, ends with a pregnant wife reaching her arms out for her husband, but he's a murderer who was never punished. Now that's upsetting. No one was upset after Minority Report.

There is more to be said about the shifts and torsions of noir, but I've only been reflecting in this cottage a little while now. Give me a few more months. I had to spend most of my life living in the future. But wait, someone just stuck their head in the cottage window. They wanted to know "Is it now?" Beats me. —Toni Schlesinger


TOTAL SYSTEMS BREAKDOWN

Difficult to imagine Cruise or Spielberg, avatars of wealth, privilege, and domesticity, lasting more than five minutes in a Philip K. Dick worldview. Dick, like Burroughs and Kubrick, is all about the disintegration that occurs when doubt unravels belief in a Perfect System. Dick didn't believe in systems or in Mom and apple pie, which is why he seems so prophetic now, when the corporatization of consciousness has become such a totalizing, repressive, and relentless force. Being our two leading product managers for same, Cruise and Spielberg could never give despair and dystopia their due the way Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner and even the horrid Black Hawk Down. (Samantha Morton, however, gives the most lived-in performance as a mutant since Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth.) —Greg Tate


FACE VALUE

Just give me the legal dream team that pushed through all constitutional obstacles to install Pre-Crime, then get me the real John Ashcroft, and all together we just might be able to forestall the baseball strike that threatens this fall's World Series. Remembering that the tragic death of a child is the source of all motivation in the picture, I kept waiting for Spielberg to deliver closure with an emotional knockout punch—as he did in A.I.'s last act. Spielberg promised as much in interviews, but when the moment comes for hyper-seer Agatha to describe to grief-benumbed parents the supernatural filial love that lives on in their son radiantly after death, frisking somewhere in the unlived regions of the dead child's life, you know the director wants a powerhouse meltdown from Tom Cruise's anguished Anderton, and Vanilla Tom just doesn't come across.

Cruise has famously smothered all his demons with the help of Scientology, and the resultant control he projects makes implausible his sorties into areas where his characters lack control. There is never a gesture, a word, an involuntary action that might reveal his real face, the inner face that might reflect even dimly remembered terrors or humiliations from a less serene time. I look in vain at this face for evidence of a weakness, a decadence, a criminal subsoil, anything mysterious. Cruise's processed charm is so devoid of affecting connections that it's distancing. This is why tabloids pick on him as an implausible lover or husband. He's the stuff beards are made of. Remember, Cruise was closet-vintage Rosie O'Donnell's favorite dreamboat. This Teflon perfection is also why he's actually scintillant in, and the perfect correlative to, the Mission: Impossible stories, whose plots unscroll with the zeal of someone else's dogma—massively convoluted, but too tidy, and difficult to relate to. Drained of any lurking shadow, Tom's franchise face bathes in a lucrative nimbus of inner armistice that reflects nothing back but its own flawlessness. Correction: near flawlessness; at 40 he's now wearing braces to fix up his twisted chicklets.

Think of real faces! Those of Peter Lorre, Steve Buscemi, or William H. Macy, all capable of suffering intelligently. Of Anthony Quinn—at any age!—capable of great suffering, unintelligently!! Richard Widmark or Rock Hudson!! I like to think of any of these people in the Anderton role, and especially Macy in that fabulous jet-pack chase scene Spielberg cooked up. And let's for a second consider that great mug belonging to the guy who gets frightened to death in the back alley in Mulholland Drive. The deep-dish face of this anonymous quaking actor conveys an oil tanker full of dread in every second of his brief appearance, as Cruise could never have done. May kindly God intervene—for this month only, just for a change—and slap this amiable chump onto the cover of every magazine in the world. —Guy Maddin


YOU KNOW I'M BLIND WITHOUT MY SPECTACLES

Minority Report is the new lord of the allegories, dethroning that movie whose screenplay was basically rants from Society of the Spectacle with the word "Spectacle" crossed out and "Matrix" written in in crayon. The Domestic Policy Allegory could be summarized as "Profiling: not just for black people anymore." This sets the film's visual scheme: cool white surfaces for a future evacuated of color, aside from the African American Co-Worker™, and one brief shot of a black (natch) musician. And this in Washington, D.C. In said bleached future, we discover that profiling is wrong! And that they still have Miranda rights in 2054! It's the Fourth Amendment as film blanc.

The Foreign Policy Allegory comes to a head in a single phrase, a single shot at the climax: a head-shaven Tom Cruise—career-long flack for the American military—posed in a two-shot with the Washington Monument. Talk about a couple of cock-rocks. Together they confront the accented bad guy on a balcony, to the trillion-dollar question: "What are you gonna do now?" Invade Iraq? Buy more Twizzlers?

I'm not sure the director's lost-child shtick counts as anything but obsessive-compulsive disorder, though the oedipality is dizzyingly weird: Our hero doesn't gouge out his eyes so much as swap them, perhaps because he doesn't kill his father so much as assist his suicide. No such confusion stops the Allegory of Cruise, concerning whether charisma and enterprise can bend destiny into their own shape. As was noted about Vanilla Sky, the answer is "a little less every year."

Minority Report wants us to enjoy the spectacle while enjoying our own cleverness at uncovering something real. The allegories don't reveal social content; they help us imagine a movie about nothing is actually about something. Gimme Phil Dick's usual allegory, where some demiurge produces a scrim of appearances to pacify the public, and to disguise a reality too malevolent and/or banal to reveal. Into this is thrown some schmo who somehow glimpses through the veil, and believes he sees the truth behind the lie. In Dick this is the Allegory of Gnostic Messianism, and pretty compelling—disturbing, if a little repetitive. But for Hollywood, it simply becomes the Allegory of the Enlightened Audience, a sucker game in which we're compelled to enact the smarter-than-the-average-sucker role over and over. The mall sequence was pretty good, though. —Jane Dark

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