Cinema Signal:

More work by Philip K. Dick, the sci-fi short story master

. "Minority Report"

There is nothing minor about Steven Spielberg's ability to create worlds. And, if there was any doubt about it after "AI", this film puts him in the forefront of science fiction filmmakers. Furthermore, "Minority Report" is an improvement in story telling over his previous effort in futuristic realms.

What assists him in such endeavors is raw, unparalleled clout. He is, perhaps the foremost director in terms of promoting all funds necessary toward the realization of any visual idea. This is destined to continue because you see the expenditure on the screen and because his films make money.

Which indicates that it's more than just clout. Mr. Spielberg is talented. He's a far better action choreographer than John Woo, as good a superhero jockey as Paul Verhoeven, as inspiring an actor's director as Robert Altman. Ah, but he does let us down. There are weaknesses... mostly in the portrayals of relationships, human, humanoid and otherwise. Also, he repeats flawed patterns, making his heroes not quite sympathetic, their ever-present mothers not quite interesting.

Just as Paul Verhoeven adapted a futuristic short story by Philip K. Dick when he directed the masterful "Total Recall", Spielberg picks up another short tale by the same writer for "Minority Report", with screenplay credit going to Scott Frank ("Get Shorty", "Out of Sight"). The Spielberg imprimatur is everywhere but we wish his hero had the appeal of Verhoeven's vulnerable Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

So, what is a "minority report"? For an understanding of that you need to know a few things. In the year 2054 a way to eliminate crime has been found. With a digital hookup to three psychic "precogs" (early knowers?) the police division known as "Pre-Crime" identifies people who are going to commit a crime, usually murder. Once identified on the multi-planed surfaces of a futuristic monitor screen, the unit's chief, Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise), leads his team in apprehending the criminal suspects before they have a chance to act out their destiny. Instant conviction: try that on the Supreme Court.

This is somewhat idealistic stuff and Anderton is merciless in his apprehensions... until a murder in his own future comes up on the magic screen. He then becomes a fugitive, depending on a few people in his life who have supported him and continue to believe with him that the reading by the precogs is somehow wrong. He then learns that when the 3 precogs don't all agree on a reading, a minority report is issued, a sort of false positive. Anderton then must find out if there was a minority report in his case or to find any other flaws in the system that will prove his innocence. The system that he has been so eager to employ is suddenly suspect.

The precogs, immersed in a liquid bath which we suppose is a sort of amniotic fluid, in a controlled room and tended to by a futuristic version of a computer nerd, consist of Agatha (Samantha Morton, "Sweet and Lowdown") and her two brothers, children of junkies who have displayed unusual powers of future visualization. Agatha is the most potent of the trio but wiring them together boosts the collective potential. When you see them you wonder if they're entirely human but you have no doubt about Agatha's femininity. And Morton delivers an affective performance once she's pulled out of the womb-like enclosure. She is not only able to survive the dry, outside world but proves that her faculties remain intact, artfully and humorously demonstrating how to avoid capture when you have the gift of seeing the future.

The chase takes us through Washington, D.C.'s back alleys, through a Lexus factory, into the grimy, sinister arms of Dr. Solomon (Peter Stormare), a fugitive oculist who replaces Anderton's eyes to foil identification scans, through a Gap store blaring Billie Holiday and into an outlaw fun factory where patrons can have virtual sex or commit virtual murder -- Spielberg's parallel to AI's Flesh Fair and Rouge City.

The entertainment value in this entire escapade is as much the design and detail of a future world (with vehicles not tied to the two-dimensional space of a roadway and under computer control) as it is in the immersion of good actors into the dramatic folds of the dark and sometimes confusing storyline. Humor and evil exist side by side as we're taken on an adventure that is visual and eventful. But, are we being engaged where it really matters -- emotionally? That doesn't appear to be Spielberg's long suit in thrillers like this but, like a magician employing misdirection, he does a clever job of distracting you into believing that a solid attachment to his characters isn't important enough to fret about.

Max von Sydow is his usual magisterial presence as Director Lamar Burgess, the Hoover-like controlling force of the company behind the Pre-Crime technology, trying to convince congress to give him the funds that will ensure his company's continuing existence and his own status among the elite. Little does this industrial giant suspect that his biggest threat might be his chief detective's mother. There's a future not even a precog knows.

For all its flaws, this Spielberg vision is not likely to mar his status among the visionary filmmakers of our time, if not some future one.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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