Produced by 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks and Cruise-Wagner Productions
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Scott Frank from a short story by Philip K. Dick
Distributed by DreamWorks
Men in Black II
Produced by Amblin Entertainment and Columbia Pictures
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenplay by Robert Gordon VII from Lowell Cunningham’s comic-book series
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Despite taking its inspiration from a feeble Philip K. Dick story, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is an extraordinarily entertaining film and, occasionally, a provocative meditation on fate and choice. As such, it improves upon its source immeasurably.
Dick wanted his 1954 story to be an Orwellian satire on America. Its premise, however, is so ungainly that it all but sinks the narrative. In 2054, American criminal justice has taken the next logical step. Cops no longer have to wait for criminals to strike. They can arrest them before they rob, shoot, or poleax their fellow creatures. How has this anticipatory police intervention been made possible? The Department of Pre-Crime keeps three idiot clairvoyants permanently installed on its premises. In one of Dick’s few felicitous turns, these brain-damaged unfortunates have been dubbed “pre-cogs” for their premonitory cognitive powers, a label that has a true techno-bureaucratic stench about it. The semicomatose pre-cogs constantly babble about things to come. The Pre-Crime task force merely has to harvest and winnow their musings to discover who will be the next ax murderer or tax cheat. The would-be offender is then whisked away to a detention camp before anything untoward can happen.
Spielberg has cleverly reworked Dick’s story, expanding its scope and focusing its themes. Yet he has unaccountably held onto its weakest device, the pre-cogs. Fortunately, he handles them with more wit than Dick did. His three seers are named Arthur, Dashiel, and Agatha (as in Conan Doyle, Hammett, and Christie). Following Dick’s story, Spielberg keeps them floating in an amniotic pool of drugs and nutrients, the better to muse on the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. He tries to make the mechanics of this premise semiplausible by having the pre-cogs’ clairvoyance limited to foretelling upcoming murders in Washington, D.C. Prudently avoiding statistics, he doesn’t bother to explain how they could possibly keep up with a homicide rate as robust as our capitol’s. With the cinematic bravura for which he’s famous, Spielberg finesses the issue. Before the credits, he plunges us into the world of Pre-Crime with an extreme close-up of Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most gifted pre-cog. The screen fills with one of her eyes as she surfaces from her amniotic bath, her voice intoning: “Murder!” Next, we’re watching her blurred, black-and-white pre-vision of a homicide in Georgetown. In 15 minutes, an enraged cuckold will take scissors to his wife and her lover. This is rendered in a fragmented jumble of confused images until John Anderton (Tom Cruise), chief of Pre-Crime, strides manfully to his monitoring station to make sense of Agatha’s premonitions. He stands before a panel of translucent screens wearing electronic gloves with which he picks apart and reassembles Agatha’s projected visions, bringing order out of their chaos. Once he does, he and his squad zip to the scene in what looks like a flying nautilus shell, arriving just in time to arrest the husband before he can dispatch the adulterers.
In the aftermath of this sequence, we watch a montage of slickly produced television spots assuring a complacent, consumerist public of Pre-Crime’s essential benevolence. An announcer’s voice, filled with high-grade gravitas, explains that, since the program was instituted six years earlier, every measure possible has been taken to ensure that “that which keeps us safe will also keep us free.” This claim soon rings hollow, however, when Anderton returns to headquarters the following day and witnesses the pre-cogs’ next vision. The projected murderer this time is himself, and he must flee his own subordinates.
Though Minority Report raises concerns about profiling and preventive detention that are much on our minds today, its real focus is elsewhere. The film comes most alive when it considers the ageless human longing to anticipate and, thereby, control the future. Caught as we are in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the immediate moment, who among us has not longed for such power? Who hasn’t yearned to alter some moment from the past that led to future calamity? Anderton certainly has. His commitment to Pre-Crime is rooted in a personal tragedy that occurred six years previously—just before the program began. He’s haunted by the moment he let his guard down and allowed hazard to disrupt his dream of moral order. (What happened is best left unspecified here. Suffice it to say, it was just about as bad as it gets.) Anderton is convinced that, had it been operating at the time, Pre-Crime could have prevented his loss. He’s now committed to using its resources to protect others from similar fates.
Motivated by his yearning to expiate his failure of vigilance, Anderton demands the impossible of himself. He wants nothing less than to invest the world with an inviolable moral order. To accomplish this, he’s turned police work into a type of religious ritual. When he takes his position in front of the computer screens, he first holds his arms out stiffly in a cruciform pose similar to a priest’s at the Consecration during the Mass. Then, as he sweeps the pre-cogs’ images this way and that, his hands repeatedly come together as if in prayer. It’s as if he were unconsciously trying to redeem our fallen world by invoking from these violent scenes the Real Presence of suffering humanity. Just so we don’t miss the parallel, Spielberg introduces Ed Witwer (Colin Farrell), a lawyer sent from the Department of Justice to oversee Anderton’s Pre-Crime operation. As a young man who spent several years in the seminary before taking up his present profession, Witwer needs only a glimpse of Anderton at work to know what’s going on. He calls Anderton’s attention to the priestly aspect of his efforts. “The priests have always had the power,” he observes. In the ancient world, he continues, they called upon oracles to assist them. If they couldn’t find oracles, they sometimes invented them—the pre-cogs, for instance. Anderton angrily dismisses Witwer’s speculation as mumbo-jumbo. For him, the pre-cogs are nothing more than “pattern-recognition filters.” Another member of his unit, however, admits that they have been behaving “more like clergy than cops.”
It’s only when Agatha wakes from her trance to ask him, “Can you see?” that Anderton begins to understand. Unwittingly, his crusade to purge the world of crime has led him to play God with men’s lives. Of the pre-cogs constantly at his disposal, for instance, he advises Witwer that it’s “better not to think of them as human.” His obsession with preventing crime has rendered him blind to more elusive evils in his midst, including his own willfulness. To see clearly again, he literally requires new eyes. In the world of 2054, the corporate American state uses laser eye-scanners to target its citizens for both marketing and surveillance. To evade his pursuers, Anderton must have his eyes replaced. The operation will have welcome side effects. As he’s told by the disaffected creator of Pre-Crime, “To see the light, you sometimes have to risk the dark.”
With new eyes, Anderton pursues the man he’s supposed to kill. To redeem himself, he must subvert Agatha’s prophecy. She gives him reason to believe he can. Despite her fateful vision, she insists that he still has choice in the outcome. The question is: What’s the right choice? Spielberg renders this vividly with an extreme close-up of Agatha and Anderton composed in a Janus-like embrace, her profile turned left, his right. It’s the pivotal moment in a narrative that’s been fairly hurtling toward its climax. She looks back; he, forward. One wants to avoid disaster; the other, to confront it. Who is right? For an answer, Spielberg gives us a harrowing descent into Hell, during which Anderton feels himself totally forsaken. To convey this dark night of the soul visually, Spielberg indulges in some creative borrowing. He has this sequence overseen by a huge floating billboard displaying a smug male model, eyeless behind high-fashion sunglasses. It’s his version of T.J. Eckleberg, the sightless god who gazes unconcernedly from a billboard on the moral wasteland of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Like his progenitor, Spielberg’s pasteboard deity is imperturbably blind to human longing and despair. His appearance at this moment is part of the darkness Anderton must risk if he is to regain his moral sight. Spielberg’s visual imagination has never been more effective.
Minority Report has its flaws. Spielberg almost undermines what’s strongest in his film by tacking on an ending contrived to dispel the disturbing events that we’ve just witnessed. As usual, he can’t bear to let us leave the theater unconsoled. He also tries to leaven the proceedings with the kind of glancing humor Hitchcock so skillfully deployed in his narratives. Some of these moments are ingeniously executed, especially Spielberg’s variation on a scene that Hitchcock talked about but never filmed: a car being put together piece by piece on an assembly line, a mundane sequence subverted by comic mayhem. Although Spielberg inventively rises to Hitchcock’s challenge, his homage to the master seems wholly out of place. Anderton’s suffering does not admit of this kind of comic relief. Yet you can understand why Spielberg wants to echo
Hitchcock. The Englishman knew how to balance entertainment with moral challenge. And he often did so with adroitly deployed religious imagery. Spielberg clearly wants to achieve a similar cinematic poise.
I used to think Spielberg’s use of religious imagery in films as diverse as Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. was merely Hollywood bunkum, a cynical pandering to America’s vague hankering for spiritual uplift. I no longer think this is true, at least not in his recent films, such as Schindler’s List and A.I. Spielberg has been drawing on Hebraic and Christian imagery to give his work a fuller resonance. That he hasn’t entirely succeeded doesn’t mean that he won’t. He’s been making some intriguing choices, and, as Agatha demonstrates to Anderton, choice is as much a factor in our future as fate.
Fate plays all too large a role in Men in Black II—sequel fate, that is. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has chosen not to transcend its limits. His film is a hectic rehash of its forerunner, and, while it is not without its own zest, it’s flavor tastes like well-wrapped day-old bread.
Sonnenfeld is nevertheless to be congratulated for confirming three suspicions that have nagged our nation for untold decades. First, Lara Flynn Boyle proves that, underneath their lingerie, those Victoria’s Secret models are really hideous, man-eating Medusas from outer space. Second, nearly everyone who works for the Post Office is an extraterrestrial in disguise. And third, those cable-TV shows darkly alluding to UFOs, crop circles, and alien insurance agents are all completely true. Their poor production values are actually a ruse to hide this. The people who make these films know that the American public will never fully believe in their cheap photography, poorly lit scenarios, and tacky simulations. It takes the kind of hypertrophic special effects that Sonnenfeld deploys to win our credulity—plus Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, of course. They have returned to set us temporarily straight before neuralizing us into blissful ignorance once more. As Agents Kay and Jay, they play off each other to good comic effect, but neither brings much new to the party. On the other hand, Miss Boyle does her best to wow us with the special effect of her naked tummy, which is so corrugated with personally trained muscles that it gives the term “wasp waist” entirely new meaning. I should also mention Sonnenfeld’s camera oglings of Miss Boyle’s somewhat desperate décolletage. They raise a question: For whom was this film made? Clearly, its marketing tie-ins—action figures, comic books, cereals, computer games, etc., target kids. Yet Sonnenfeld has seen fit to include any number of sexual references—all very fleeting, but you can’t help wondering why they are there at all. I suppose some of the dads in the audience will be amused, but I suspect they will be far fewer than Sonnenberg and his crew expect.