Minority Report

Don't get me wrong. Steven Spielberg's Minority Report — starring a focused, feeling Tom Cruise as a D.C. cop of the future who stops crime before it happens — is a major accomplishment. It's revved up on visionary action, laced with dark humor and powered by a topical idea: how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice to feel secure at home? That sure beats Scooby-Doo for smarts.

So here's the rub. Despite rave reviews — Ebert's thumb hit masterpiece level — this R-rated film's opening weekend box-office of $36 million was nearly $20 million below Scooby-Doo's take. Spielberg knows what smart, dark and bleak can get you: A.I., his commendably risky 2001 collaboration with the late Stanley Kubrick, faded quickly.

Spielberg's source material this time is a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick (his fiction inspired Blade Runner and Total Recall) cannily adapted by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen and set in the year 2054. Cruise's John Anderton watched his life come apart six years ago when his son was kidnapped — divorce and drugs ensued — just as his Pre-Crime unit took off. Using the skills of a trio of psychics named after three great mystery writers — Arthur (Conan Doyle), Dash (Hammett) and Agatha (Christie) — these pre-cogs lie in a pool in a secure space called the Temple and see murders-to-be that computers turn into images and Anderton orchestrates into police action. It works. D.C. hasn't had a murder in years. Now Pre-Crime may go national, unless the Justice Department, led by ex semanarian Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell, excellent), screws things up for bossman Lamar Burgress (Max Von Sydow). Anderton can't help; he goes on the run when the pre-cogs predict he will murder someone in thirty-six hours. Only the fragile Agatha, beautifully played by Samantha Morton, can prove him innocent.

It's a hell of a setup. Spielberg pulls out of every techno trick, from jet-powered police squads to mechanical spiders who perform retina scans in the film's funniest and most suspensful scene. Spielberg and his crew, along with Cruise and a terrific cast that includes Lois Smith and Peter Stormare, rate cheers for grabbing us hard. But their grip falters. Minority Report blends f/x and film noir, but so did Blade Runner. And the whodunit plot is easily guessable. Worse, the script raises moral questions it doesn't probe. Then there's the gooey sentiment that invades the film's final third, turning what Spielberg hoped would be his "ugliest, dirtiest" film into mainstream business as usual. Final Report: Good, yes; great, no.

From The Archives Issue 304: November 15, 1979