Just imagine what it's like. Imagine the challenge of having to really master it: the making of a big-budget, vastly ambitious, Hollywood film. Sure, you're the center of attention, you're working with some of the best actors around, they're putting hundreds of millions of dollars in your hands, you command an army of technicians and sure, you feel like God sometimes. But you know better. You know that you have feet of clay. You know you made that World War II comedy with John Belushi that gave even you a secret sinking feeling; you know you can make films that don't thrill the public, like Empire of the Sun, though you still believe in that one; you were surprised at how negative people were toward AI.
But you also know that sometimes, as an auteur, you're on, and sometimes you're not; sometimes you connect with that "inner director" whose inspiration comes from some ineffable higher place, and sometimes you don't. Sometimes all you have is skill, and a script that seems good, seems like a living thing in your head, and yet somehow it doesn't come alive in the studio. You know that you have to keep working, go to the next film, put out the best you can, and some other time, with luck, you'll connect with mastery again. Look at Woody Allen: all those lame movies, and then comes Deconstructing Harry and Bullets Over Broadway. Sometimes, even when you get long in the tooth, it comes back to you.
And when you've got brilliant underlying material like a Philip K. Dick story your chances are better. Because the original author has already made the connection for you. He's already taken dictation from his connection with that inner, higher "director." All you have to do is bring yours online too and with his help, you're already halfway there... with this story of a cop in 2054 working for the Precrime unit, an agency that uses genetically engineered pre-cognitives to see murders in the future. The Precrime unit works with the pre-cog's flashes this process is delightfully portrayed by Spielberg to deduce the whereabouts of the murder, so they can get there in time to stop it and arrest the killer for the murder he hasn't committed. Inevitably, and this would be rather predictable even without the trailers clueing us in, our heroic Precrime detective, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), is himself seen to commit a murder in the future, and must go on the run ("Everyone runs!" we're told again and again) to find out why. Naturally he finds he's been set up and has to locate the guy who's done it, revealing the fatal flaw in the apparent perfection of the Precrime unit. Anderton both fails and succeeds.
It must be both heaven and hell to master something this big, and it must happen all too rarely yet Spielberg has done it. Oh there are flaws in the film, but not fatal ones. There must have been pressure to make this an action-packed thriller, full of chases and leaping and hand-to-hand combat scenes forced upon a story that didn't require them. Some of the action does make sense, but some of it is unconvincing; the action scene with the jetpacks, when Tom Cruise is trying to escape, looks more like choreographed dancing with the pursuing cops. George Miller or one of the better James Bond directors would have made that action look more realistic; he wouldn't have let the actors behave as if they were waiting for a cue before reacting to Tom Cruise. The pursuit in the car factory (weirdly like a similar industrial-pursuit scene in Star Wars: Episode II) seems implausible and pat, especially his being able to drive the car out after it's manufactured around him. The action here, too, seems more play-acted than spontaneous.
But despite the caveats, that scene is amusing and interesting, and it hangs together, if only just barely. The rest of the movie is nearly perfect. (Never mind that a few of the automated car scenes look too computer-generated, and one shot of Tom Cruise driving at us looks quite hokey indeed.) The science fictional ideas realized in this film achieve new levels of cinematic futurism. In many respects this is a good guess at the future. The advertisements that identify you and call you by name are inevitable, I'm sorry to say. Ditto with the newspapers and magazines that update in your hands, and the shifting iconography of marketing that appears on every public surface. The automated cars and highways are genuinely in the works. But the great scene in this film the one where Spielberg's mastery seems to coalesce every element into one finely tuned orchestration is the second pursuit of Anderton in the seamy confines of a "sprawl" tenement. Here, autonomous criminal-seeking spider-like robots, each about the size of a bird-eating arachnid, rush through the building checking each denizen individually, laser-looking into their eyes for an iris-identification, seeking Anderton, who's hiding from the heat-sensors of the robots by ducking into an icy tub. A man sits on a toilet and ignores the robot spider as it checks him out; a couple pauses in their bitter argument a moment as spiders scan them, and then go back to their donnybrook. They're used to it, this is routine for them, this automation monitoring them, and that speaks volumes about their lives and your life in the future.
We should mention that Anderton has had to go to a sleazy underground surgeon to get his eyes replaced. The use of popped-out eyes to get around iris-scanning ID security is cleverly, whimsically played out.
So is the plot. Spielberg layers his hints and clues and answers craftily, piling them up like stacked boxes taking us to the remote window through which we see the truth: the people supposed to protect us all too often surrender to the temptation to betray us.
Cruise is good in the movie, though a close viewing exposes his limitations as an actor he's better suited for the high energy rogue he played in The Color of Money, or the two dimensional adrenaline-junkie of the Mission Impossible pictures. Samantha Morton is Academy award perfect as the pre-cog Agatha. Max Von Sydow as always is completely convincing.
The metaphysical hints and suggestions in Minority Report rather like certain episodes of the The X-Files are tantalizing, hinting of a spiritual, or at least a more psychically inclusive reality. Rightly, they are not deeply explored; they are a kind of background luminosity, only slightly more sharply seen here than in the real world.
Spielberg chooses to tint this future; he borrows from the electric-lighting paint-box used by Stanley Kubrick, but uses his own combinations. The lighting is much like portions of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. He alternates between a blue-white tone that hints of technology always hovering at the characters' elbows, and a futuristic sepia, and with these two contrasting yet interlocking tones he conveys a sense of humanity struggling to keep itself human against the rushing torrent of the digital world.
The Precrime unit is a storytelling conceit, a wild idea, that Dick and Spielberg make temporarily believable. It's not really plausible, but you don't care. We do believe the highly-interactive computer system, and those robot spiders, and all the other surface nuances of this future world, borrowed not only from Dick but many other science fiction writers, Gibson and Sterling not least among them.
Episode II was fun, but it didn't depict a future that we will ever live to see. Pre-cogs aside, Minority Report's is a much likelier vision of the future, one you might see if you live another fifty years. You want to know your future, don't you? Then go see it.