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I Am Gonna Win That Led Zeppelin Ashtray, Or Else: Tom Cruise takes the water-pistol game way too seriously in 'Minority Report.'

Future Thrill

Spielberg and Cruise turn over some surprising findings in their 'Minority Report'

By Steve Palopoli

IT WASN'T LONG after A.I. was declared D.O.A. that Spielberg apologists started up the inevitable backlash to the backlash, claiming the director had crafted a misunderstood science fiction masterpiece.

Now, almost exactly a year later, Spielberg has provided some context for that ongoing debate with his new Minority Report. He's thrown himself forward into the same elusive near-future space, but this time his vision thing seems crystal clear as he turns the story and style details that tripped him up on A.I. into triumphs. And he has a lot more fun while he's there this time--and so do we--as Minority Report mixes some thrills and spills into the mix. He also manages to turn a few simple but clever "what if?" ideas about the future into a devastating critique of the way we live our lives today, just as all great science-fiction films do.

Those ideas, for the most part, come from the short story by Philip K. Dick on which the movie's based. Don't ask me why Hollywood keeps adapting Dick's early short stories like this one--most of which were written hurriedly on amphetamines and are awkwardly built around a single cool idea--instead of his truly genius novels like Ubik, A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Probably they're scared to death to even try. But in any case, we all know that the one exception to this rule is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, possibly the most revered sci-fi film of the last 20 years, and with Minority Report, Spielberg is aiming for nothing less than producing a worthy successor to Blade Runner's legacy. In some ways, he takes his cue here from director Paul Verhoeven and his writing crew, who built off the central idea of Dick's story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" to craft the overachieving, thoroughly Phildickian Total Recall.

Likewise, screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen have added several layers to the original Minority Report story, changing almost everything but the setup. Meanwhile, Spielberg has swiped Scott's earnest, camp-free approach to the material--like Blade Runner, Minority Report is moody and yet methodical. But while Blade Runner was a bleak, gritty film noir update that showed society breaking down on every level, Minority Report starts with a gleaming middle-class future that combines button-down elements of Dick's 1950s with a shiny-shiny theoretical future for the 2050s, in which the film is set. The breakdown here occurs within a system that looks from the outside, as everybody in the film is fond of pointing out, to be perfect.

Pre-Crime and Punishment

That system is an experimental type of law-enforcement called "Pre-Crime," in which three psychics deliver visions of future murders and police arrest the accused perps before they can actually commit the crimes. It's a great concept to bounce political agendas off of, you gotta admit. And in an interesting move for a film that is so obviously about the shakedown of individual rights, Spielberg goes to great lengths to prove to the viewer that the system does in fact work and work well as a means of preventing murders.

But even if the system is accurate, is it just? Is it moral? Can it be corrupted? These are the questions that boil over through the layers of fast-paced chases and neato sci-fi stuff as Tom Cruise, as one of the heads of the Pre-Crime division, discovers that he's been named as a future murderer and must prove his own innocence--which, in typically steely Cruise fashion, he has no doubt of. You'd be forgiven if you forget this is, superficially at least, a summer action blockbuster.

It's also quite effective as a new breed of paranoia film, one that plays not off the secretive shadow-government menace of classic '70s films like The Parallax View, but off the frightening potential for our actual government to spiral into a high-tech police state in the name of "public safety." Or, perhaps ... homeland defense? Yeah, it's certainly not hard to see why a super-efficient, lightning-quick, jet-packed police force that can railroad you into suspended animation for a crime you haven't committed yet without any type of trial is far scarier these days than the Vegas-gone-awry neon nightmare of A.I.

Speaking of which, it helps a lot that Spielberg's vision of the future here is light-years beyond the Mad Max-meets-Clockwork Orange-meets-Bicentennial Man jumble of clichés that ruined much of his previous film. And while you can certainly argue that there are too many complications in Minority Report's plot, or too many minutes in its running time, the complex web of power struggles, identity issues and political implications will undoubtedly give the movie a staying power far beyond what it could have achieved as one more action/sci-fi chase movie. While he may have wanted to make the next Blade Runner, what Spielberg has delivered with this film is far different--a kind of Chinatown for the science-fiction set.

Minority Report (PG-13; 150 min.), directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, and starring Tom Cruise, Max von Sydow and Patrick Kilpatrick, plays at Santa Cruz Cinema 9, 41st Avenue Cinemas, Green Valley Cinemas and Skyview Drive-In.

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From the June 26-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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