Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Minority Report  Steven Spielberg, 2002, US

The near future. A lone police officer living in a high-tech, high-rise apartment uses flying machines and video technology to hunt prey that are somewhat different from the ordinary. But this is not Blade Runner, it is Minority Report, and whilst both share a Philip K Dick source story, this is hailed as a major vision of how advertising and society will develop in the next 50 years and hooked around the psychically-predictive ‘precrime’ concept.

Given the same source author this similarity is not wholly surprising. The question is whether Spielberg’s film holds its own among the canon.

It begins well. The first half-hour is genuinely exciting, throwing us into a vibrant depiction of how the precrime unit in Washington DC runs a case. The ‘image cleaning’ of the pre-cogs’ grainy visual output is performed by Tom Cruise wearing William Gibson-esque datagloves to slide, twist and spin the footage of their dreams, a kind of editing in reverse as he seeks to separate strands, look behind images and identify witnesses and locations. It is genuinely absorbing, especially near the climax of the segment where Cruise repeatedly spins a virtual jog/shuttle dial such as you might find on a domestic VCR in order to speed up and run together fragmented pictures of a boy and his father, where the boy appears to swap places from shot to shot; only by flipping the images via the ‘knob’ faster and faster does Cruise finally realise that the boy is on a roundabout, helping to pinpoint the location of the precrime.

This is good stuff, clearly in the line of film noir detectives’ investigations, though genre fans won’t be able to resist harking back to an almost identical scene in Blade Runner in which Harrison Ford uses a supercomputer to manipulate a holographic photograph to the same end. In fact, the originally-proposed concept for that scene was even closer to Minority Report, using a see-saw device to reveal hidden details like an accelerating pendulum. And some of the depicted practicalities seem shaky – fifty years from now would there really be a need people to physically slide bits of plastic in and out of holders in order to move different video clips onto the main screen? Wireless connections, anyone? And the holographic floppy disks – smaller pieces of transparent plastic the size of a large stamp – are unconvincingly dropped into a slot to view, a method which looked dubious even in the early 1970s (Rollerball, Silent Running) but seems even more so in the precision-machined present of Mini-Disk and DVD players.

We do see precrime’s flying machines, a cross between a snail shell and Boba Fett’s Slave 1 and operating on ducted jets like an organically-morphed Harrier jump-jet. They are terrific creations by designer James Clyne, rocketing through the air and then hovering and disgorging their troops, although the influence of Syd Mead’s Spinner is clear (Blade Runner again) and a night scene is a direct copy from Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed manga.

Personal transport of the future involves sleek, glossy cars like compressed racing bikes that shoot along vast banked tracks in their hundreds before rotating sideways and continuing right up the front of vast apartment buildings, their cabins staying on an even keel whilst the wheels articulate around, to become lifts to your apartment. It’s a fabulous vision straight out of a pulp comic or the futurist architectural fantasies of Saint'Elia.

Blade Runner’s animated billboards the size of a building are revisited, with moving cartoons on cereal packets, scrolling text on a newspaper and ads which greet previous customers by name and with reference to their last purchase. All of this is photographed in a near-monochrome, steely grey and blue palette, a nice contrast to Blade Runner’s brown and orange colour scheme.

Once one recovers from these dazzling visuals, however, some solid storytelling is required.

Unfortunately, serious exploration of the obvious issues and question arising from this intriguing concept of law enforcement is entirely absent. What laws were needed to enact the precrime scheme? Were there any protests? Can the pre-cogs detect what happens outside the Washington area, and if so what happens to the information? None of this is explored.

Instead, once Anderton is fingered for his own predicted offence everything falls apart and the pre-cogs become merely a peg on which to hang a tediously extended and unoriginal chase movie. Major plot points are set up and then forgotten; much is made of the titular minority report, a dissenting voice among the three psychics which renders some predictions more fallible than others, yet after this revelation the entire idea is jettisoned and instead the matter of echoes become the big deal. There is a huge and awkward hiatus near the end, and the final reel, in which the bad guy is revealed and justice done, is painfully predictable (anyone who has seen LA Confidential will have an idea) and trite.

It’s a pity that Spielberg hasn’t taken a fresher look at the subject or produced a film where the strands of what he is trying to do are better integrated. Minority Report suffers from a jerky, unresolved feel to its narrative and a lack of interest held in the original concept, at the expense of flashy excess (there is a very silly chase sequence which has Cruise leaping from car to car as they scale thousand-foot high skyscrapers). The visuals and predictions, interesting though they are, rarely add anything new and too often seem like retreads of what has gone before. The shadow of Blade Runner looms over all.

There is a sombre, sober core at the heart of this film, but it is lost in an overdone, overlong star vehicle which cloaks its seriousness in flash and studio-demanded action.

minority_report_automated_driving

Car sequence; image Twentieth Century Fox

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