From the beginning of his career Steven Spielberg has been adventurous in his choice of material. For just a few examples out of his 26 features to date we can choose "Close Encounters," "E.T.," "The Color Purple," "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," "A.I.," and now "Minority Report." At the same time, he shoots them all with the kind of insistence on technical perfection and polish that belongs more naturally in a sophisticated comedy of manners than a raw look at a conflicted world. As we watch these films there's no sense of run-and-gun, no raw, uninflected agony (or ecstasy), no Godardian reaching for the impossible. Everything is capped, contained, perfectly controlled. Even the deservedly acclaimed opening sequence of the beach attack in "Private Ryan" has a choreographed look to it. So as much as we may admire Spielberg we somehow can't adore him. He doesn't dare to fail.
"Minority Report," from a short story by Philip K. Dick, has all the elements of a great adventure in a dystopian future. Tom Cruise is John Anderton, chief of the Department of Precrime in Washington, D.C. in the year 2054. A trio of strange, perhaps not-quite-complete human creatures lie in a bath of nutrients in John's headquarters. Called precogs, they have the ability to sense when a murder is going to be committed; John's agency will then locate the potential murderer and arrest him for the future murder-to-be. So successful is the system that there hasn't been a murder in D.C. for the past six years. All the potential murderers are safely stored in a kind of prison.
We learn early on that John's own son was kidnapped and killed years ago, that he and his wife Lara (Kathryn Morris) divorced because they could not deal with the crime and the loss, and that John now has the satisfaction of knowing that others will not commit the same crime.
But then the system spits out John's own name as a murderer-to-be, and he must run for his own life. The unraveling of that mysterious prediction, and the reasons behind it, are the substance of the film's plot.
Spielberg gives us some fascinating looks at the world of 2054, with images right out of the illustrations we used to see in the old Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Streamlined cars run through town on programmed tracks. Little spider-like robots perform retinal identity checks. (And eyes can be transplanted to foil them.) Holograms are projected and moved around by means of projectors in one's gloves. The cinematographer, the great Janusz Kaminski ("Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," "A.I."), has shot the film in a silvery light, as though by 2054 metal had replaced green as the color of the earth.
All of this should have added up to a powerful, provocative statement, a prediction in itself of what we today should be wary of. Instead, though, Spielberg and his writers, Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, have settled for a long (140 minutes) film version of every pulp novel in which the hero must prove his innocence against all evidence. Cruise as Anderton is not only monochromatic but almost monosyllabic. He's been sketched in as a supposedly complex character, but the film never gives him the scenes or the lines through which he could reveal himself as an interesting human being, instead substituting chases for insight. His boss and mentor, Lamar Burgess, is played by Max von Sydow, who was typecast by Ingmar Bergman forty-five years ago as the elderly wise man ("The Seventh Seal") and hasn't changed a bit since.
Other actors, in small roles, all make a good impression. Colin Farrell, as an ambitious Department of Justice functionary; poor Samantha Morton, as Agatha the precog, does well in yet another thankless role as an almost mute child-woman; and Tim Blake Nelson and Peter Stormare, as eccentrics we meet along the way, are particularly efffective. But as exciting as this film is, and it is very compelling to watch, we find that once again Spielberg has settled for control instead of passion. Perhaps it's too late to change.