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Minority Report

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  • Noel Vera
    Don t know dick Noel Vera Steven Spielberg s Minority Report turns on a gimcrack premise: that the police can show up (with helicopter, rappelling officers,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 27, 2002
      Don't know dick

      Noel Vera

      Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" turns on a gimcrack premise: that the
      police can show up (with helicopter, rappelling officers, "sick sticks," and
      all) BEFORE a crime is committed, thanks to the work of "precogs" (a play on
      the word "recognition," referring to prescient visionaries who can
      "recognize" the future). John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is a high-ranking
      officer of and firm believer in the Pre-Crime Department; it isn't long
      before he's accused of the same offense he's arrested others of--that of
      being about to commit murder--and finds himself victim of the system he's
      worked for all along.

      The film is one of the biggest and most serious attempts to adapt the works
      of one Philip Kindred Dick to the big screen, Dick having been a cult figure
      for the past twenty years, and a constant presence in science fiction for
      the past five decades. Attempts to film his fiction began (officially,
      anyway) with Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982), an adaptation of his 1968
      novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" about a bounty hunter after a
      group of renegade androids. This was followed by Arnold Schwarzenegger's
      "Total Recall" (1990), adapted from the short story "We Can Remember It For
      You Wholesale" (1965), about a man who may or may not be living out a
      fantasy created by "implanted memories." French filmmaker Jerome Boivin
      took a crack at Dick with his "Confessions d'un Barjo" (1992), adapted from
      Dick's non-fiction "Confessions of a Crap Artist" (1975), about a man's
      attempts to deal with his shiftless, useless life.

      Arguably more interesting are the unofficial adaptations (as with all things
      Dickian, the definition of what constitutes a "Dick" film is rather
      slippery). Alex Cox's "Repo Man" (1984), about repo (repossession) men
      hunting a car full of deadly radioactive cargo, doesn't really borrow any
      details from Dick, but it does share his deadpan humor and casual
      surrealism. Peter Weir's "The Truman Show" (1998), and the Wachowski
      brothers' "The Matrix" (1999) seem inspired by Dick's "Time Out of Joint"
      (1959), about a man who learns he's the most important person in the world
      (people read Dick to reinforce their sense of paranoia and megalomania, not
      cure it). "Dark City" is often cited as having Dickian undertones, but
      beyond the tone its premise is from a Dick short, "Adjustment Team," about
      workers that from time to time stop reality to fiddle around with the "
      default settings" (a computer term that, when you think about it (hit THIS
      button and everything goes back to normal), Dick might have anticipated in
      his writings).

      Then, of course, there's James Cameron's "The Terminator" (1984). The film,
      possibly the most commercially successful ripoff--sorry, film adaptation--of
      Dick ever attempted, was based on two of his stories: "Second Variety,"
      about killer robots disguised as human beings; and a sequel, "Jon's World,"
      about scientists going back in time to kill the robots' inventor.

      "Minority Report," then, is the latest effort in what is actually a small
      but thriving industry; how does it fare compared to the others? Surprisingly
      well--unlike "Blade Runner" or "Total Recall," the film doesn't try to
      simplify Dick's overcomplicated plots. If anything, it expands on the
      original short story, borrowing images from Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork
      Orange" (Anderton's eyes held open with clamps) and, of all things, Roger
      Corman's "Little Shop of Horrors" (Anderton drawing back as one of the
      flowers attempt to plant a kiss on his cheek). Like "Repo Man" and unlike
      "Blade Runner" it's filled with jokes--the ads that use one's name in their
      advertising copy feel inspired by classic Dick inventions, like his
      smart-alecky automated doorknobs that talk back and demand to be fed small
      change (Dick's freewheeling inventiveness only need improved artificial
      intelligence to become plausible). There's the collection of familiar Dick
      fetishes--substance abuse (Cruise mainlines an illegal drug), crackpot
      religions (some regard the precogs as divinities to be worshipped), even a
      cameo by a man in a wheelchair that takes its cue as much from Dick's "Dr.
      Bloodmoney" (1965) as from Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1963). I've always
      suspected Dick would make fine entertainment; "Minority Report" more than
      halfway proves my suspicion, what with its combination of wit, engagingly
      complex plot, and pulp sensibility.

      Where I think the film fails is in not following Dick when he goes beyond
      the sum total of his fetishes, mannerisms, and pulp. Dick's best work isn't
      his short stories but his novels, where he had the room (barely) to bring
      out the full sweep of his ambitions. At his best, Dick would ring strange,
      inimitable changes on classic science-fiction themes, like "What does it
      mean to be human?" ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"); "What is real
      and what is not?" ("The Man in the High Castle"); and "What is good and
      evil?" ("The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch"). The themes, on second
      thought, seemed less science-fictional than universal, less concerned with
      aliens and other planets and more with souls and the human condition. All,
      of course, mediated on and wrestled to the ground in strictly
      science-fictional terms, with plenty of surreal imagery, and a healthy dose
      of humor.

      "Minority Report" doesn't quite achieve those heights; it does a good job of
      emulating the tone and texture of a Philip Dick novel, but the deeper notes
      are missing. Spielberg does his level best, and filmmakingwise this is his
      sleekest, most effective work in years (though I have to note that Spielberg
      doesn't show much of a gift for surrealism, and that Dick without his
      shifting, slippery sense of reality is like a salad without olive oil). Like
      one of Dick's perfectly produced androids, "Minority Report" has all the
      hallmarks of a human, and on close inspection can pass for human; something,
      however, is missing--something not readily apparent yet eventually,
      inevitably felt.

      Tom Cruise's performance as Anderton is part and parcel of this flaw.
      Spielberg and his writers (Scott Frank, Jon Cohen) give him all the traits
      of a Dickian hero--troubled past, drug addiction--and Cruise does his level
      best; does, in fact, better than in anything I've seen him in except Paul
      Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (whose characters, incidentally, would feel at
      home in a Dick novel)--and still something's missing (you sense it, beyond
      logic or reasoning). Maybe part of it is that Dick's heroes are almost
      invariably losers, and Cruise firmly and solidly projects himself as being a
      winner--has been doing so, in fact, his entire career (the exception as
      noted before being in "Magnolia"). "Minority Report" is damned good
      entertainment, and as a film it captures, better than almost any of the
      films I've mentioned, the look and feel of Dick's fiction--no small feat,
      that. But it's not a knockout punch or home run; I find myself sitting
      stubbornly on my hands, waiting to see if the game's really over.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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