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Kubrick Envy

Minority Report extends Steven Spielberg's bizarre obsession with the late director



Steven Spielberg, a recent graduate of Cal State Long Beach, has released his first film since obtaining his bachelor's degree in May, and it shows interesting differences from many of the films of his undergraduate decades. To date, Spielberg's most characteristic films have concerned nostalgia for a simpler time of mythic lore, typically embodied in the condition of childhood. His new film, Minority Report, is free of painful longings for an ideal past, however, and seems to recognize fully that the present is a wash. The movie's dystopian future is presented as a kicky experience of sensory immersion, and the movie--to adapt the title of a novel by the writer whose work this movie is based on--is like an android's dream of electric sheep.

In Washington, D.C., in the year 2054, murder has been all but eliminated by a new police unit called Precrime. Despite protests from the still-pesky ACLU, Precrime officers are able to arrest murderers before they go postal. The officers do so with the aid of three mutated human beings with psychic powers, who are kept floating in a state of suspended animation in an isolated holding tank. Angelic and androgynously beautiful, these beings--who look like a cross between David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Tilda Swinton in you-name-it--are called "precogs." Their minds produce complex, interconnected images of the future, which can be downloaded to hyper-sophisticated computers and used to fend off impending killings. A top-gun named John Atherton (Tom Cruise), committed to fighting crimes since the kidnapping of his son six years before, is the star of the unit, until the precogs envision him as a future murderer and he becomes a fugitive.

Like all such premises, this one will seem either silly and tiresome or smart and cool, depending on the viewer's proclivities. Certainly the movie's relation to coolness, that primary quality of postmodern pop culture, is its defining feature. On Oprah Winfrey's talk show two weeks ago (speaking of postmodern culture), Spielberg said that when he's making a film, his abiding goal is "to make a cool movie" for his fans. There's probably little use in pointing out that this is not the utterance of a serious filmmaker. Strictly speaking, it's not even the sentiment of a cool one.

But it's clear what the dominant aesthetic of cool entails in modern American movies, and the anxious quest for it is visible in nearly every cranny of Minority Report. It entails, first of all, a smart-and-cool plot, preferably one with a pedigree, like being associated with an out-there cult writer. It entails a star with a crowd-pleasing past who is now moving toward edgier roles, a group that includes Tom Cruise and, since it's now hip to be cool, just about every current star, in one way or another. It entails a sleek look, though not necessarily one that plays up a big budget, since big budgets could be seen, in and of themselves, as un-cool.

The relation of budgets to coolness, in this age of the indie, is clearly a dicey one. Equally clear, however, is the fact that coolness is very much a thing that can be bought, and Spielberg does not have to worry, any more than most big-league purveyors of coolness do, about being able to afford it. So why all the anxiety about it that pervades his last two movies, A.I. and Minority Report? Because the director of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan--both fastidiously up-to-the-minute, highly fashionable productions despite their serious topics--is too well-versed not to know that cool also, finally, entails a sensibility, and he doesn't always seem to think he can swing it.

Spielberg's burgeoning "partnership" with the late Stanley Kubrick is interesting to consider in this light. Kubrick's films, in addition to their more admirable attributes, often bear many of the surface features of the aesthetic of cool, making them nominally salable among the male adolescents who determine the current market. Those who found A.I. a distasteful enterprise did so largely because of Spielberg's weird co-opting of Kubrick, who was posthumously credited as a producer of that film. Spielberg spoke of the movie as a tribute to him, but during Kubrick's lifetime there had never been so much as a whiff of affinity between these filmmakers. To say that A.I. lacks Kubrick's formal rigor is a considerable understatement, and Spielberg's effort in the film to mimic what he perhaps thought was a Kubrick-like misanthropy was embarrassing, like watching an actor who should have been cast as Peter Pan trying to play Captain Hook. Whatever one might have thought of A.I. as a movie in its own right, as a tribute it's a failure, smacking unmistakably of some creepy form of covetousness.

In Minority Report, the dark, carnivalesque atmosphere of parts of A.I. persists, and it feels as forced as it did in the earlier movie, even more brazen in its Kubrick-envy. A character getting an eye transplant is rigged up like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange when he has his eyes locked open, and the Irish tramp from the opening sequence of the same film turns up in the middle of a chase scene in Minority Report, only to become a hapless cog in a silly sight-gag. Is this a tribute, a steal, or an insult? In any case it indicates a darkness of vision that is not, to put it mildly, integral to the sensibility of the film. It's tacked on, because a certain measure of "darkness" is now deemed commercial, because it's cool.

The Philip K. Dick short story that Spielberg's film is based on was "dark" in a different way. Written in 1956, the story was an effort to move beyond the high-Cold War era of sci-fi--its world conflicts, referred to in passing, are Anglo-Chinese--yet it can't escape the rampant paranoia of that period. Despite Dick's cult reputation, his writing is impersonal and unmannered, a lot like that of any pulp writer of the time, and to the extent that there's anything personal in his work, it's in his obsessive themes of replication and simulation. His work is about the dialectic of progress, and his plots often involve well-meaning crusaders who can't do anything to fend off the rising tides of dehumanization because they've already bought into the ideology of progress. Dick's Atherton is an old man of retirement age, resentful of efforts to force him out, and his wife seems implicated from the start in the plot against him (a la "We Could Remember It For You Wholesale," the Dick story that was the basis of Total Recall). Without editorializing, in his usual straightforward argot, Dick seems to expect us to see the problems with the Precrime idea--its denial of free will, its invasions of privacy, its technologizing of identity--and to notice that the good guys are as deeply implicated in these problems as the bad guys. To drive the point home, Dick ends the story with one of his characteristic fake happy endings, where the characters escape to a place we're meant to understand no longer really exists, reminding us of the root meaning of the word utopia: nowhere.

Dick's world is Dystopia Central, but Spielberg, trying to enter into it, is dazzled by the high-tech fancies he and his crew have invented to deck it out. Since Dick's writing is notoriously short on description, consisting mostly of dialogue, the sleek production design of Minority Report is almost entirely the filmmakers' invention, and, in the manner of many a sci-fi movie, it creates a conflict between the techno-phobia of the plot and the techno-philia of the visuals. The future of Minority Report is one that takes to their logical (and most obvious) conclusions key aspects of the postmodern present. It's presented (in Janusz Kaminski's great photography) with a silvery, pointillist sheen which, despite a general reflective glare glinting off every edge, de-emphasizes light and shadow. In this sense, it is much at odds with the film noir heritage critics have pegged on it, or with an obvious point of reference like Blade Runner. Computers in this world are thin, transparent screens on which images float and glide, and cars are streamlined pods that shimmy and scoot across chutes and ladders, with no apparent toxic outputs. The culture of images is pervasive in this future--holographic ads float in space and address passers-by by name, and boxes of cereal sport interactive logos--but nobody in the film pays it much attention.

In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg was quoted as saying he knew he'd succeeded in A.I. when the reviews came in, because the film "was given exactly the same reception that every other Kubrick film [sic] has always gotten." That is, bad. One hesitates to feed this troubling emotional complex by saying that Minority Report is in love with the technology it claims to criticize, because that was the rap on 2001 in addle-brained early reviews, including Pauline Kael's. But there's a basic difference: Kubrick's movie, in this sense closer in spirit to Philip K. Dick than anything Spielberg could ever dream up, was really about what happens when replication and simulation take on an indeterminate relation to human reality. His answer was that people become less human, or even less than human, and to judge from Kubrick's films, he seemed to think this was not a futuristic possibility of sci-fi, but an already established phenomenon of modern life. The formal maneuvers of his work underline the theme unyieldingly: the suffocating symmetries of design, the emphases on visual surfaces that turn even people into objects, the relentless repetitions, the performance styles that register a shocking range of human banalities.

It would never occur to Steven Spielberg that people are or could be anything but the spunky, twinkly types he has nearly always envisioned--they just have bad moods sometimes, like all of us--and the future he places on view in Minority Report, despite its pockets of "darkness," is the one that he longs for. Everything's easier if you can invent a technology to do it--lots of the gags are cheery variations on how machines accomplish in a flash what people once had to labor over--and progress is always good, once you get the bugs out. That's the Spielberg worldview. In Dick, the precogs are wailing idiots who languish in a dungeon; in Spielberg they're New Agey sprites who hover ethereally in a well-kept pool. His movie is one that wants to be dark because it's "in," or because he's got Kubrick-on-the-brain, but what he can't see is that this kind of commodification is exactly what this story, and nearly every movie Stanley Kubrick ever made, was warning against.

Once you cast Tom Cruise, of course, it's pretty clear that your movie is going to be about dehumanization in some way or other. That's exactly how Kubrick used him in Eyes Wide Shut, as a signifier of the post-human. Spielberg thinks he's just a great star, as indeed he may be, since he dispenses here one of his trademark performances, serviceable and expensive and vacuous. I'm all for giving him his Lifetime Achievement Award: He's only five years younger than Tom Hanks, last week's recipient.

The film is, finally, propelled by a father's trauma over losing his only child. Minority Report puts a new twist on Spielberg's cult of the child, angled from the parent's point-of-view, and figuring alienation as a result of the child's absence, not the parent's withdrawal (Spielberg himself reportedly employs a nanny for each of his well-tended children). The feelings of nostalgia of so many of Spielberg's previous films, from Empire of the Sun through A.I., revolved around an intense identification with the figure of the abandoned child. This new concern with parental trauma accounts for what's distinctive in Minority Report's tones, its strange mix of panic and optimism. With the film's overweening "nostalgia for the future," it's almost as if Spielberg is no longer pining for some winsome childhood past, but is yearning for an adult future that's already here, but not nearly accessible. EndBlock

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