Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Silly Putty

With some misgivings, the Man Without Qualities succumbed to the persuasive powers of the abode's Cub-Scout-In-Residence, and yesterday we took in an afternoon showing of the new Spielberg movie, Minority Report. As noted here previously, I was skeptical, expecting something obviously derivative of Blade Runner. I was wrong. Minority Report is not derivative of Blade Runner the way, say, The Mummy is derivative of the Indiana Jones movies. That is, the derivation process is not one in which the atmosphere and "look and feel" of the earlier movie is openly and shamelessly emulated.

But Minority Report is highly derivative of Blade Runner, and the process of derivation is at bottom not complex - although the technical effort in creating this movie was clearly enormous and enormously complex. The derivation process here is roughly similar to the way Silly Putty is used to copy an image from the newspaper (preferably, the Funnies), faded and stretched. The blanched color tones of Minority Report resemble those of a Silly Putty image, but there is much more than that. The transfer process turns Blade Runner's futuristic casbah - unrestricted by the moral or legal and dominated by monstrous, floating, Ginza-like, god-like commercial images - into a bleached shopping mall differing from those of American suburbia today only by anodyne advertisements tucked below the mezzanine level on what might be liquid crystal screens retrofitted circa 2050 onto the original 1970's structure. The scripts exhibit a similar degradation, with Blade Runner's featuring fine pop-classic lines (Question: "Is that a real snake?" Answer: "If this was a real snake would I be dancing in a place like this?" - approximate). There may be memorable dialogue lodged somewhere in Minority Report, but I can't recall any. Minority Report's busy, ridiculous urban "Mag Lev" transportation system seems like a grounded, less-effective version of the free-floating Blade Runner variety. And one can't help but wonder if the Mag Lev's disturbing resemblance to that wooden, gravity-powered slot-car system that occupies much of the Cub Scout's room is perhaps somewhat deliberately obscured by the movie's washed-out color scheme. Then there are the chase scenes, where the short, intense Blade Runner specimens are replaced by a flabby Minority Report variety that become increasingly unpersuasive and eventually terminate in an outright gag (Cruise drives away in a car that has been robot-assembled around him).

So what? These are stylistic matters. If Mr. Spielberg has his own sense of style and it entertains, then the movie succeeds on its own terms.

But, as Joe Morgenstern points out, Minority Report is very pale entertainment. But, unlike Mr. Morgenstern, I believe the movie fails to entertain for a very straightforward reason: Minority Report is constructed as a movie of ideas (as is Blade Runner), but unlike Blade Runner, Minority Report exploits ideas so weak that even Mr. Spielberg cannot and does not commit to them.

Although Blade Runner was made well before Ian Wilmut cooked up Dolly the Sheep, that movie centered on disturbing and entertaining ideas of identity, memory and science that either very much affect us today or are tantalizingly over the horizon. For example, the entire android-driven plot is on one level preposterous, yet Dolly the Sheep seriously raises the likelihood that science will be able to produce artificial, genetically-selected humans (that is, "androids") within fifty years - perhaps less. One of the androids - a beautiful woman - discovers she has "memories" in fact borrowed from her creator's daughter. This resonates with the hideous "recovered memory" phenomenon of recent years in which witnesses have put others, sometimes others close to them, in prison on the basis of "memories" later discovered to have been implanted by therapists. And how many of us have discovered that we harbor childhood "memories" of family events we later learn we could not have attended - the likely product of vivid recounting by those who did attend. Then there is the vision of environmental apocalypse that provides so much of the atmosphere - in any meaning of the term - in the movie. There is no question that Blade Runner is powered by many rich, dense, disturbing, vivid and highly entertaining ideas.

On the other hand, I, personally, would be more than ready to make book on the likelihood that the victims of any drug addiction wave - any drug at all - will leave behind a precognitive offspring. That prospect is not one that troubles my sleep or enlivens my days - and my guess is that is true of almost everybody else. Indeed, every day seems to bring more doubts about even our existing tools for predicting human behavior, never mind allowing possibly perfect predictive capability. The pseudo-philosophical questions that arise from considering what would happen if one thought one had perfect predictive capability for a type of human behavior such as murder but then found out the capability might not be completely perfect have as much intrinsic entertainment value as the questions posed by a hypothetical realization that a child on a tricycle that one thought would be able to shoot out of the galaxy might actually only get half way there. Just not that many people have ever been burdened by perfect or near-perfect knowledge of the future to really care about these matters. As I have noted before, the premise of Minority Report simply eliminates all of the interesting considerations involved in intelligence gathering and predicting human behavior. It's no wonder the movie has to rely on silly, overextended chases and mood-demolishing gags.

As noted above, even Mr. Spielberg does not believe in the entertainment value of this movie's ideas. The basic moral issue here is suppose to be: how does one justify punishing people for things they haven't yet done - in this case, murders that have not been committed. The movie opens with a sequence that is supposed to illustrate all this: the Pre-Crime Unit stops a husband from killing his wife and her lover. As he is arrested, he says: "I haven't done anything." This after we have just seen the Pre Crime agent literally pull from the husband's hands a pair of scissors he has raised to kill his wife's lover! Well, maybe Mr. Spielberg's writers need to read up a bit on criminal law, but if a real-world cop ever has to pull from one's hand scissors raised over one's spouse's cowering lover, one should not count on beating the "attempted murder" rap by arguing "I haven't done anything." The fact is, every person arrested by the Pre Crime unit in Minority Report could be arrested today by the Washington, D.C. police and charged with a very serious existing, real-world felony: attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and assault come to mind, but there are others. Here's another example: A man lures a mother to a lake with the intent of drowning her, using as the lure the promise that the mother's daughter will be returned to her. The man and the mother show up at the lake, and he starts to attack her. Does anyone think that man has not already committed a serious felony under current law?

Under current criminal law, every crime consists of two parts: a state of mind coupled with the commission of a prohibited act. There is only one situation in which the conceit of the movie diverges from current law: Where a person has either not yet formed the state of mind to commit a crime or has not yet committed any act in furtherance of that state of mind. Under current law, such a person could not be arrested or charged, but in the movie he could be if the Pre Cogs identify him as a future killer. That is a real issue, although for the reasons described above, not a very entertaining or interesting one. Mr. Spielberg seems to understand that, because he never illustrates such a case in his movie.

Further, Mr. Spielberg does not even seem all that interested in his Pre Cogs having the power of precognition. In the sequence in the shopping mall, for example, the Pre Cog Agatha seems to be more of a mind reader than a clairvoyant (she tells the protagonist that a person approaching can identify his face, which has nothing to do with predicting the future). Later, she fails to predict that the Pre Crime unit will descend momentarily on the protagonist until they are right outside the door. Maybe she has an on-off switch that someone keeps accidentally bumping.

Minority Report is not without its charms - first and foremost being Tom Cruise's amazing ability to do as much as he did with this material. He deserves much better. But maybe Mr. Spielberg should get to know Tiger Woods. Mr. Woods dramatically took a considerable period off to completely revamp his approach to golf at a time many people thought he was already the best golfer who has ever lived. He emerged better for the effort. Mr. Spielberg may want to consider where he is going with the likes of Minority Report and A.I. in his immediate past.

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