Minority Report (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #61

Everybody runs

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 145 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 20th June 2002 (Australia)
US Release: 21st June 2002
UK Release: 4th July 2002
First Seen: cinema, July 2002

Stars
Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July, Mission: Impossible)
Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar, Synecdoche, New York)
Colin Farrell (Tigerland, In Bruges)
Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring, Shutter Island)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds)

Screenwriters
Scott Frank (Out of Sight, The Wolverine)
Jon Cohen

Based on
The Minority Report, a short story by Philip K. Dick.

The Story
Washington, D.C., 2054: a special police department, PreCrime, arrests murderers before they even commit a crime, using information gained from three ‘precogs’ who have visions of the future. When the precogs report PreCrime’s captain, John Anderton, will kill a man he doesn’t even know, he goes on the run to prove his innocence.

Our Hero
PreCrime Captain John Anderton believes in the infallibility of the system, no doubt motivated by the disappearance of his son years earlier, which has also left him a divorced drug addict. He’s played by Tom Cruise, so of course he’s charming and heroic nonetheless.

Our Villains
The PreCrime unit is under consideration for nationwide adoption, so is being audited by sceptical Department of Justice agent Danny Witwer when Anderton is accused. While Witwer might seem antagonistic, you know there’s some other Big Bad behind the whole thing…

Best Supporting Character
Agatha, the lead precog, who sometimes has a different vision to the other two, which produces the so-called ‘minority report’ that may prove Anderton’s innocence — so he breaks her out. Unsurprisingly, an individual who spends her life hooked up to a machine in some kind of dream-state while having visions of different futures isn’t necessarily suited to the real world.

Memorable Quote
Fletcher: “John, don’t run.”
Anderton: “You don’t have to chase me.”
Fletcher: “You don’t have to run.”
Anderton: “Everybody runs, Fletch.”

Memorable Scene
So he can’t be identified by the future’s ubiquitous iris scanners, Anderton has undergone an eye transplant with a dodgy backstreet surgeon. He’s told he can’t take the bandages off for 12 hours or he’ll go blind. While he’s still convalescing, police searching for him arrive at his location. With thermal imaging confirming how many people are in the building, they unleash spider robots to scour each floor and scan everyone’s eyes. Hearing their approach, Anderton attempts to hide in an ice bath, but the thermal scan notices his disappearance. The officers close in on his location, as do the spiders… but he can’t take his bandages off… but the officers will recognise him…

Technical Wizardry
Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński gave the film a very distinctive visual style, described by one critic as looking “as if it were shot on chrome, caught on the fleeing bumper of a late ’70s car”. Aiming for a film noir feel, the shoot was deliberately overlit, then the film was bleach-bypassed in post-production, a process that desaturates the colours but gives the blacks and shadows a high contrast. Kamiński used the same technique on Saving Private Ryan. Here, coupled with the chrome-and-glass production design, it succinctly evokes a dystopian future.

Making of
Spielberg wanted the film’s near-future world to be based in reality rather than the usual extravagant imaginings of science fiction. To create this plausible future, he convened a three-day ‘think tank’ of fifteen experts, including architects, computer scientists, biomedical researchers, and futurists. Their ideas didn’t change key points of the film’s story, but did influence the creation of the world. Production designer Alex McDowell maintained a “2054 bible”, an 80-page guide listing all of the architectural, socio-economic, political, and technological aspects of the future decided by the think tank. The film’s Wikipedia article has a whole section about technologies seen in the film that have since come about or that are in active development.

Next time…
A sequel TV series aired last year (with none of the original cast (well, except for one)). It didn’t go down very well with either critics or viewers, and swiftly had its episode order reduced before being completely cancelled.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
1 World Stunt Award (Best High Work)
4 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actress (Samantha Morton), Director, Writing)
7 Saturn nominations (Actor (Tom Cruise), Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow), Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, DVD Special Edition Release)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report doesn’t look or feel like anything he’s done before, yet no one but Spielberg could have made it. Ferociously intense, furiously kinetic, it’s expressionist film noir science fiction that, like all good sci-fi, peers into the future to shed light on the present. The director couldn’t have known, when he and writers Scott Frank and Jon Cohen set about adapting Philip K. Dick’s short story, how uncannily their tale of 2054 Washington, D.C., would resonate in [2002’s] political climate, where our jails fill up with suspects who’ve been arrested for crimes they haven’t yet committed.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 90%

What the Public Say
“This film is an excellent example of why Steven Spielberg is one of the great master directors of American cinema. It’s a perfect balancing act, a movie that sacrifices neither ideas nor action, nor emotion, nor mystery, in the service of its story. […] How can we categorize this movie? It is a sci-fi neo-noir that prefers to tell its story on Earth and with humans, much like Blade Runner (1982) and Gattaca (1997). It’s a twisty mystery, a classic whodunit of double-crosses, murder, and troubled pasts. It’s also an innocent-man-on-the-lamb chase movie, not unlike The Fugitive (1993). And it all fits together; it works, it feels like, yes, this is the way this story should be told.” — David, The Warden’s Walk

Verdict

Spielberg once described Minority Report’s story as “fifty percent character and fifty percent very complicated storytelling with layers and layers of murder mystery and plot,” which I think is indicative of why it’s such a successful experience: it mixes exciting, propulsive plot and action sequences with thematic concerns that use science-fiction ideas to explore real-world issues, both tangible (the prevalence of state control and policing) and metaphysical (free will vs determinism). It makes for a rounded, thrilling movie.

#62 will be your mission… should you choose to accept it.

John Carter (2012)

2014 #131
Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

2 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

2011 #4
Charlie Kaufman | 119 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Synecdoche, New YorkDespite its unpronounceable title, Synecdoche, New York starts out like a relatively normal comedy/drama… but then weird touches begin to creep in. A house that’s on fire when a character buys it and continues to be on fire for the next several decades, for instance. No one in the film bats an eyelid. Then the really weird bit arrives; the bit you all probably know; what the film’s about (except, of course, not what it’s About), as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director begins to construct a life-size New York within a warehouse.

This film is written and, for the first time, directed by Charlie Kaufman. “Ah,” I hear you say, “that explains everything.”

And if it was anyone but Kaufman at the helm you’d say the film loses its way at the point Hoffman begins his impossible undertaking. And maybe it does anyway. It becomes a complex mishmash of reality and the play being staged; although you’re never in doubt about which is which (such a twist would be far too obvious), you are in doubt about why it’s all happening. The relatively congenial first hour (ish) is followable; the rest… bizarre, weird, inexplicable. I’m sure it all Means Something, but I can well imagine as many viewers getting thoroughly fed up as finding it revelatory. I don’t think one opinion would be inherently superior to the other.

At times it almost reclaims itself from this descent into impenetrability, almost edging toward finding a revelation that will explain what we’ve seen. And I’m sure there is an explanation of some kind. But, by the time it reached its end, I’m not sure I really cared any more; Fiction meets realityand I haven’t begun to care in the months since I watched it. It’s the kind of film where, as it gets on, you feel it’s a rich experience that you’ll have to ponder for a bit once it’s done, even if there’s something you quite fancy watching on the same channel immediately afterwards. But by the end it became the kind of film I was fed up with pondering, and I bloody well watched what was on the same channel immediately afterwards. Kaufman’s weirdness can wear you down to the point where characters who were interesting and ideas (both plausible and of Kaufman-logic) that had potential cease to be worth caring about; where you go from the point of “I’ll look up an explanation on the internet once it’s finished” to “…meh”.

That could be just me of course. Roger Ebert asserted it was the best film of the 2000s. Maybe you’ll agree. Maybe you’ll find it inspiring or life-affirming or goodness knows what else. Maybe you’ll be so bored you’ll give up even before the end. But, having made it to the end, I’m torn between not being sure what to think, thinking I should make the effort to understand it, and still just not caring.

Right at the end of that Ebert article, way past the bit on Synecdoche, he says this:

The set of a set

Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk… it helps me stay grounded. It says:

A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.

That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.

This quote isn’t inherently more relevant to this particular review than it is to any other particular review, but I feel the need to consider it and include it for your consideration also. That said, it is relevant in this respect: it’s already provoked more reflection on my part than Synecdoche did. I think I’ll discuss it further another time.

3 out of 5

Synecdoche, New York is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 17th April 2015, at 12:40am (so, technically Saturday 18th).