Minority Report at 20: Cruise and Spielberg test their limits in top-tier thriller

The director and star both played with their images in a knotty and exciting adaptation of Philip K Dick’s prescient short story

Tom Cruise has spent the last few weeks – arguably the last few years – making the case that, at least under certain circumstances, he could qualify as the biggest movie star in the world. Twenty years ago, merely on the cusp of 40, this condition didn’t require such strenuous evidence. Cruise made movies, and, for the most part, audiences showed up; it had become almost routine. This is was why he could star in a spectacular science-fiction picture like Minority Report without attracting too much fuss. Yes, the movie was a hit. No, in the US it didn’t outgross Scooby-Doo, released a week earlier. No, this fact didn’t cast doubt on Cruise’s bankability. He had attained such stopwatch dependability that his appearance in a masterpiece seemed almost beside the point.

In fact, Minority Report depends on Cruise’s certainty – his ability to imbue a character with absolute conviction, even if doubt nags at him from somewhere deep inside. He plays John Anderton, a police chief in a futuristic Washington DC that has tried out a program called Pre-Crime. The organization taps into the visions of three “pre-cogs” to pinpoint the names and locations of future murders, arresting and convicting offenders before a crime is actually committed. Anderton is a fervent believer in the process because his young son Sean was kidnapped, and presumably killed, years earlier. Despite his regrets, Cruise is still playing a hotshot of sorts; driven by his belief in the program, Anderton always gets his man.

Standard haunted-movie-cop stuff; even Anderton’s drug addiction feels relatively familiar. So does the wrong-man wringer Cruise must go through when Anderton himself is identified as a murderer and goes on the run, desperate to prove his innocence and determined not to fulfill his supposed destiny. Because Minority Report is directed by Steven Spielberg, it has a relentless pace and visual mastery. But Spielberg does not typically make movies that could double as star vehicles (his other 2002 triumph, Catch Me If You Can, offers another exception), and his first collaboration with Cruise came at a time when one of the world’s biggest stars seemed increasingly willing to mess with his image.

Literally: in Minority Report, Cruise looks taut but hollow-eyed, his hair uncharacteristically close-cropped, his famous air-chopping run full of desperation alongside determination. Later in the movie, he has his eyeballs scooped out and replaced in a back-alley surgery, then injects a drug that droops and distends his face, all in service of disguising himself from ubiquitous facial recognition software. (At one point, Spielberg has him chasing his original movie-star eyeballs down a corridor.) The movie followed Vanilla Sky, in which his character is disfigured and forced to wear a facial prosthetic – a mask. Present-day Cruise yearns to test his physical limits, sacrificing his body for an appreciative audience; Cruise of 20 years ago had his characters test their abilities to maintain their shining image (and self-image).

If it were only a Tom Cruise star text, Minority Report would be a lot of fun, and a fine companion piece to Vanilla Sky. Remarkably, it’s also a top-tier Spielberg film, in which the film-maker tested limits of his own. His filmography features multiple stories of fathers reconnecting with children, especially sons; that’s the emotional engine of his other film with Cruise, 2005’s War of the Worlds. In Minority Report, Anderton is desperate to reconnect with, essentially, a ghost – losing himself in holographic home videos, he’s definitively too late to save Sean. Perhaps he has such faith in the morality of imprisoning pre-ordained criminals because he can’t picture a different future for himself.

Spielberg’s bold act of imagination in this movie, then, is to deny his character one; there’s a cathartic late-movie moment where Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most talented of the pre-cogs, pictures Sean’s life, narrating a devastating what-if to Anderton and his estranged wife. Despite Spielberg’s singular talent for imagery, he doesn’t show any of this; instead, he shows us Morton, her eerie conviction as self-possessed, in its way, as Cruise’s.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise
Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. Photograph: Reuters

Admittedly, Spielberg allows the ending to go softer than the toughest, bleakest tones of the film noir stories that inspired him. That noir style, though, is rendered in a technical tour de force; this may well stand as the ultimate showcase for Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Coloring in the future with bleachy desaturation, Spielberg and Kaminski flirt with monochrome – grain-heavy blue-and-white images turn noir shadows into blinding, faux-utopian light. It’s a brilliant synthesis of retro-analog past and a digital future (and a fascinating contrast with Spielberg’s old buddy George Lucas, who also created a digital world with some noirish touches in his Attack of the Clones, released the same summer).

There’s both period timeliness and prescient timelessness to these images. Arriving less than a year after 9/11, Pre-Crime feels attuned to the unconstitutional policies of the George W Bush era; the film was written before the World Trade Center fell, and based on a Philip K Dick story, but Spielberg’s trademark urgency made it feel especially up-to-the-minute. And the film’s vision of endless targeted ads, reaching into our eyeballs and leaving an unwanted digital trail everywhere, is basically Instagram in person. (How does Insta not have a Janusz Kaminski/Minority Report filter?)

It’s especially striking that this movie’s vision of the future is refracted through images of America’s most steadfast man-of-action movie star getting abused and carved up. Top Gun: Maverick, for all of its stoic nods toward ageing and the passage of time, attempts nothing so bold with Cruise iconography. “Everybody runs,” Cruise repeats throughout Minority Report, often when warned not to make a break for it. It becomes his mantra, his own certainty turned back on itself. His late-career embrace of action movies, great as they often are, rebukes that notion: it’s Maverick/Ethan Hunt/Tom Cruise who runs, and the other characters who work around his feats of derring-do. In the world of Minority Report, that Cruise exceptionalism can’t outrun the injustice of the future, or the immutable past.


Jesse Hassenger

The GuardianTramp

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