One inalienable truth about beloved and recently deceased film critic Roger Ebert is that he wasn’t afraid to say what he really thought. He judged movies on perceived merit; his reviews didn’t stem from preconceived notions about where cinematic greatness was supposed to come from. Very few critics have the guts to name a science fiction blockbuster as the best film of a given year, but that’s exactly what Ebert did in 2002, when he picked Minority Report as the best of that year’s fantastic film offerings. That choice has looked better over time, and it’s long past due for the rest of us to belatedly give Minority Report the critical props it deserves.
Let’s start with the film’s star. In twenty years, when retrospectives of Tom Cruise’s career become commonplace, there’s a very good chance Minority Report will go down as Cruise’s last great movie. Here’s a list of his subsequent projects:
Austin Powers in Goldmember, The Last Samurai, Collateral, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie, Tropic Thunder, Knight and Day, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Rock of Ages, Jack Reacher, Oblivion.
Only one of those films, Collateral, might qualify as great, and since Cruise’s recent work is either downright terrible (Knight and Day) or just plain weird (Oblivion), the probability of him experiencing some sort of late-career renaissance is not looking good.
All in all, the aughts were not a good decade for Cruise. In the years following Minority Report, he jumped a couch, married a Dawson’s Creek cast member, got squirted in the face with a water gun, and auditioned potential wives. It’s become impossible to separate Cruise’s weirdness—on a good day he seems like a harmless android, on a bad one like some depraved ambassador for Scientology’s darkest schemes—from his acting, and as a result current audiences just don’t respond to him like the audiences of the 80s and 90s did. Mission: Impossible III was actually a decent movie, but it underperformed at the box office and received little fanfare because no one wanted to watch Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman scream at each other after we’d just seen Cruise berate a journalist1 for squirting him the face with water.
But back in the early aughts, Cruise wasn’t carrying such heavy personal baggage. His only problem at the time (at least from a “how does this affect my career standpoint”) was that he hadn’t acted in a great movie since Magnolia (1999) and hadn’t starred in a great movie since Jerry Maguire (1996). Audiences had forgiven him for the voyeuristic/self-obsessed mess that is Eyes Wide Shut, but Cruise just wasn’t cranking out the hits. He needed a (mini) comeback project.
One way for a star to remedy his or her box office appeal issues is to team up with the most successful summer movie director of all time: Steven Spielberg. On paper, the pairing of Spielberg and Cruise seemed a bit odd: A director best known for creating family friendly blockbusters working with a movie star whose recent work was some of the angriest (Magnolia) and most adult-oriented (Eyes Wide Shut) of his career. But it was these seeming differences that worked in unison to push Minority Report from conventional sci-fi fare into something so much greater.
In his original review of the film, Ebert focuses on Minority Report’s blend of action and original thinking:
At a time when movies think they have to choose between action and ideas, Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” is a triumph–a film that works on our minds and our emotions. It is a thriller and a human story, a movie of ideas that’s also a whodunit.
And Spielberg’s virtuoso use cinematography and special effects to complement the narrative:
Spielberg establishes these characters in a dazzling future world, created by art director Alex McDowell, that is so filled with details large and small that we stop trying to figure out everything and surrender with a sigh.
One virtuoso sequence shows her foreseeing the immediate future and advising Anderton about what to do to elude what the cops are going to do next. The choreography, timing and wit of this sequence make it, all by itself, worth the price of admission.
I complained earlier this summer of awkward joins between live action and CGI; I felt the action sequences in “Spider-Man” looked too cartoonish, and that “Star Wars Episode II,” by using computer effects to separate the human actors from the sets and CGI characters, felt disconnected and sterile. Now here is Spielberg using every trick in the book and matching them without seams, so that no matter how he’s achieving his effects, the focus is always on the story and the characters.
None of those pronouncements are incorrect, but they don’t get at what really makes Minority Report a compelling piece of cinema. Unlike most Spielberg pictures, there’s real anger constantly bubbling under the surface of Minority Report. Manic anger. The kind that borders on psychotic. And it is Cruise who brings this anger to the film.
Cruise’s character, Chief John Anderton, is a wounded soul—his only son was kidnapped several years prior to the establishment of pre-crime, the perpetrator was never caught, and the ensuing trauma ended his marriage—but Cruise plays him like a man one teensy-weensy step away from a full-on mental break down. His visage is the pinnacle of strained calm; even in moments of relative peace or inactivity, every facial muscle is fully flexed. He runs a little too hard (eyes bulging, neck veins popping) and collars victims with an uncomfortable sense of self-satisfaction. This is a man who enjoys his chosen profession—arresting people who have yet to commit a crime—because of the sick-pleasure he derives from putting such people into the world of constant suffering he already inhabits.
Spielberg has always had a well-disguised dark side2. There are moments in his earlier, kid-friendly films—Hooper’s death in Jaws, the demise of a Nazi strongman by an airplane propeller in Raiders of the Lost Ark, significant portions of Schindler’s List—that bring this part of the director to the surface. But it took a pairing with a star on the precipice of a personal downward spiral to push him to create one of his bleakest, angriest pictures to date. Everything from the bleached cinematography to the story hint at the moral shades of grey so many people inhabit, but unlike other films and works of fiction, Minority Report encourages its characters to embrace such questionable morality and never look back.
Ebert didn’t realize it at the time—and how could he—but Cruise’s performance as Chief John Anderton presaged the type of celebrity he was about to become: tense, on-edge, always looking like he’s one small step away from going ape shit. Whether he’s calling Matt Lauer ‘glib’ or playing a game of egg roulette with the immensely likeable Jimmy Fallon, there always seems to be something truly dark lurking underneath the surface of the world’s most famous living movie star.
In 2002, Cruise portended his future existence with Minority Report. Two thumbs way up.