Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Watcher - The worlds of Philip K. Dick - Minority Report

Good old Development Hell - the movie buff’s shorthand for the endless process by which filmmakers finally get their act together and, y’know - make a film. Anyone tearing their hair out over the prospect of a new Wolverine movie this decade, or praising Buddha that the long mooted ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ (2011) is finally on its way after nearly fifteen years, knows only too well how those Hollywood devils can hold us in thrall with their spiky pitchforks of false promise and cold shackles of indecisiveness.

In researching film adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick, I was surprised to learn that this week’s choice, ‘Minority Report’ (2002) had been in development for ten years, having first been optioned in 1992. Interestingly, following the success of ‘Total Recall’ (1990), a script based on another of Dick’s short stories, ‘The Minority Report’ (1956) was quickly put into development. The original tale, of a future police force using telepathic ‘precogs’ to predict and ultimately prevent crime was to be adapted into a sequel of sorts by ‘Recall’ co-writer Ron Shussett and Robert Goethals.

However, as much as I love ‘Total Recall’, and as much as the prospect of Arnie’s working class hero Doug Quaid hunting down, and no doubt breaking the limbs of, future criminals with the aid of the telepathic mutants sounds as sublime as ‘Cassablanca in Space’, fate had other ideas. Arnie passed on the underdeveloped premise, opting instead for ‘Last Action Hero’ (1993) and the project found its way to Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, who had been looking to collaborate since the 1980s.

Judging by the result, the seven years it took to develop a workable script was time well spent, with the resultant film being one of the most critically and commercially successful adaptations of Dick’s work to date, as well as being an original and well researched sci-fi thriller in its own right. Once again, the various writers managed to take a brilliant yet brief premise and create a story that honours its source material without being slavish.

The usual ‘Hollywood’ concessions are present, with Dick’s ‘Bald and fat and old’ (Minority Report, Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, 2000, p.71) protagonist John Anderton re-imagined as a lean, moody man of action in the typical Tom Cruise mold, together with the Spielberg’s key theme of family tragedy pushed to the fore. But as with nearly all great adaptation’s of Dick’s work, such changes serve the medium and widen the story’s appeal. While sci-fi short stories had long been held to be the preserve of lonely males, Spielberg and Cruise both knew how to craft family entertainment, fusing the intelligence of Dick’s ideas with a combination of spectacle, thrills, and that all important human touch.

As a master of spectacle, Spielberg once again works his magic here, with innovative effects work and inventive chases, one highlight being a showdown in an automated car factory that has a thrillingly Indiana Jones-esque payoff, complete with composer John William’s trademark flourish. Visually too, ‘Minority Report’ is stunningly realised, using muted colours and shadows to make the wide open spaces of Washington D.C. through which Anderton flees for his life seem suitably claustrophobic.

The chillingly realised future world, where technology has made commerce and government near omnipotent, while superficially similar to everything from ‘The Matrix’ (1999) to ‘I, Robot’ (2004) is also one of the most detailed ever committed to the screen. Spielberg, having consulting with experts on technology, came up aces with fun gadgets such as sonic shotguns and touch screen computers, while also hinting at the dreaded surveillance state with concepts such as targeted advertising and biometric data-basing.

As with any Spielberg blockbuster, it is of course that human touch that usually sets him apart, and for all its technical innovation, this is perhaps the films weakest area. Cruise is an always watchable leading man, but in many ways, his John Anderton is almost too complex and earnestly played. It occasionally distracts from the action as Anderton spends so much of the film wrestling his own personal demons. The focus on Cruise is also at the expense of an impressive supporting cast, including Max Von Sydow, Samantha Moreton and ‘Total Recall’ (2012) star Colin Farrell.

Overall, ‘Minority Report’ is by no means a bad film, being rightly regarded as a thoughtful, well executed sci-fi action film that stands fully head and shoulders above most others of its type. It is also a definite highpoint for its director and star, who between them are not short on box office success. The reason it stops short of being a bona fide classic for me is that for all its flare and class on paper, it doesn’t quite blend all of its great elements into an emotionally satisfying whole and to be honest - as adaptation’s of Dick’s work go - Ridley Scott and Paul Verhoeven had already proved that such an achievement wasn’t exactly mission impossible.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is looking to the future - Paycheck style.

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