In Steven Spielberg's latest picture, a skinheaded psychic named Agatha keeps challenging Tom Cruise with the words, "Can you see?" The question answers itself: Cruise sees in Minority Report, but not well enough. He must learn to recognize his ocular limitations--a task he accomplishes by enduring chase scenes, double-crosses, confrontations at gunpoint and a few jocularly nauseating trials, conducted in Spielberg's bucket-of-bugs, Indiana Jones style.
In Jacques Audiard's new picture, by contrast, Emmanuelle Devos can't hear, and she knows it from the start. The first shot in Read My Lips is an image of her tucking a hearing aid behind one ear, then concealing it with her hair. Her first lines, spoken while answering the phone in a nerve-jangling office, include the words, "I didn't hear. Can you repeat that?" Her task in the movie--accomplished through acts of larceny and hostage-taking--is to learn how much power she might have, despite her aural limitations.
Ineluctable modalities of the filmable! We are discussing not only sight and sound but also America and France, plot and character, man and woman, innocence and experience. Film culture needs both sides; so if I tell you that I'd gladly watch Read My Lips several times but will be content with one viewing of Minority Report, please don't take it to mean that Minority Report shouldn't be seen at all. On the contrary: To miss it would be like bypassing one of those grand and macabre curiosities that lie just off the tourist's route--like visiting Madrid, for example, without troubling to descend the marbled stair to the crypt of the Escorial. In the monumental edifice of Minority Report, as in that palatial tomb, you may encounter something madly idiosyncratic, yet absolutely characteristic of its culture. It's just not much of a pleasure; whereas Read My Lips is so much fun, it could be retitled Curl My Toes.
But, to begin with Spielberg:
After last summer's release of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, all true filmoids were eager to know what nightmare he might next sweat out in public. Under the influence of Stanley Kubrick, under the pretense of selling us entertainment, Spielberg had made a nakedly confessional movie about abandonment, disillusionment and the corruptions of show business. Past a certain point, of course, the picture was a misshapen wreck; but that was because A.I. struggled so desperately to escape itself and concoct a happy ending. The harder it strained, the more compelling, and horrifying, it became. I felt that Spielberg had at last tapped into emotions he'd located not in his audience but in himself. Could he maintain that connection, now that he'd established it? That was the question hanging over Minority Report.
The answer is now before us, in the only futuristic, metaphysical thriller I can think of that takes the violation of civil liberties as its theme and the abuse of children as its obsession. These twin facets of Minority Report come together, improbably but unforgettably, in the figures of oracles known as Pre-Cogs. They lie in a bottom-lit, Y-shaped pool somewhere in Washington, DC, in the year 2054: three damaged orphans who are adult in form but fetal in situation, since they are kept floating in an amniotic fluid of high narcotic content. Their fate (you can't really call it a job) is to remain forever in that stage of childhood where every shadow in the bedroom conceals a monster. Unfortunately, the monsters are real: They are the murderers who will strike in the near future, and whose crimes the psychics not only foresee but experience. You might think someone would take pity on the Pre-Cogs and release them from these visions, at which they convulse in pain and horror. Instead, for the public benefit, a police agency called the Department of Pre-Crime maintains these creatures in a permanent state of terror.
We come to the theme of civil liberties, which must have required some precognition on Spielberg's part, since Minority Report went into production well before John Ashcroft declared due process to be an unaffordable luxury. It is the movie's conceit (borrowed from the writings of Philip K. Dick) that the police may someday arrest people pre-emptively, for crimes they would have committed had they been left on the loose. As chief of the Pre-Crime unit, Tom Cruise sees no problem with this practice, either legally or philosophically--which is why he is half-blind. He doesn't yet understand that the rights he takes away from others may also be taken from him.
But I'm making it sound as if Minority Report constructs an argument, when it actually contrives a delirium. A sane movie would have been content to give Cruise a reason for arresting pre-criminals. For example, he could have been blinded by the pain of losing a son. That, in fact, is how the plot accounts for Cruise's keen efficiency; but it isn't enough of an explanation for Spielberg, who goes on to embed a second rationale in the mise en scène. Every setting, prop and gesture shows us that Cruise does this job because it excites him.
He's in his brush-cut mode in Minority Report. He rockets around Washington, rappels onto the pre-crime scene, dives at the last second between the would-be killer and the not-quite-victim--and that's just the conventional part of his work. The real thrill comes from interpreting the Pre-Cogs' visions, which he does in front of a wraparound computer screen while a stereo pipes in the Unfinished Symphony. Waving his hands against the music's rhythm, making digital images slide around at will, he looks like a cross between an orchestra conductor and a film editor, working at some Avid console of the future.
So childhood pain in Minority Report bleeds into fear of crime, which blossoms into a fantasy of omnipotence--and this fantasy in turn sows further pain, in the form of little stabs to the eye. In the year 2054, government bureaus and advertising agencies alike scan your retina wherever you go, blinding you with lasers a hundred times a day to track your whereabouts, your spending, your preferences in clothing from the Gap. What does it matter if Cruise comes to see the dangerous fallacy of pre-crime? Human freedom has already vanished from his world, in the blink of an eye.