Posts Tagged ‘Philip K Dick’

It’s easy to talk too much about cinema in rarefied terms of its themes and value as pure art, but I think it is important to remember that it also serves a valuable purpose by cheering people up when times are especially hard, as they are at the moment. The world feels like a tough old place at the moment. Will this rain never cease? It is enough to make one permanently miserable. This is before we even get to the ceaseless glare and noise from the giant billboards everywhere, or the perpetual whine of the cars zipping about overhead. It is no wonder that virtually anyone who can afford the fare and pass the medical is choosing the emigrate to one of the outer space colonies, even if they are stuffed with homicidal androids. At a time like this one has to get one’s pleasures where one can, such as in the form of a revival of Ridley Scott’s eerily accurate dystopian thriller Blade Runner, originally released in 1982.

The movie is set in present-day Los Angeles, shortly after a group of synthetic human beings – known as replicants – have illegally arrived on Earth. They appear to be trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, which originally created them, for reasons which are not immediately clear. The business of finding and eliminating replicants is entrusted to a special corps of investigators known, for no very obvious reason, as blade runners. The blade runner initially assigned to this case is murdered by one of the replicants at the start of the movie, and as a result jaded former blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford with an unflattering haircut) is essentially blackmailed into taking over.

Deckard’s investigation is made a little more complicated by an encounter with Rachael (Sean Young) a woman at the Tyrell Corporation’s HQ who eventually proves to be another replicant herself – just one who believes herself to be human. Is the distinction between natural and artificial humanity really as clear cut as his job requires him to believe? Rachael takes badly to the news of her true nature and drops out of sight, giving Deckard another target to locate. He ploughs on with the case regardless.

Meanwhile, the surviving replicants, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), persist in trying to get to Tyrell himself. They have been constructed with a drastically limited lifespan and their time is almost up. Can they find of way of extending their existence before the blade runner catches up with them?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner – it must be at least three or four – and, to be honest, of all the different versions of the film that have been in circulation over the years. On this occasion we were treated to The Final Cut from 2007, which is one of the ones without Harrison Ford’s voice-over. This is obviously a film of significant cultural importance, and I have never watched it and come away thinking it was outright bad. But at the same time I’ve never quite been able to see what all the fuss is about. I know at least one person who says this is their favourite film of all time (I once encountered them smoking a very nervous cigarette outside the cinema as they waited for the sequel to start), but… it always leaves me oddly indifferent. I have struggled to have a strong opinion about it of any kind. Part of the reason I went to see this revival was the hope that encountering it on the big screen might help me to finally connect with it.

And did this happen? Well, not really. There was obviously some additional amusement value this time around, simply because the film’s vision of the future is (joking apart) so much at odds with how things have actually turned out – although it turns out it was spot on about all this rain we’ve been having lately. Overall, though, no matter which version I see, I always have the same response to Blade Runner, which is the same one I have to a lot of Ridley Scott films, especially the early ones: this is a director obsessed with the visual impact of his films, to the point where the actual narrative suffers badly.

I don’t deny that Blade Runner is one of the most visually and striking and dense films of its time, and very influential as a result of this – although, as I have noted in the past, all of these dystopian urban hell-scapes ultimately find their roots in Lang’s Metropolis. The screen is packed with fascinating incidental detail, rather as in the first couple of stellar conflict movies, but this being a Scott movie the camera is inclined to dwell on these vistas rather than treat them as a casual backdrop to the ongoing narrative. Impressive though the look of the film is, it still strikes me that some of the imagery is remarkably clumsy in its symbolism: the theological subtext of Roy’s quest to meet his maker is quite obvious before we get to the point where he starts inflicting stigmata upon himself, and the moment with the dove is about as subtle as a brick through a window.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making a very pretty film, as long as the pictures don’t start eclipsing the story. Arguably, here they do: the plot, on reflection, is remarkably thin, with Deckard in particular coming across as a rather drab and only borderline sympathetic (not to mention competent) individual. Ford does his best with the material, but Deckard does recede into the scenery a bit. It probably doesn’t help that the typically offbeat elements of the character from Philip K Dick’s original book have almost all been excised (in the novel, Deckard is unhappily married to a wife obsessed with acquiring robotic animals, which represent a status symbol in their society – he spends a lot of the novel worrying about whether the bounty he will get for killing Roy and the others will allow him to buy her the replicant sheep she has her heart set on).

As a result, the film is dominated by Rutger Hauer’s striking (and one might even say career-defining) performance as Roy. As he himself admits, this is a character who does some very questionable things, but he still comes across as a vivid, sympathetic individual, perhaps the only one in the film. As noted, the film’s focus on the visual and aesthetic elements means that its more philosophical ideas get rather neglected – a shame, as this is the very purest kind of SF, reflecting on what it really means to be human – but Hauer manages, almost single-handed, to make you think about this.

So, well, maybe I did see something in Blade Runner that I didn’t before. I must confess I am one of those people who always preferred the original version anyway – the voice-over by Ford gave the film a kind of identity as a Chandler-esque private eye pastiche, which I thought gave it a sense of identity and a level of accessibility it wouldn’t necessarily otherwise possess. As a piece of visual art, and in terms of its production design, this is obviously a hugely successful and important film. But as a conventional drama it frequently feels underpowered and rather hollow; the surface detail is remarkable but beneath it there is a distinct lack of substance.

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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Hello, and welcome to another installment of what’s in danger of turning into Cinema Refurbishment World. This time our beady eye settles on the big screen at the coffeeshop in Oxford city centre, where all the seats in the balcony have just been replaced. Well, to be honest I’m not struck on the new chairs – I liked the old sofas with accompanying tablettes, and in the admittedly unlikely event of someone turning up who was prepared to be physically and emotionally intimate with me I would have enjoyed sharing a super-premiere sofa with them. As with so much else in life, not to be. Hey ho.

As it was, the first film I enjoyed (by myself) in an atmosphere smelling rather like the interior of a new car was Len Wiseman’s go at Total Recall. I myself can recall my mild surprise at seeing the cover of a movie magazine with the caption ‘Classic Sci-Fi Remake Special! Total Recall! RoboCop! Starship Troopers!‘ My friends, whether or not those movies constitute classic sci-fi is a knotty question, but it certainly constitutes a ‘Paul Verhoeven Remake Special!‘ To be honest, the 1990 Total Recall is my least favourite of the Dutchman’s excursions into SF, and I was further mildly surprised to discover it was being remade at all.

And it initially appears to have departed even further from Philip K Dick’s short story. My heart always sinks a little when an SF movie kicks off with captions and graphics setting up the backstory, but at least the backstory here is engagingly preposterous. The world has been devastated by chemical weapons (oooh) and become totally uninhabitable (ahhhh) except for two regions (phew): what appears to be an extremely small section of central London (put it this way, Big Ben’s in the habitable zone but the Post Office Tower isn’t) and an unspecified chunk of Australia. Needless to say, the United Federation of Britain (no, honestly) is oppressing the Colony (don’t get your hopes up, this is as deep as the political subtext gets).

Every day hundreds of workers from the Colony get up and commute all the way to London to work in the UFB’s factories making robocops (settle down, that remake’s not due until next year). That’s a bloomin’ long commute! you may be thinking. Yes, well, but they’ve taken a few hours off the trip by drilling through the centre of the Earth and installing an elevator. (More like a theme-park ride, really, but I digress.) Yes, twice a day people travel through the core of the planet to get to work and back. Wouldn’t it just make more sense to build the robocop factory closer to where the workers live? Ah, an elementary mistake: applying reason where it has no sway.

Amongst these workers is Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), a somewhat dissatisfied robocop welder despite the fact he is married to lovely nurse Lori (Kate Beckinsale), to whom – the movie implies in possibly its most startling moment – he is an intimately attentive husband. Feeling an odd sense of ennui Quaid trundles off to the dodgy Rekall clinic, where memories of wild fantasies can be electronically implanted. But zut alors! No sooner is he wired up than troops are flooding the place, and he finds himself shooting them up like a good ‘un. Things get even worse when his wife starts literally trying to kill him! Is this real or has the memory implant gone spectacularly tits-up?

Well, this is a big-budget remake made by a company called Original Film, but that’s about as close to irony as the movie gets. I’m tempted to say that the 1990 Schwarzenegger Recall was a big, daft, memorable movie with a big, daft, memorable star, while the 2012 Recall is a bland, good-looking, mindless movie with Colin Farrell, but this would be rather unfair to the lad, as he does the best he can with the material he is issued. The same goes for Jessica Biel as the love-interest, Beckinsale as their well-coiffured nemesis, Bill Nighy as silly-accented plot-device character, and the rest of the cast.

This would be the place to rail against the fact that Philip K Dick, one of my absolute favourite writers, has possibly the worst track record when it comes to adaptations of anyone in history – but after Screamers, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau, to name but three, this surely goes without saying (and all you Blade Runner fanboys can clear off too). Dick’s complex, quirky, deeply original and endlessly imaginative stories about the vicissitudes of modern living enter the Hollywood script machine and emerge transformed into formulaic chase movies featuring odd forms of transport and things blowing up.

And so it proves here. For much of the running time watching this movie is like watching someone else playing a video game, as it goes from protracted, complicated chase to plot-installing dialogue scene, then back to another long chase or action sequence, followed by Farrell getting another plot coupon… And the characters are so thin and the actual story so underdeveloped it’s all a bit boring. Apart from the most basic rudiments of the plot, very little from previous versions is retained (although, and what this says about the target audience I’ve no idea, the triple-breasted prostitute has been retained for no reason supported by the plot). Beckinsale’s part is considerably beefed up, for no reason I can detect – but this must have been nice for her, and also her husband, the director.

The movie pays lip service to the classic Dick themes of identity and reality being up for grabs, but it’s painfully obvious that the movie’s always going to opt for the simplest, most straightforward answer, because it’s equally obvious these moments are just inserted to try and give the film some kind of intellectual heft – the story isn’t about them the way it would be if this had been, say, Christopher Nolan’s Total Recall. This movie isn’t about the nature of identity or reality. It’s about Colin Farrell being chased around by Kate Beckinsale.

The intellectual vacuum at the heart of Total Recall extends to the basic set-up. The two main locales are called the United Federation of Britain and the Colony, but they may as well have been called Ning and Nong for all the relevance this has to the script. Everyone still has an American accent. The only effect this has is on the architecture and the basic look of the thing, which is admittedly impressive – both areas look rather more like the comic-book Mega-City One than the city in the new Dredd movie. But it’s just about appearances and design and movement rather than any kind of thought-through story.

I’m aware I’ve sort of gone off on one about a film which no-one surely had high hopes for anyway, but in every department but the art direction and production design this movie is just incredibly pedestrian and uninspired, without even Verhoeven’s mad energy  and excess to distinguish it (the 1990 film was an 18: this one inhabits the absolute top end of the 12 certificate). No-one seems to have made any effort to produce anything beyond an utterly vapid and mechanical runaround. It may be that things have got to the point where audiences simply don’t deserve any better, but I refuse to believe it – and even if we don’t deserve better, I’m damned certain Philip K Dick does.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 29th 2004: 

I don’t know about Daredevil 2… You’ll know my career is really on the slide when I start resurrecting the franchise. – Ben Affleck

For a writer who isn’t especially well-known out amongst the normal real-world public, Philip K Dick has achieved an odd sort of ubiquity when it comes to SF movies. Well, perhaps ‘ubiquitous’ is stretching it a bit, considering we’re talking about four movies in twenty or so years, but – off the top of my head – I can’t think of another writer in the genre with that kind of recent track record.

It doesn’t hurt that, broadly speaking, three of the four were quite well received – Blade Runner regularly scores in top ten popularity lists (although personally I haven’t much time for it and prefer the original cut – or, better yet, the source novel), Total Recall was a big smash hit, and Minority Report was rapturously hailed as a return to form for Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. However, the latest Dick movie, Paycheck, has arrived on UK screens to be met with notices verging on the toxic.

As director John Woo has many cheerleaders in the States (more likely as a result of his terrific Hong Kong-based movies than the rather mixed bag he’s presided over since going Hollywood), and this film isn’t utterly wretched, one can only presume the knives are out simply because Paycheck stars Ben Affleck. Ah, Ben Affleck. For a while now I’ve found having a pop at Ben to be a bit of a guilty pleasure, because in interviews and the like he comes across as a decent bloke with terrible instincts as to which scripts he should make.

This time round Ben plays Michael Jennings, a highly-paid expert in taking things to pieces and copying them. This is a much valued ability in the world of industrial espionage, but for Ben the downside – or maybe not – is that he has to have his memory of each assignment wiped after completing it (you can imagine the scene – ‘While you’re at it, could you get rid of Pearl Harbor, Gigli, and that full-page ad to J-Lo I put in the national press, please?’). His trusty sidekick Shorty (Paul Giamatti) is responsible for microwaving his brain on each occasion.

Ben is recruited by his old mate Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) to do a special job that will take three years to finish but earn him nearly a hundred million dollars. Ben is happy to sign up, especially as he has a bit of a thing for another of Eckhart’s employees, hatchet-faced biologist Rachel (played by that leading grand guignol comedienne of our time, Uma Thurman, in an unflattering hairstyle). However three years and one memory-wipe later Ben is alarmed to find he has chosen to waive his fee in favour of a envelope full of junk. It transpires that the pre-wipe Ben has built Eckhart a precognotron for seeing into the future, and, having sneaked a peek himself, has realised that the junk comprises the objects his future self will need in order to avoid meeting a sticky end at the hands of his evil boss…

Well, yes, it’s hokum of the highest order, but it’s an engaging enough idea and not without its’ thoughtful moments. While the plot bears similarities to Total Recall (hero has his memory messed about with) and Minority Report (hero sees vision of future he’s not too keen on), it’s closer to the former in style. This is just as well, as the lack of Minority Report‘s ponderous self-importance makes the occasionally incoherent plotting a lot less annoying. On the other hand, this never quite takes flight as a Hitchcock-style ‘innocent man in peril’ caper, as Ben’s character just isn’t likeable (or innocent) enough at the start of the movie for the audience to really warm to him. Ben himself turns in another stiff-upper-lipped performance. (In fact a lot of the time his entire face is utterly immobile.) But there’s not much meat here for any of the actors – Giamatti goes into twitchy overdrive as the comic relief, before vanishing entirely for most of the second half of the film, while quite a way down the cast list Joe Morton and Michael C Hall are solid enough as FBI agents chasing Ben.

There isn’t actually very much here to distinguish Paycheck as a John Woo film, except perhaps several scenes revolving around people sticking guns in each others’ faces, and an inexplicable sequence with a dove. The action isn’t that great and a long car-chase is actually rather pedestrian. But, as action techno-thrillers go, this is really pretty competent stuff, rather retro in an odd way (the suits and hairstyles of many characters look like seventies-vintage), quite well paced and not without some interesting ideas about memory and predestination.

But Ben’s clearly going to have to come up with something else if he wants to arrest his slide towards becoming the 21st century’s answer to Charlie Sheen [written long before it became clear that Charlie Sheen still had a lot to offer the world. Sort of – A]. If, as seems the case, mediocre movies are now getting completely trashed simply because he’s in them, it’ll have to be something special. A serious rethink is called for, or he’ll be slipping on the red leather jumpsuit sooner than he’d like…

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You know, I have abandoned any real hope of romance, pretty much forsworn general society, and have more or less relinquished any genuine creative ambitions. And yet I still trip hopefully along to the cinema every time a new adaptation of a Philip K Dick story comes out, despite the knowledge that the track record in this area is somewhat regrettable. I suppose I must simply be an incurable optimist.

The latest cause of this somewhat uncharacteristic behaviour is George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, which has arrived trailing the asking-for-trouble slogan ‘Bourne meets Inception‘. I suspect at least half of this is due to the presence in the leading role of Matt Damon. He plays up-and-coming politician David Webb Norris, whose career is experiencing a bit of a set-back. Then he has a brief encounter with faintly kooky dancer Elise (Emily Blunt), who inspires him to revitalise his career.

Years later he meets her again, seemingly by chance. He is delighted – but almost straight afterwards he encounters the peculiar agents of the titular Bureau. Possessed of the power to warp reality, they have been charged with seeing the Plan is correctly executed – basically, that everyone meets the correct destiny. Norris’s destiny is rather a prominent one – but Elise has no place in it, and their romance will not be tolerated. Norris’s protestations about this cut no ice and only the result in the assignation to his case of the ruthless and implacable adjuster Thompson (Terence ‘Kneel before Zod’ Stamp)…

Is this movie really ‘Bourne meets Inception‘? No, of course not. It doesn’t have anything like the lethal edge or sophistication of either, nor at heart does it really want them (I would suspect). Does that necessarily make it a bad movie? Well… no again. It’s polished and interesting and the leads are both very good. Attentive readers may recall the unkind things I said about Matt Damon around the time of the first Bourne, but he has grown on me considerably and is very good here. I enjoyed Emily Blunt’s performance in My Summer of Love very much, and it’s nice to see her getting on. In the early stages of the film they work wonders to keep it grounded and credible.

This is particularly important, because as it goes on the movie gets progressively loopier and more fantastical. There’s a chase sequence involving a magic hat (no, really) that almost seems to have been spliced in from a different picture entirely, but by this point you’re so invested in the characters you’re prepared to cut the film some slack. Well – to be completely honest you have to cut the film some slack right from the very start, but it rewards this by being fun and rather quirky in an understated way.

The plot is ever so slightly repetitive – Damon and Blunt repeatedly meet but are separated – and at times the film becomes a little trite and saccharine, particularly when it comes to the handling of the adjusters and their agenda. Some of the time they’re just guys doing a job, in a way which rings very true with the Dick canon in general – but Norris befriends one of them (played by Anthony Mackie) who info-dumps what’s going on in terms which manage to be bland and vague, but nevertheless suggestive of a feel-good spiritual message. The film never attacks the issue of what the objective of the Plan is, or what the real deal is with free will or the true nature of what’s happening, opting instead for a slick and fun romantic adventure. It’s not ‘Bourne meets Inception‘ as much as ‘The Matrix Reloaded meets an above-average rom-com of your choice (with a dash of A Matter of Life and Death thrown in)’.

So it’s not a great movie, but it’s more than passable entertainment. However, the fact remains that it is based on a Phil Dick story. Cards on the table: I revere Philip K Dick. I think his short stories in particular are mystifyingly, almost incomprehensibly brilliant – which makes the fact that most of the movies based on his work are lousy all the harder to accept. (No, I don’t even like Blade Runner much.) I suppose it’s partly because the short stories, by virtue of their very nature, deliver a concentrated hit of intense, mind-rattling weirdness. Blowing one of them up to the size of a full-length movie inevitably results in them being diluted and conventionalised and implacably dumbed down.

The story on which The Adjustment Bureau is based, Adjustment Team, has had the crap adapted out of it (as you will see should you check it out – being out-of-copyright, it’s freely available in various places on t’internet) and in some ways the very freeness of the adaptation softens the blow. The movie retains some of the paranoia and existential oddness of the best of Dick, but you’re not constantly reminded of the original story by character names or odd, fleeting plot elements (as in Total Recall, a particularly egregious offender). It’s essentially Dick Lite, but that’s better than no Dick at all, I suppose. And, as I said, on it’s own terms it’s a good bet for a fun night out.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 18th July 2002:

(Long and slightly pompous rant about Ridley Scott and Blade Runner has been snipped.)

…speaking of directors with God-like influence and adaptations of Philip K Dick stories brings me to Steven Spielberg’s latest offering, Minority Report. It’s another big-budget high-concept SF offering in a broadly similar vein to last year’s marvellous AI. This, however, is a slightly more conventional piece of work.

It’s the year 2054. Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, chief of Washington DC’s Precrime Division. Created by Cruise’s mentor Burgess (reliable old Max von Sydow), the Precime project has harnessed the psychic powers of a trio of genetically damaged children to chart the future and eradicate homicide. Anyone now intent on murder is now arrested and imprisoned (without trial, no less) hours or days before they actually commit the crime – Cruise and his team only need to show probable causality in order to bring their target in.

(Now this is a fairly far-fetched concept for an audience to swallow, as the potential for gross miscarriages of justice inherent in this set-up is obviously immense. However, the movie sells it well, helped no doubt by the fact that the real-life US seems to have adopted a vaguely similar system in recent months.)

With the success of Precrime in Washington DC, moves are afoot to introduce it on a national scale, and Anderton is bedevilled by an obnoxious Fed (Colin Farrell) intent on finding flaws in the operation. Strange gaps in the record of predictions are coming to light and (as if all that wasn’t enough) Anderton is haunted by the disappearance of his son and has a drug habit. But all this is nothing to the shock he gets when the pre-cogs announce that he’s going to murder a total stranger in less than two days time, and is forced to go on the run from his own men…

Using my own prophetic abilities, I forsee two schools of thought developing regarding Minority Report. One will be that this is a lofty-intentioned, very clever SF thriller with added chases, fist-fights and death-defying leaps to sugar the pill for the Saturday night popcorn audience. The other will be that this is just a remake of Logan’s Run or – God help us – Judge Dredd, with bogus intellectual pretensions.

There’s certainly evidence here to support both views. On the one hand there’s a complex, thoughtful plot (even if some of the causality is suspect), serious treatment of serious themes, a rich vein of eye – and vision- related subtext and some fantastically inventive moments. But on the other, there are all those chases and gunfights, and a general feeling of having seen it all before prevails as Cruise finds his belief in the system shaken, resolves to uncover the truth, etc, etc.

And to be honest Spielberg himself seems happy to swerve back and forth between the two styles, never managing to achieve the balance struck by – for example – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a film this in some ways resembles. Visually it’s all very striking, shot in washed-out blues and greys, with ILM providing the usual immaculate special effects… although I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t watching an advert for perfume or mobile phones. There are moments of sly, dark humour, but also ones of crass comic relief. And it seemed to me that to focus the film on Cruise’s loss and grief, rather than the moral and philosophical implications of the Precrime system, was rather a sentimental cop-out – also, the way the villain’s motivation isn’t meaningfully explored at all.

But as I say, it looks great, and Spielberg’s direction is as impeccable as ever. He’s re-employed some of the actors from TV’s Band of Brothers, who are both very good, and Samantha Morton has a lot of fun wailing and twitching and flopping about as one of the pre-cogs. The film does seems to go on forever, though.

Minority Report impressed me, but I couldn’t really warm to it. For all that it’s about emotions, it doesn’t really engage with them. It’s long, and cold, and I wouldn’t recommend taking kids to see it, but the quality of the concept, performances and direction make it a distinctly superior piece of work. That said, most people have raved about it unconditionally – so consider my qualified approval the minority review.

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