July 17, 2002


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Do moguls dream of Philip K. Dick?
On Minority Report's total recall.
By Chuck Stephens

'CONSIDER THAT A divorce," growls Arnold Schwarzenegger, talking to the bullet hole he's just put in Sharon Stone's forehead. It's 1990, and director Paul Verhoeven has just turned a perfectly paranoid Philip K. Dick short story called "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" into the tumescent actioner Total Recall. The blond, Spandex-clad Stone has just been revealed as a vituperative double agent – a mole who's been sharing the walnut-headed muscle mountain's bed in order to keep him from remembering his other life and other wife, somewhere back on Mars – and Arnold, understandably, is pissed.

Were Dick – dead these past 20 years since the 1982 cine-season of director Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the first of Dick's writings to be masticated by Hollywood's savage maw – to wake up this morning and find himself in bed with Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, he might be reaching for that divorce gun himself. After all, though Dick – who started out his career as a writer so poor he'd sometimes sustain himself with dog-food burgers purchased at the Lucky Dog pet shop in Berkeley – might have enjoyed the bump in entertainment budgeting his posthumous career in Hollywood could now afford him, just how cozy would he have felt next to the top-gun bedfellows who made the film version of his short story "Minority Report" possible? Shouldn't the starship troopers sworn to protect Dick's subversive legacy be thinking about plummeting through the bedroom ceiling over at DreamWorks right now – just as they do in Minority Report's opening set piece – ready to keep megastardom's grubby paws off our revered prince of paranoia?

It would be a pre-crime if they did.

As it turns out, the world is an even stranger place than Dick might have wanted to admit, and Minority Report just happens to be the weirdest, darkest Hollywood blockbuster of the summer. A credit to both the suggestiveness and the resilience of Dick's fiction – which, it must be admitted, is often filled with a level of flotsam all its own: space toys and robo-cops doing double duty as niche-market sales agents for volumes limned with darker thoughts, like the peeling edges of poorly laminated realities – and to the ever more adventuresome careers of Cruise and Spielberg, it's a turbulent circus of little big ideas and crass media auto-critique. Marked everywhere by the impressions left on the director and his star by their associations with Stanley Kubrick – who taught Cruise the value of critical self-reflection and Spielberg the potential of darkening up his yarns of wayward youth – it's also a film of world-splitting loose ends and suggestive cracked-mirror ruminations.

Read it as a parable for these Ashcroftian times if you must (though Spielberg himself jettisoned the original story's military coup component), but the real value of Minority Report lies not in its ostensible timeliness but in its surplus of superimposed and usually indigestible details. Indeed, the whole film – like its audacious central visual device, a Plexiglas editing console where precognitive visions of future crimes are "scrubbed" (edited) together from palimpsests of possible angles and probable futures – is an unfinished symphony for the Final Cut Pro generation. Picture Cruise cutting together those crime symphonies in his Risky Business-wear (dress shirt, boxer shorts, tube socks), and the whole thing quickly comes down to size.

As the film's imperiled top cop, Cruise's John Anderton seems far less a typically Dickian hero ("I'm getting bald. Bald and fat and old" is the character's first utterance in the original story) than a reinvention of America's Most Wanted host John Walsh, he of the long-ago abducted-and-murdered son and subsequent career of frothing, Fox-sponsored incarcerationism. Go on from there to imagine the whole shebang as a wayward episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets, with Richard Belzer replaced by Samantha Morton's wet-T-shirted precog and everything photographed in a color palette of ethereal iMac blue and tarted up with streaming dust-light and gaseous blurs – it'll come as no surprise when Spielberg allows the Cops fanfare to cascade in during one particularly overburdened scene. But what in the world is Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo doing playing on the flop-house wall screen of the crackpot optician who swaps out Cruise's eyeballs? And why does everyone keep grabbing Cruise's ass or copping a quick kiss?

A continuation of the ex-Cruise-iations found in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky – a Dickian pop song of a film, complete with visions of the afterlife as a venue for "cryo-tainment" and a resurrected dog named Bennie who becomes Cruise's media-world alter ego – Minority Report again meditates on the fate of its featured player's face. Where Crowe (who could surely have sympathized with Dick's fascination with Linda Ronstadt, even as he was in the midst of picking apart the gnostic residue of the Nixon era) turned Cruise's mug into a car wreck of grafted flesh – and took the whole thing deeply seriously – Spielberg (who gets a flesh-pressing cameo in Vanilla Sky) plucks the actor's eyes out of his head, forces him to drink curdled milk, turns his face to silly putty, and then, like an episode of Mr. Bean, choreographs him chasing his own runaway optics down a fun-house hallway toward a slapstick sewer grating.

"There is a retrogressive quality in their lives," Dick once wrote of the exigencies his characters often undergo. "They're living like our ancestors did. I mean, the hardware is in the future, the scenery's in the future, but the situations are really from the past."

Likewise, Spielberg's Dick-vision is saddled with previsions. From the Clockwork Orange eyelid ratchets Cruise is forced to endure to Minority Report's crime-solving editing array – an expansion of the photo-reading device Harrison Ford uses in Blade Runner to peer deep into a two-dimensional image and look impossibly around corners in a physics-free photographic space – everything here feels seen for the second time, including, during a pursuit through a gauzy shopping mall, the appearance of a balloon vendor that suddenly chases the whole image chain back to its Blowup roots. The history of Dick-in-Hollywood just keeps getting stranger and stranger, folding in on itself and peering up its own ass. Watching Minority Report a second time, I couldn't help flashing back on the central trope of Total Recall: Arnold, oxygen-deprived on the unforgiving surface of Mars, his eyes bulging out of his skull. Spielberg one-ups him, slapping Cruise's eyes right out of his head.

Simultaneously honored and abominated by his Hollywood legacy, Dick now seems to be everyone's crash-test dummy and all-purpose voodoo doll, even if he anticipated it all along. "What's got to be gotten over," this visionary/crackpot/paranoid/genius once wrote, "is the false idea that a hallucination is a private matter. Not hallucination but joint hallucination is my topic." Time may still, in Dick's own phraseology, be distinctly out of joint, but as far as the joint-hallucination machine called Hollywood is concerned, it's still, for better or worse, very much on his side. 'Minority Report' is playing at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.