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Far Gone

Minority Report looks to the future, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys to the past.

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Even after nearly 30 years in the entertainment spotlight, Steven Spielberg remains a conundrum. He has massive mainstream commercial success but is consistently ignored or snubbed at the Academy Awards; film critics who may despise his occasional soft-headedness and political simplicity will often admit his technical mastery. Throughout his career, he has been accused of compromising his darker visions of violence, childhood, family, and the future through multiple filters that take the forms of allusions to (and direct swipes from) other films, hollow happy endings, and the mind-control overtures of composer John Williams. While Spielberg's latest film, Minority Report, still invokes and relies on these apparent escape hatches, it is also driven by the same horror and confusion surrounding the entertainment-technology complex that distinguished 1993's harrowing and heartless Jurassic Park and last year's haunting A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Strangely, Spielberg seems to be drawing power from these contradictions as he grows older: While far from perfect, both Jurassic Park and A.I. are among my favorite Spielberg films, and Minority Report belongs in their company. There probably won't be a smarter, more frightening, or more richly imagined popular entertainment all year.

Set in Washington, D.C., in 2054, Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as Chief John Anderton, a skilled and dedicated detective who works for the U.S. Justice Department's experimental Pre-Crime division founded by patrician-with-a-secret Lamar Burgess (the ageless Max von Sydow). Thanks to the efforts of Anderton, his colleagues, and three psychics (called Pre-Cogs) who have been drugged and conditioned to see murders before they occur, the nation's capital has had no murders in the last six years. When Justice Department representative Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) comes in to inspect the Pre-Crime complex for possible flaws on the eve of a national referendum to create similar departments across the country, Anderton is suddenly fingered as the murderer of a man he has never met. As Anderton tries to clear his name, he discovers new information about the subtleties of the Pre-Cogs' "hive mind" with help from dotty researcher Iris Hineman (Lois Smith), outwits and outruns his former teammates in the Pre-Crime division, and wrestles with the guilt he feels over his strained marriage to his wife Lara (Kathryn Morris) and the grief that comes from his conviction that he was responsible for their son's abduction.

Within this futuristic framework, Spielberg quickly reestablishes himself as the poet of the chase scene. The opening sequence, which shows the Pre-Crime division racing against the clock to piece together the location of a nondescript suburban home (and thus prevent a man from stabbing his unfaithful wife with a pair of scissors) is the most carefully orchestrated suspense set-piece Spielberg's ever created, invoking the best passages of both Alfred Hitchcock and D.W. Griffith but distinguishing itself through Spielberg's brilliant sense of framing and camera placement. Other close calls and narrow escapes incorporate jet-packs, magnetized vertical freeways, and mechanized auto factories, but the technical achievements, special effects, and grimy cinematography by Janusz Kaminski never overwhelm the spatial logic of each scene. No other filmmaker has ever been able to make such a claim so often or do so with such seeming effortlessness.

In fact, Minority Report's chase sequences are so imaginative and suspenseful that much of the timely philosophical inquiries made about the compromises of freedom in the name of safety and the parallels between successful state-enforced security and organized religion can either be put aside for later contemplation or dismissed altogether. (In contrast, much of what may have alienated audiences about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was its belligerent refusal to entertain on a purely sensory and spatial level, e.g., the wacky Saturday-matinee antics that surface throughout the Indiana Jones trilogy or the you-are-there carnage of Saving Private Ryan.) As Anderton discovers more and more troubling information about the system he believes in, fascinating questions about the Pre-Crime division are raised: Why is murder considered a metaphysical violation but suicide is perfectly acceptable? If Pre-Cogs occasionally disagree on accurate versions of certain events, then are they passive seers or active architects of the future? The second question is answered when Anderton abducts female Pre-Cog Agatha (Samantha Morton) and follows her instructions on eluding authorities in a giddy, frightening game of cat-and-mouse in a shopping mall. Frightened by the multiple futures she sees yet incapable of living in the present, Morton conceives her small role superbly: It's by far the most intriguing human element in the film.

The most interesting aspects of the film as a whole are its depiction of an organic, intrusive advertising culture -- billboards occupy the entire field of vision and are able to demand that you stop and enjoy a beer -- and the original source of the screenplay. The events of Minority Report are taken from a short story of the same name written by Philip K. Dick. Dick was an erratic but frequently brilliant author whose provocative ideas about subjective realities and alternate universes often outpaced his ability to resolve them. Since Scott Frank and Jon Cohen's script goes far beyond Dick's short story in both plot and science-fiction elements, the film's clumsy attempts to back away and tie up loose ends cannot be considered Dick's fault. But the choice of inspiration is telling: Since 1974, Spielberg has moved from the trashy genre fiction of Peter Benchley (Jaws) to the trashy genre fiction of Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) to the historical writings of Thomas Keneally (Schindler's List) to the countercultural and postcultural speculations of a generally acknowledged literary genius.

And as he grows older, Spielberg's visions grow darker and more complex. His two most recent films contain scenes as bleak and despairing as he's ever created: The series of events leading up to the fulfillment of Anderton's destiny in Minority Report have a terrible, inexorable power. However, the implications of Anderton's fate in the world he helped create are deflated by excessive plot complications and a false-positive ending that undermines a lot of the humanity and ambiguity that Cruise brings to his role. But in spite of their flaws, Spielberg's recent films show him evolving thematically, with a new emphasis on the breakdowns within social, political, and technological systems -- a recurring theme of the works of the late Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick's ghost looms larger in Spielberg's works now than it ever has, and some of Kubrick's famous chill and ambiguity are starting to rub off as well. The resulting work is indicative of an artistic future nobody could have predicted: Steven Spielberg fantasies capable of engaging the eye, mind, and heart all at once -- in that order.

-- Addison Engelking

Those coming into The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys expecting a coming-of-age action film about blossoming lads dodging the advances of ravenous priests will be mercifully disappointed. However, they might be intrigued by a glimpse into the mysteries of Catholic education that the film affords and may come away with just a little bit more insight into the modern complications that fundamentally trouble that faith.

I was raised Catholic and went to a private school through eighth grade. Nuns as teachers were all but extinct at my particular school, so I didn't get to experience the Nunzilla character depicted in the film. However, when my sister Lucia and I would become frustrated by something at school, our mother would entertain us with stories from her own Catholic girlhood. This was before Vatican II, so masses were still in Latin. Mom was particularly fond of stories about "Sister Mary Hitler" (name withheld to protect the celibate), who, daily, would frighten her students with horror stories of communist plots. Commies were everywhere, she would contend, and out to destroy Christ and the American Way. These warnings were as constant in the classroom as the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys takes place in the 1970s, a time that is in-between the extremes of my mother's indoctrination and today. The period was simpler. And director Peter Care has wisely chosen a gentle 1970s treatment to promote that point. Unlike most nostalgia films these days, the music of the day is used sparingly and judiciously. The cars, fashions, and haircuts are all we need to figure out just when and where we are.

Francis and Tim (Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin) are best friends whose creative and literary awakenings (comic books and William Blake, respectively) are discouraged by the prudishly stern, one-legged Sister Assumpta (a wasted Jodie Foster: all whispery bluster and no bang). Together with pals Wade and Joey, they band together to form the Atomic Trinity: a team of superheroes who battle -- in their fantasies -- the evil Peg Leg and her band of motorcycling hell-nuns. These fantasies are brought vividly to life in animation sequences chronicling the imagined battles and, as the movie gets more serious, their real struggles to become young men.

Along the way, Francis finds himself in a state of crush with classmate Margie (Jena Malone), who has a secret or two to hasten his growing up and understanding of how the world works in darker ways than we are raised to expect. Margie soon becomes a character in the Atomic Trinity adventure, since the black-and-white, good-and-evil world of comic book heroism is the only place where Francis can understand the real-life troubles that hurt Margie.

The young actors are great. Hirsch, in particular, is as real and complicated as adolescence requires, and his silences speak much louder than the words of most young actors. Culkin is a sly charmer here, showing some of the talent we might have seen from brother Macaulay had the elder's teen years not been wasted on Richie Rich and divorcing his parents.

This movie really only works when it isn't trying very hard. Scenes with the four boys just being boys are great. These scenes feature lots of hanging out, riding bikes, and talking about sex, about which none has a clue. These moments are the truest and most poignant in the film. The subplot with Margie is also honestly considered and never overplayed, showing Hirsch at his sensitive best.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys loses steam, however, when it tries to be an adult film. The world created by the boys is so complete and so charming that we lose interest immediately when the adults show up. Add to this an implausible prank subplot that goes awry and the contrived animated sequences (the boys' real-life battles are more interesting) and we wish that the film had left the altar boys to themselves and not tried to make their world any more dangerous than it already is. Puberty is hard enough. -- Bo List

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