Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tom Cruise and Tech-Noir

I've now advanced to the point where, instead of watching only movies that come out in the $5.00 bin at Wal-Mart, I actually rent them online, through a company that shall remain nameless, because I haven't been paid for an advertisement, although it isn't one whose CEO publicly insults the intelligence of its American patrons. Now, generally these movies consist of either sci-fi action flicks from the eighties — preferably with my favorite actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (no, really) — or else Japanese kaiju films, because what I really like is film noir, and it isn't easy to find obscure noir titles available for streaming. But last night I got out of my rut by renting a more recent sci-fi action flick, and that despite its having my least favorite actor, Tom Cruise; the reason being that the flick in question has frequently been described as neo-noir or tech-noir, and was based on a Philip K. Dick story.

I speak, of course, of The Minority Report. Alas, it disappointed in the film noir department. Before I get to that, though, let me discuss…product placement.

Off the top of my head, I saw ads — not just products, but overt ads — for Lexus, Guinness, The Gap, Aquafina, Pepsi… The neat thing about advertisements in the dystopian future is that they scan your eyes so as to tailor their annoying, intrusive, soul-crushing distractions specifically to you, in public places. Now, think about this. We all know what it's like to have Google or Facebook or whatnot try to guess what we're into and adapt their ads accordingly, with sometimes rather mortifying results. Can you imagine a giant animated billboard shouting at you—using your own first name—while you're drifting along with a crowd of strangers, blasting something like: "HEY JOHN WE KNOW YOU SUFFER FROM INCONTINENCE WHY NOT TRY DEPENDS FOR A CHANGE?" Yeah. I mean, would there be an Adblocker for that? And, if that future Adblocker began working so well that it threatened to burst the public advertising bubble, would it begin admitting certain ads so that the world as we know it wouldn't come crashing down around our ears in a case of the parasite killing the host and, thus, itself? But I digress. What I really want to know is why these mega-corporations thought such product placement was a good idea. Do they want to be seen as intrusive, soul-crushing mega-corporations that stalk you every waking moment of every day? Apparently!

This might all seem like a quibble, but I think it says something about the sold-out nature of the movie and of Hollywood in general. The ads obviously aren't intended as dystopian satire, although Spielberg does leave that escape route open to himself, despite having taken whatever money he took to place them in the movie in the first place. How much more cynical can you get? Placing soul-crushing advertisements under cover of satirizing soul-crushing advertisements! Compare it with the true tech-noir, Blade Runner. We do see obtrusive advertisement in Blade Runner, but it's presented as dreary, frightening, and/or weird. Yes, there are some actual brands here and there, but they stay where they're supposed to: in the story.

The comparison with Blade Runner is an apt one. It is, as I said, the true tech-noir. It maintains emotional detachment. It follows an unsympathetic protagonist through a dirty job and a twisted romance with one of the replicants he's assigned to destroy. It closes without closure, bringing the plot to a logical conclusion while leaving you in the air regarding the protagonist's destiny (or identity). It definitely stands in the line of Kiss Me Deadly and The Maltese Falcon.

This is the kind of picture Hollywood is afraid to present us with now, on a large budget at any rate. It can't give us a seemingly unsympathetic character without making sure we know it's only skin deep and stems from some awful tragedy that the character will get over by the end of the film. Another movie that masquerades as noir — L. A. Confidential — shows the same squeamishness. The two movies — L. A. Confidential and The Minority Report — actually have a lot in common, including pivotal scenes and plot elements. That's neither here nor there, perhaps, but at any rate they share this merely superficial resemblance to film noir. The Minority Report borrows classical music from Kiss Me Deadly, makes a variety of nods to various noir motifs, uses a desaturated palette, etc. But just as it takes more than bleached-out filmstrips to approach the stylistic marks of film noir, so does it take a lot more than an emotionally justified substance-abuse problem to make a true noir protagonist.

As an aside, I find it remarkable that, under the restrictions of the Hays Code, Hollywood could plumb the very depths of human depravity — sure, sometimes you have to read between the lines, but it's definitely there — while in our more liberal time it can show you a lot more, but to little effect, because it's evidently lost its sense of good and evil and their dirty mixture in a man's soul. Characters like Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan can't exist anymore. Everyone is a white hat or a black hat, and writers think they're being profound when they reveal a white hat to have secretly been a black hat all along.

More generally, The Minority Report doesn't take up the challenge it sets itself. It has the potential to ask profound questions about time and free will, but is content with letting the protagonist run around trying to clear his name. The philosophical difficulties with using precogs to prevent crimes and incarcerate the would-be offenders are raised but left more or less to the side; in the end the program is shut down because it happened to screw up. This is Philip K. Dick turned it into a Mission Impossible adventure story with a happy ending; indeed, the specific questions Dick raises are lost in the shuffle. And yes, I've heard the argument that the protagonist is hallucinating the last scenes while in deep freeze or whatever, but I don't buy it. If you ask me, it's just another way the movie compromises its principles while leaving an out for the cultists.

All that said, it's not a bad movie. I don't understand the praise lavished upon it, but I enjoyed watching it. The plot holes, though numerous, aren't that obvious, and the backdrops are quite memorable. The technology really does seem prescient at some points. There are a lot of nice little touches, like the dancing figures on the cereal box that won't turn off like they're supposed to. So, if you're reading this (!), and hanging on my very words (!!), I would say, watch it if you haven't. Just don't expect Blade Runner.

And if you're really wanting to see a great Spielberg movie, go watch Duel. That's where it's at.

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