In The Fugitive, an innocent Harrison Ford ran from the law and tried to catch the real bad guys. Matt Damon makes a similar run this week in The Bourne Identity, with one major difference—he is a killer (with amnesia, no less).
Meanwhile, Tom Cruise is running from the cops in Minority Report. He has an even tougher challenge. The evidence says that he will kill someone in the future.
There's running everywhere you look this week. Nicolas Cage is dodging bullets in World War II as he protects the life of a Navajo codebreaker in Windtalkers. And speaking of running and dodging: Scooby-Doo is running from critics, dodging bad reviews.
Few critics will be able to discuss Steven Spielberg's Minority Report without bringing up Blade Runner. Both futuristic sci-fi stories came from the same author, Phillip K. Dick. And both artfully explore questions about free will, revenge, human arrogance, technology, justice, mercy, and God. As if in acknowledgement of that, Spielberg begins his film almost identically: with a deeply resonant bass note and the title of the film against a black screen.
But after that, the film takes new directions. This is not Blade Runner's bleak, dark metropolis. It's a spacious, bright, open city dominated by technology and information, one that seems far more possible. Washington, D.C., is quite recognizable. The spiffy sci-fi cars that crowd future rush hours suggest this is the same future we saw in Spielberg's last film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The hi-tech tools of Minority Report's world are clever, impressive, and so bounteous that they become almost too distracting. Example: Advertising follows the hero everywhere, and because sensors can identify him easily, each audio commercial appeals to his attention by calling out his name.
Our hero is John Anderton (Tom Cruise), a D.C. policeman in the newly established "pre-crime" unit. Pre-crime works like this: a special trio of psychics foresees upcoming crimes. Then the cops rush to identify and apprehend the crook-to-be before the crime occurs. The system seems perfect. It's not. It's a human construct and thus there's a flaw somewhere. Anderton learns this the hard way when he's named as a pre-murderer. He panics, and thus the film's tagline: "Everybody runs." At this point, the film becomes a futuristic version of The Fugitive, with Cruise as the runner, while Colin Farrell plays the Tommy Lee Jones part as his pursuer.
Does "pre-crime" sound implausible? Not really, as Jeremy Lott (who has written for Christianity Today and Books & Culture) points out in Reason. Right now U.S. leaders are debating the ethics of pre-emptive strikes against rogue nations that have the potential to attack us but haven't yet. How far should we go to ensure our own safety? Do we have the right to violently punish people when we are only somewhat certain they intend to do harm?
Reviews for the film will pour in this weekend, and we'll scan through them next week. It will undoubtedly cause Spielberg's fans and critics to debate with the same vigor that characterized conversations about A.I.
My full review is posted at Looking Closer. I came out of the sneak preview eager to see it again. This is Spielberg's most entertaining and exciting film since Raiders of the Lost Ark. After a long spell with ponderous "issue" movies and the burden of completing a Kubrick project, Spielberg seems positively giddy to be back in action-movie mode. His imagination runs circles around other sci-fi filmmakers, and the supremely gifted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes those ideas beautiful to behold. A.I., their last collaboration, seems dull by comparison. Yet, as the visual wonders fly past, Spielberg accomplishes something that George Lucas doesn't—he builds the movie on the firm foundation of his actors, giving them visceral, compelling interaction, and drawing strong performances from the whole cast.
Through it all, you can feel Spielberg's three personalities wrestling: Spielberg the Entertainer supplies the adrenaline rush. Spielberg the Artist wants to raise challenging questions and trust the audience to think for itself. But Spielberg the Communicator wins in the end, overexplaining the complicated plot and the mystery's solution for the slowest member of the audience. I love Spielberg's achievement here, but once again I feel somewhat insulted as the end credits pass by. Half of the fun of a good detective yarn is sitting there figuring out "whodunit" and why. Spielberg never seems to trust us to do that, so he fills in as many gaps as he can before it's over. This lessens our reasons for seeing it again. It also slows the film's locomotive momentum. This unfortunate anticlimax leaves us preoccupied with whether the resolution makes logical sense, instead of inspiring us to think about the larger ethical questions. And yet there's so much to enjoy throughout the film, these few false notes should be easy to forgive.
Differences of opinion are already popping up online. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) could hardly contain himself: "My mind was churning with amazement and curiosity. [The movie] blindsides you with its brilliance." Richard Corliss (Time) calls it "Spielberg's sharpest, brawniest, most bustling entertainment since Raiders … and the finest of the season's action epics." Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) calls it "one of [Spielberg's] most compelling and entertaining films ever. He continues to push into new fictional terrain that is grittier, creepier, and edgier than the warm-and-fuzzy science fiction of his early career. Cruise … delivers one of his most controlled and suggestive performances."
"The film's success is in line with what American films historically have done best, which is to excitingly tell a strong story with high style and just enough substance," says Todd McCarthy (Variety). However, Minority Report may in the long run lack the resonance of Blade Runner and certainly 2001, because it is more prosaic than poetic, more concerned with narrative progress, precise predictions, and legalistic issues than larger notions of good and evil, fate and the grand scheme of things." And Scott Mantz (Moviemantz) says, "Minority Report is cold, convoluted and confusing. The story feels like it's being over-explained with too much information, and while everything does come together in the end, the effect of the payoff will depend upon how much moviegoers are able to retain along the way."
More next week.
Hot from the Oven
Last week, Film Forum offered an early look at The Bourne Identity. Over the weekend, other critics chimed in with their reviews of this slick new thriller from director Doug Liman. They disagree over whether Matt Damon has what it takes to play Jason Bourne, the amnesiac assassin who discovers that his employer is seeking to kill him. But everyone seems pleased with the dynamite supporting cast, especially Franka Potente (Run Lola Run).
Dan Buck (Relevant) looks at the film's impressive strengths. "Some films do great things that are remembered for years to come. The Bourne Identity, however, has its strengths in what it does not do. The natural tendency might be to try and outdo the other films with bigger stunts or outlandish characters. … Liman opts for more subtle methods of standing out. The film successfully incorporates the 'less is more' principle to its dialogue. Awkward, terrifying and even romantic moments are punctuated by absolute silence. No chatty characters, no jokes, often not even a musical score. It's a risky move. Few directors are comfortable with silence, but Liman uses it like an artist uses negative space."
Only religious press critics have spent much time pondering the film's perspectives on right and wrong, and its use of symbolism. While impressed with the craftsmanship, Buck is troubled by the film's perspective on morality. "The audience is left with a worldview that trusts no one and yet asks us to believe in love."
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) highlights multiple spiritual illustrations. "Jason learns that he has a tainted past … he was a sinner. His past sins threaten to create separation in the only friendship he has. He needs redemption and salvation from the past to gain new life. His past sin has resulted in his present death sentence. 'The wages of sin is death.' How can he be saved? Salvation begins with a relationship with Marie (a variation of Mary) who is unconditional in her favor and kindness (grace) towards Jason. Redeeming love."
Bruce also finds meaning in Bourne's search for identity. "Jason goes on a quest for truth. He needs to know who he is, where is he from, where is he going, and who his enemy is. As truth comes to light the darkness is dispelled. The evil ones are defeated. Truth sets him free. … Ludlum has come up with a character that embodies all the fundamental questions of life. I think I had a religious experience just sitting there in the movie theater!"
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) spotlights the excellent cast: "Damon succeeds not only in making his character a credible super-operative, but also in humanizing him and making him sympathetic in spite of who and what he seems to be, while Potente is equally persuasive in conveying both the fear and the attraction Jason inspires in her character. Their relationship is credible and even involving, if deeply problematic. The Bourne Identity … might easily have aspired to be something more; but by the same token it could easily have wound up being something less. It sets medium-range goals for itself, and nails them solidly."
Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) calls it "Well-crafted and intelligent (mostly) … topnotch entertainment." But he complains that it becomes "excessively violent, extremely loud, and with the usual amount of objectionable language and sexuality replacing thoughtful dialogue and romantic interludes."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) credits "the taut direction of Doug Liman … the crisp editing of Saar Klein … and the solid performance of Matt Damon." But he faults the scriptwriters: "Their treatment contains a fair number of plot holes and leaves a few significant questions unanswered. Such inconsistencies, however, are only momentarily frustrating and, as we choose to ignore them, the engrossing situations which the characters face will draw us back into the story."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "the perfect movie for those who can appreciate a well-written thriller. [Liman] knows how to create and build tension in every scene. I enjoyed this intense, action-packed, satisfying thriller, and I can assure you, you'll be thoroughly entertained!"
A critic at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "The energetic camera work keeps apace with the narrative's quick twists and turns, and for the most part the action doesn't let up. The Bourne Identity is a basic spy story that's been intelligently updated without switching story for gadgetry."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) disagrees: "It's hard to see … that this movie will appeal to anyone with any sensibility." He says it might appeal to "teenagers who feel alienated or who love violent video games." And Paul Bicking (Preview) rejects the film for "frequent and sometimes graphic violence … [and] tasteless vocabulary."
Mainstream critics are split. Charles Taylor (Salon.com) raves, "Liman manages a certain tough-mindedness here without giving in to cynicism or hopelessness. … The Bourne Identity invokes a different kind of nostalgia: the memory of what it's like to go to a Hollywood movie and be treated with decency."
Roger Ebert says, "Liman … directs the traffic well, gets a nice wintry look from his locations, absorbs us with the movie's spycraft, and uses Damon's ability to be focused and sincere. There comes a point at which we realize there will be no higher level to the screenplay, no greater purpose than to expend this kinetic energy. I kind of enjoyed The Bourne Identity. I had to put my mind on hold, but I was able to. I am less disturbed by action movies like this, which are frankly about nothing, than by action movies like Windtalkers, which pretend to be about something and then cop out."
Speaking of Windtalkers, critics are bemoaning what could have been an affecting story about the influence of Native Americans in the America's World War II efforts. Instead, many are claiming that director John Woo (The Killer, Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2) has turned it into two hours of excruciating, gratuitous violence, reducing the cultural story to merely a useful plot device.
Peter T. Chattaway (Vancouver Courier) says, "The violence takes place on such a grand scale that it dwarfs the characters, who are, after all, just cogs in a larger military machine. [Woo] … wants this to be a brutally realistic war movie, in the mold of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, and the resulting barrage of sound and fury, with occasional heroics thrown in for good measure, grows numbing." Similarly, the USCCB's critic finds it "a monotonous, bloody World War II drama that fails to move the viewer despite the story's historical relevance."
Phil Boatwright is also bothered by "bodies blown apart, flamethrowers setting countless stuntmen ablaze, and if something can be severed, it gets severed." But he adds, "Woo is a magician with imagery, giving the film an incredible look. The acting is superb. And it's nice to see a film concerning cowboys and Indians on the same side."
Ed Crumley (Preview) describes the film as cursed with "too many curses, graphic explosions, and war violence, and lame dialogue."
Lisa Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) argue, "The decisions these soldiers face are resolved in a way that stresses sacrifice, heroism, and saving lives in a just cause. Windtalkers seems to have a solid Christian worldview." But they complain that "the movie could have used a stronger focus on God, not to mention Jesus Christ."
Mainstream critics were similarly troubled. Roger Ebert makes his contempt for the film clear: "Windtalkers comes advertised as the saga of how Navajo Indians used their language to create an unbreakable code that helped win World War II. That's a fascinating, little-known story and might have made a good movie. Alas, the filmmakers have buried it beneath battlefield clichés, while centering the story on a white character. Why does Hollywood find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories? The Navajo code talkers have waited a long time to have their story told. Too bad it appears here merely as a gimmick in an action picture."
The theme song for the Scooby-Doo television cartoon inquired, "Scooby-Doo—where are you?" The theme song for the new live-action feature film (by Christian crossover act MxPx) could ask, "Scooby-Doo, where are your good reviews?"
Nobody has ever considered Scooby-Doo fine art. But the innocuous television series, which features a gang of dimwitted kids running from phantoms and ghostly bad guys, was never offensive. It was just dumb. In the film, Scooby has become another excuse to show off digital animation. And human companions have been transformed into a crass, degenerate lot. Thus, I have yet to see a review that recommends this film as a good choice for the family.
Mary Draughon (Preview) objects to "drug references … form-fitting outfits that reveal and emphasize cleavage … flatulence … scary occult phenomena, and drug use."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Director Raja Gosnell … keeps things light and frivolous, although it would appear that the target audience he is interested in attracting are those who have grown up with Scooby rather than today's youngsters. I can't imagine any producer or director purposely including as much cleavage as fills this screen with the intent of attracting the under-10 set."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Morally and artistically, it's a chaotic mess. Scooby-Doo seems to have been made by people familiar with the cartoon, but with little affection for it—or for the trusting families of younger children sure to be blindsided by its scary action and joyless satire."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says it "violates some of the principles that made the original television series so popular. The violence at times is too intense. The college weekend is too salacious. Some of the scary moments are over the top for a children's movie. Furthermore, the phantasmic protoplasm monsters are real, breaking one of the cardinal rules of the Scooby-Doo series." But Baehr distinguishes himself as perhaps the only critic to praise Freddie Prinze Jr. performance as "terrific."
Phil Boatwright finds it odd that people would accuse the film of being worse than the cartoon. "It was and remains obnoxious television. Now that it has been turned into a big-budgeted enterprise starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her gnome-ish real-life boyfriend, I'm convinced that there is no longer hope for future generations. It's merely a matter of time before society reverts to cave dwelling. The only comic in the bunch is Rowan Atkinson and he's not given anything to do. Good thinking, Warner Bros."
Mainstream critics got creative with their putdowns. Dave Poland (The Hot Button) says, "I almost want to see the movie again to be sure that it is as completely devoid of value as I feel it is." And Meg van Huygen (The Stranger) calls it "insulting and excruciating … an innocent cartoon has been defiled for no reason. Fred and Daphne have this sexual undercurrent, Shaggy and Scooby have a fart contest, and Velma gets drunk with some dude. It's cheap and desperate."
Atheism Served Up for Kids
Changing the subject from film to literature for just a moment, there's a new fantasy series gaining popularity with young readers. While it didn't arrive with the promotional hype of Harry Potter, Phillip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials has won a lot of awards in the past few years (including the coveted Whitbread Prize). And its readership is growing. Booksellers have caught on a little late, and are promoting it vigorously now. It tells the story of a little girl who lives in an alternate-reality Oxford. Lyra is a compulsive liar, and her lies entangle her in the wicked doings of the grownups at the college. The grownups are persecuting children, stripping them of their imaginations, which they then use to power engines of war in an attack against God. But as the trilogy continues, our sympathies are changed, and we end up rooting for the God-killers.
While some Christians have gone ballistic with protests because they suspect a hidden occultic message in Harry Potter, there has been almost zero conversation about these books, which have an agenda that is anything but hidden. Pullman regularly admits, even boasts, that his series is a blatant, calculated attack on Christianity. He also declares that he wrote it to counteract the influence of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. (He claims Lewis's fantasy series promotes racism and is degrading to women.) And, yes, Pullman's alternative fantasy is written for children.
This week, Gene Edward Veith (World) cautions us about this new fantasy series. He writes, "Mr. Pullman's real objection to Lewis's children's books is that they are 'propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in.' That is, that they are Christian. It is true that Lewis intended his stories to teach children Christianity, although they surely are more than mere 'propaganda.' The irony is that Mr. Pullman's children's stories really are propaganda for his religion, namely, a militant and slightly mystical atheism."
Why bring up this brewing controversy here at Film Forum? You've probably already guessed: the movie adaptations are already headed into production (the first is The Golden Compass). Soon, a weak and wimpy God will be overthrown at a theater near you. The hero and heroine will go to the Garden of Eden, and eating the apple will be their triumph. And all the while, kids will watch wide-eyed.
Having been drawn in and enthralled by the first volume, I was wounded by the way the story turned mean-spirited and malicious, confusing the church's historical missteps with the love of Jesus Christ and condemning both. By the conclusion of the trilogy, characterization, subtlety, humor, and whimsy have all been left by the wayside so that Pullman can preach his own anti-gospel. That's not art. In the end, Pullman is clearly guilty of the very accusations he hurls at Lewis—propagandizing and prejudice. Christians likely will not be the only ones to see this rather obvious point.
Christians are undoubtedly going to be upset about the films. But how should we respond to such a problem? Should we start picketing? Should churches host book-burnings in their parking lots? Should we start making videos criticizing Phillip Pullman? Should we read the book to our children, explaining the problems with the author's worldview?
I'm interested in your responses. How will you prepare your family for the imminent wave of Golden Compass-mania?
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