This is part of an ongoing weekly series called “Freeze Frame,” where we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features.)
Pop quiz: When does concept overpower narrative? It’s a conflict that has always stymied sci-fi filmmakers; you want to create a unique, futuristic landscape, but when do all those details start to drown out the personalities and dramas occupying the foreground?
I found myself debating these very questions last week, when I marveled at the corporate-indentured-servitude themes of Repo Men (check out my review here), lamenting the fact that the film’s overt satire of health care run amok drowned out the great acting by both Jude Law and Forest Whitaker. And the curious case of Repo Men got me thinking of other movies – cough, Benjamin Button – where the larger thematic issues hindered, or even killed, the core story. (More at Techland: Toy Story 3’s gallery of new toys)
Caitlin Thompson, who you’ll know from our Nerdcasts, cited Minority Report as her example of mind over matter. (I think she wanted to cite A.I., but backed down knowing that I thought it was the best sci-fi film of the last decade). And to a limited degree, I have to agree. The closing moments of Minority Report were so focused in bringing every last classic noir element to a futuristic setting, that I suddenly found myself appreciating the whole thing more than really enjoying it. Gone were the characters and the emotions; they were now merely cogs in a great Spielberg film study experiment.
But I digress. The whole Minority Report discussion reminded me of an earlier scene in the same movie, that stands out as an example of the best ways in which sci-fi concepts can service the story. If I told you it was the “balloon scene,” I’m sure you know precisely where I’m going with this. (1:10 in the clip below)
The film is based around telepathic humans known as pre-cogs, who can foresee crimes before they occur. It’s a revolution in crime fighting, but when they implicate one of the cops, he snatches one psychic as a hostage and goes on the run. How could he be a criminal, he wonders; who has set me up – by fabricating this psychic vision? On the run from the cops in a land where retina scans ensure that anyone can be found anywhere at just about any time, Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton sprint through a crowded mall, looking for a place to hide. Morton tells Cruise to stop in the middle of the crowded promenade, promising that here they will be safe. Cruise’s eyes widen as the cops, still sprinting and not yet looking, surround them. And in a flash, this whole concept of telepathy is put to the test. Does Cruise really trust her, or does he think her vision is flawed?
So they stand still in the exposed lobby, just as a man carrying balloons stops in front of them, hiding them from view. The balloon man lingers while the agents scan the horizon, then as they turn to run elsewhere, the balloon moves on. It’s a chase sequence that plays out unlike any we’ve ever seen before, a thoroughly futuristic twist to one of cinema’s most tired conceits. The foot-chase that ends with our heroes standing still. And yet playing out here is a test of faith with far deeper implications: Cruise puts his faith in the pre-cog, and she saves his life. Now how he can dismiss her other vision, that frames him as a killer?
The best of sci-fi, about 60 minutes before the worst of sci-fi, all in one bundled Minority Report mess.
How about you? What sci-fi sequences do you think work the best, in taking a familiar concepts and spinning then forward into something new and novel? What films focused so much on concept that they forgot all about the basic need to entertain?
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