Minority Report, Jaws, War of the Worlds

Weekly DVD/Video Picks
Minority Report (2002)

Before War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s previous collaboration was another adult sci-fi thriller based on a story by a sci-fi novelist (Philip Dick). Part sci-fi, part whodunit noir thriller, part popcorn summer action, Minority Report touches on issues of moral and social freedom, but doesn’t get overly cerebral on the audience.

Set in a near future in which magnetically powered cars race along the sides of skyscrapers and ubiquitous retinal scanning technology is used for everything from subway access to direct marketing, the film’s central conceit is an experimental law-enforcement project called “Pre-Crime” aimed at preventing crimes before they happen.

The system seems perfect — until project head John Anderton (Tom Cruise) finds himself indicted for a crime he’ll allegedly commit in the near future. Brilliant action set pieces alternate with intriguing moral questions as Anderton tries to stay one step ahead of his own men.

Content advisory: Ordinary and sci-fi gunplay and other violence; fleeting depictions of real and illusory sex acts (no explicit nudity); illicit drug use; some profanity. Mature viewing.

Jaws (1975)

Newly re–leased in a new 30th anniversary DVD edition with new-to-DVD special features, including a making-of documentary and director interview, Steven Spielberg’s breakout hit was also the first true summer blockbuster, and — along with Star Wars — helped shift Hollywood’s center of gravity to the unabashed action-adventure thrills of movies like Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What makes Jaws work so well is a perfect storm of primal fears, emotionally riveting direction combined with sympathetic lead performances, and that immortal two-note theme from John Williams’ edgy score. Constant technical problems with the production’s five mechanical sharks (real shark footage was also used) famously wound up driving one of the film’s greatest strengths as the shark proved more terrifying when unseen.

Roy Scheider stars as the amiable, somewhat pliant landlubber chief of police who finds himself caught between the deadly shark and tourist-conscious leading citizens. He’s aided by Richard Dreyfuss as an intellectual rich kid and marine biologist who knows what they’re up against, and Robert Shaw as a burly caricature of an old salt with an Ahab-sized grudge against great white sharks.

Content advisory: Intense, bloody, somewhat graphic shark attack sequences; occasional profanity and crude language; brief shadowy nudity. Mature viewing.

War of the Worlds (1953)

Loosely based on the classic H.G. Wells story, Byron Haskin’s groundbreaking War of the Worlds is the father of all alien invasion movies, offering a worst-case-scenario alternative to the more idealistic visions of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (and Spielberg’s own Close Encounters and E.T.) of benevolent, enlightened aliens who come to commune rather than to conquer.

Combining cutting-edge 1950s visual and sound effects that hold up remarkably well with a rather pedestrian screenplay and stock characterizations, War of the Worlds is often viewed as an allegory of Cold War fears. Yet mankind’s utter helplessness in the face of overwhelming force, and passiveness in its eventual deliverance, make this an unsatisfying reading. Instead, the film’s overtly religious themes, emphasized by Catholic producer George Pal, become the defining framework in a story about divine providence and salvation for helpless humanity.

Content advisory: Much menace and large-scale sci-fi battle violence. Okay for kids.

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