Minority Report at 10

Some of cinema’s most awesome sights are those that envision our future.

Minority Report
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Some of cinema’s most awesome sights are those that envision our future. Movies have routinely taken a look at where we’ll be decades, sometimes centuries, from now. And while these visions have captured our imaginations (from Metropolis’s towering skyscrapers and lumbering archways suspended thousands of feet over ground to Blade Runner’s perpetual rainfall over neon-lit urban decay), their accuracy has been sketchy. To be fair, not all of these movies necessarily tried to foster authentic versions of the future. Nevertheless, the near-deficiency of believable futuristic settings in the cinema speaks to the slippery slope of anticipating cultural, technological, and architectural components that are in constant flux. It’s with some bit of irony, then, that a movie about visualizing the future has produced a vision of society decades from now that continues to gain legitimacy, even as the work itself slips further into the past.

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. And though it grossed only $132 million in 2002 (a low number considering the actor-director pedigree of Spielberg and pre-meltdown Tom Cruise), it’s left a legacy few contemporary blockbusters can touch. No doubt, the film’s increasingly relevant depiction of mid-21st-century society plays a significant role in its growing presence in the cultural movie lexicon. But the film is more so a staggering achievement for precisely how it places the future it conjures in motion with storytelling’s past. Minority Report straddles the divide of classicism and futurism, serving up a decidedly old-fashioned noir detective story in a modern sheer. And the combination proves virtuoso, as the film is every bit as much about a future world in decay as it is our own world now; except, unlike other films that exaggerate their vision of the future and rely more stringently on allegory, Minority Report brandishes in its own kind of surrealistic realism and offers a layered narrative surface, to boot.

To begin unpacking Minority Report’s intricacies, let’s first start with its compact prologue. Grainy, distorted images of a passionate encounter between a man and woman are juxtaposed with images of their brutal murder. Slowed-down and sped up without rhythm, these visions appear plucked out of time. As it turns out, they tell a story that the next 15 minutes of the film renders in real time. We learn that the grisly images are envisioned by a woman known as a “pre-cog” (for pre-cognition). Along with two others, she sits in a tank with sensors placed on her head to read the data of her nightmares. The images are then projected like cinema onto screens at the Department of Pre-Crime and navigated by Detective John Anderton (Cruise). In a room surrounded by curved glass surfaces, Anderton conducts a symphony of images, using his hands and arms to swipe images in and out and over one another to determine a geographical location of the murder’s occurring.

Apart from setting the scene and establishing a host of thematic undercurrents that the film later mines, the opening scenes of Minority Report institute several disquieting contrasts, the most significant of which is the government’s cold co-opting of natural phenomena. Of course, the notion of seeing the future is ludicrous, but that’s not really the point. Minority Report is more concerned with how exactly a miracle of science is exploited. That three pre-cogs can see the future is just the beginning of a long, mechanical process by which cops extract information and make arrests before they occur. Day and night, the pre-cogs lay imprisoned in liquid (a conductor that helps to “enhance the images,” as the tech later explains), against their will, dreaming up images of murder, all for the sake of fulfilling the collective dream of a safer world. “It’s better if you don’t think of them as human,” Anderton explains. (Despite the far-fetched concept behind the plot, the film tenders an intriguing explanation for how the pre-cogs acquired their “gifts” in a scene where Pre-Crime’s unofficial creator, played by Lois Smith, tells Anderton the true story of its evolution.)

But it turns out that government isn’t the only body watching over us in Spielberg’s film. Private interests are doing the same thing. Everywhere you go, eye scanners track your consumption habits. Thus, when omnipresent transparent advertisements whoosh by your face in shopping malls and on the street, they’re often accompanied by personalized audio and graphics. This is a hallmark of communication in Minority Report’s vision of America circa 2054, when desires will be commodified and our memories will be compressed into flickering holograms for our summoning, as Anderton does early in the film with memories of his divorced wife and deceased son. Although these are background elements in the film, they resonate with an increasingly eerie prescience in today’s iPad age of digital exchange. Even more fascinating than the portrait of technology the film serves up is how citizens have mostly accepted governmental and corporate dominion over them via technology. An especially striking expression of this is a scene in which Pre-Crime unleashes mechanical “spyders” into an apartment complex in a poor district known as the Sprawl. As the spyders maneuver about the building in a single, brilliant overhead shot, they scan the eyes of various residents, all of whom willingly, if also fearfully, submit themselves to the process. This is one of Minority Report’s many lucid visions of society in a state catatonia. People need not engage the world in this version of the future, but rather subject themselves to the technology that renders it livable.

John Anderton does more than merely react to this world though. He’s the sheriff of our most unhinged dreams, lassoing criminals before they commit crimes. Fueled by personal loss, Anderton’s blind allegiance to the system becomes the source of his undoing. He soon finds himself on the run for the future-murder of a man who he hasn’t met. Just as all of his potential perpetrators do, Anderton openly resists the charge and tries to prove his innocence. This is where Minority Report interpolates the well-known Hitchcockian premise of an innocent man on the run. But Spielberg gets surprisingly good mileage from the familiar device, both from the standpoint of his formal prowess and how he plays it against the film’s central conceit. In addition to wading into ethics of a system that requires members of society to buy into the results and turn a blind eye to the process, Spielberg digs deeper into the visceral feeling of escape and survival that permeates the film’s middle section. That’s due in part for his eye and ear for detail and the screenplay’s dissemination of brilliant dialogue.

Take, for example, the scene right before the start of the jetpack chase: After being cornered in an alley and surrounded by his former team, Anderton, out of breath, shares an uncomfortably pleasant exchange with his old friend and now-leader of the group, Fletcher (Neal McDonough): “Hey, Fletch,” says Anderton. Fletcher responds in a similar awkward tone. Still catching his breath, Anderton then smirks and says: “That was a rough landing. Have to work on that,” to which Fletcher wryly responds, “Eh, you know, it’s that old shit knee of mine.” After a short pause, Fletcher says to Anderton, “Don’t do it.”

Spielberg frames all these wider shots from slightly low angles, and then cuts to a slightly shaky close-up of Fletcher, more directly engaging Anderton: “Hey, don’t do this. John…don’t run.” Concerned with planning his own escape route, Anderton looks up and tells him, “You don’t have to chase me.” This prompts Fletcher to nervously laugh through his the response, “You don’t have to run,” as if the reality is setting in that he’s about to attempt to arrest his former boss with force.

Then Spielberg cuts to wider shot, but one that is more closed, with Fletcher in the background to John’s right in the frame and another Pre-Crime officer in the left foreground. The two enclose the space around him, as Cruises gives one of his more memorable deliveries, as he looks away and says with robotic inevitability, “Everybody runs, Fletch. Everybody runs.” (Ironically, “Everybody Runs” turned into the film’s catchphrase, which, as such, is exceptionally bland. However, within the context of the scene and the thematic make-up of the movie, it’s a rather perfect punctuation of the intersection of ethics and immediacy the film so expertly evokes.) What follows is a series of action set pieces that sees Anderton narrowly escape Pre-Crime’s pursuit, during which Spielberg’s camera finds an odd middle ground between classical framing and the budding chaos aesthetic that’s since become a relentless fad in contemporary big-budget filmmaking. (Last year, I wrote about the film’s interplay of classicism and chaos in a response to the popular critical dialogue on the subject.)

Action aesthetics aside, the subtleties of how masterfully the set piece is set up is worth noting. The short exchange between Fletcher and Anderton could have easily been rendered a pretentious throwaway in the hands of a lesser director. Spielberg and his actors instead fill it with human moments that both diffuse tension and ratchet it up.

Minority Report is filled with these sorts of encounters, notably with characters that have little bearing on the broader story. From the monotoned centurion called Gideon (Tim Blake Nelson) to the phlegmy plastic surgeon (Peter Stormare) that replaces Anderton’s eyes, the film boasts a bevy of memorable one-scene characters. It also has sub-characters who appear throughout, like the aforementioned Fletcher, Anderton’s wife Lara (Kathyrn Morris), Pre-Crime Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), and various other Pre-Crime members. All of these individuals have dimension and personality, no matter how long they are on screen. Even the pompous Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) eventually shows humanity before reaching the bittersweet end of his part in the story. Perhaps more than any other Spielberg film since Jaws, Minority Report offers an array of colorful characters, and although only few are developed enough to be considered full-bodied, each of them is colorfully written and portrayed. As for Cruise, he holds his own as the straight man. He’s given some meat with the role of a guilt-stricken father and husband and he delivers some touching moments, particularly early in the film when he’s doping alone in his apartment.

And yet, overshadowing what may be Tom Cruise’s best screen performance is the film’s Vertigo-like turn more than midway through, when it focuses almost singularly on the pre-cog Agatha (Samantha Morton) and her suffering. Earlier in the film, Agatha shows Anderton the image of a drowned woman named Anne Lively and repeats the phrase, “Can you see?” Assisted by John Williams’s piercing music (driven by a painful solo female voice), the chilling visions of Anne Lively haunt the proceedings, lurking in the back of Anderton’s mind. Preoccupied with his fate and tortured by his past, however, Anderton fails to see or understand what Agatha is trying to show him. Anderton believes Agatha holds the key to his innocence, but the dynamic between the two characters gradually reveals a different type of connection. After Anderton breaks her free from Pre-Crime headquarters, Agatha gazes out to the world around her and asks, “Is it now?” Only late in the film does he realize the extent to which he has enabled her humanity to be stripped away. And thus, Spielberg’s film, which had been so far engrossed in the future, really becomes about the painful memories of the past, and more specifically how they can be distorted by both others and ourselves.

As Minority Report moves to resolve both its ethical and narrative entanglements with relative ease, it leaves behind remnants of distinctly unsettled feelings. Many critics have noted that the third act doesn’t hold up as strongly as what goes before it. Indeed, Minority Report works better when it straddles and blends lines between disparate temporalities and sensibilities. It’s a film built on contrasts: between glassy surfaces of Pre-Crime and grimy atmospheres of the Sprawl; between a daughter’s loss of a mother and a father’s loss of a son; between a classicist and chaos aesthetic; between certainty and doubt, dreams and reality, the implausible and the believable.

Minority Report lives on these divides, where it conjures sweeping visions of life undone by simulation and addiction while institutional infrastructures continue to thrive. Its many allusions to sight recall both the power and simple beauty is the ability to see. But the most notable achievement of Spielberg’s film is how it coalesces the threads of past and future and harbors a firm grasp on the space between that is the present. At a time when commercial narrative-making increasingly leans on mythology and leads you to wonder about what isn’t there, Minority Report, a decade later, leaves you thinking about all that is there, even as it causes you to wonder: “Is it now?”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Ted Pigeon

Ted Pigeon is director of scientific services at MJH Life Science.

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