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.