Minority Report (2002)

- by John Bruni

Precrime - It Works!As with any tale written by the late Philip K. Dick, Minority Report uses a comfortably approachable story line to tackle a subject that, on the surface, appears deceptively simple. However, there is more to Dick than meets the eye. The film takes a few liberties with the original short story but in the main sticks closely to the spirit of the written work and even improves upon it in several aspects. At the film's opening, John Anderton (the main character, believably played by Tom Cruise) has everything going for him; he's the chief of a futuristic police agency called Pre-Crime that has completely eliminated murder in the nation's capitol. In short order a swirl of intrigue envelopes his life in darkness as inescapable as the clutches of a black hole.

Anderton’s police have a way to predict the future ­– they know who is going to commit murder before it actually happens – and the police in this future civilization arrest the perpetrators-to-be before they commit the crime, thus preventing the murder from happening. Much to his surprise, Inspector Anderton learns that he is the next person slated to become a murderer, slaying someone he doesn’t even know. When Anderton’s co-workers discover that the pre-cogs – people who can see the future – have fingered him for the next murder, they’ll arrest him on the spot, with no chance of a trial. If a pre-cog “sees” a murder, the perpetrator is guilty. No “ifs”, no “ands” and no “buts.”

Given this, it would appear on the surface that this is a movie about the denial of due process and civil rights, set in the future. The police in this scenario arrest the perpetrators of crimes before they actually commit them, but if a person hasn’t yet committed a crime how could they actually be locked up for it? Yes, Minority Report directly addresses this issue but don’t be distracted, Philip K. Dick is delving into a complex state of affairs much deeper than a discussion of a loss of civil rights vs. the cessation of murder.

What Mr. Dick is really painting here is what theologians would call pre-determinism, with a dash of pre-destination thrown in for good measure. Want this in plain and simple English? Here goes: God knew everything you ever did or will do long before you ever did or will do it. For example, if God is omniscient (if God knows everything) then long before you were born He knew you would be reading this at this exact moment. In the Minority Report, God is embodied as the Pre-Crime police. But when mere mortals play at being God, something is bound to go wrong. . .

Accurately predicting the future can reduce a person to a robot: once the future is accurately predicted, how can a person possibly change it? In the Minority Report this is the justification for locking up all potential murderers before they kill their victim. Once they’ve been foreseen committing murder, there’s nothing a perpetrator can do to change what they’re going to do unless Pre-Crime intervenes to stop it.

Ignoring a slight sense of cognitive dissonance here – if a pre-cog’s vision of a murder is so writ in stone that a perpetrator can’t change it, then how is it possible for Pre-Crime to intervene? – let’s just say that this sort of absolute assurance of a foreseen future can lead to some very dogmatic behavior. Inspector Anderton and his minions have absolute faith that what they are doing is right. In fact, speaking of faith, the Minority Report tackles situations closely related to theological issues. There are stories in the Bible tied into this situation that can ­– depending on one’s spiritual bent – be taken either as gospel truth or as excellent allegorical tales.

Anderton’s single-minded belief that locking up potential murderers is right, based on his pre-deterministic belief in Pre-Crime’s righteous predictions, parallels the unstoppable attitudes of 17th century Presbyterians. As one European monarch once said, “I’d rather face ten thousand bowman armed with spear and arrow than one Presbyterian armed with predestination and providence”. Only Philip K. Dick could take an issue of the 17th century and catapult it into the 21st. John Anderton may not be a religious man, but his faith in the system he helped create models the faith exhibited by religious zealots.

A diagnosis of murder puts Inspector Anderton in a very difficult situation. Should he turn himself in? Should he run? Is there anything he can do to change the future? Anderton has to choose whether he believes the future is immutable, unchangeable, or whether he can, forewarned, take an alternate path of action. If he chooses to run, he denies the infallibility of the very system he worked all his life to create. Well then, can he change the outcome of the future or can’t he? Judeo-Christian theology again holds clues to this paradox. On one side there’s the story of Peter’s denial of Christ. On the night Jesus is betrayed he tells Peter, who has been bragging that he will stay by the Lord’s side no matter what, “Before the cock crows you will deny (knowing) me three times.” Peter vehemently rejects this, but sure enough, after the Romans take Jesus away Peter finds himself in the exact situation Jesus Christ predicted, unable to change his actions despite his foreknowledge of them.

Writing in the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, Moses brings up a situation that, unlike Peter’s, seems to allow the future to be changed even after God predicts it. Moses wrote that God warns Cain, the world’s first murderer, that sin is crouching at Cain’s door and that he must master it in order to avoid slaying Abel. In this case a prediction of the future doesn’t mean that this exact future will come to pass. There’s still time to change it, despite God’s all-seeing prediction. This is what John Anderton hopes to bring about. Can he do what none of the potential murderers he’s arrested ever had the chance to do, prove that he can change his actions and not commit murder?

The answer hinges on a problem with the pre-cogs that hitherto has eluded Anderton – there are three pre-cogs and they are all supposed to agree on a prediction in order to arrest a murderer – but it turns out they don’t always agree. Sometimes a pre-cog’s vision will differ just enough from the others to necessitate the issuance of a “minority report”. Anderton discovers that this has occurred. Agatha, an ethereal and strangely beautiful pre-cog played to perfection by Samantha Morton, has seen a variant of the visions seen by the other two pre-cogs. Building from this revelation, Anderton discovers evidence that he may have been set up, and that a prior murderer may have escaped justice by manipulation of Pre-Crime’s supposedly infallible system.

Anderton has less than 36 hours to exonerate himself, all the while trying to evade pursuit by his rival, Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), who has discovered Anderton’s dilemma and is hot on his trail. Anderton doesn’t yet realize it but his beloved mentor; Pre-Crime Director Lamar Burgess (played well by Max von Sydow,) is actually his nemesis. The film deviates here from the original short story, without detracting from it.

Speaking of changes from the original story, some aspects of the movie existed in the original manuscript; some did not. Certainly the pre-cogs – prescient mutant humans who can see the future – existed in the original story. However, when Philip K. Dick wrote the Minority Report in 1956, computers still used punch cards, paper cards very similar to the ones that caused so much controversy in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election. Dick only vaguely conceptualized the marvelous system that Anderton uses to edit the visions of the future gleaned from the pre-cogs’ minds. He could have had no idea of what computers would evolve into; in Dick’s day computers took up a city block and had abilities no better than glorified tabulating machines. Amazingly, though, Dick did predict a system that appears to describe our current systems of video editing long before such systems existed. One wonders at times if Philip K. Dick himself was a pre-cog.

Some of the film’s devices, like the metallic “spiders” deployed by the police to search for the fugitive Anderton, didn’t exist in the written work but do add to the film’s sense of suspense. Iris scanning, a key way in which criminals are identified and caught in the year 2054, also adds drama despite some logical inconsistencies. (It’s not likely that Anderton’s preserved eyeballs would allow him entry into the very facility that has identified him as a murderer-to-be. More likely they’d set off a tremendous hue and cry.) It is a bit of a stretch to understand why Inspector Anderton had to be portrayed as a closet drug addict. Is this just another fillip of the high-tech world director Steven Spielberg portrayed? While it’s important to the story development to show Anderton as a man driven to run his beloved Pre-Crime as a way of avenging the murder of his young son, smoking futuristic crack in order to watch 3-D movies of the boy doesn’t quite fit with Anderton’s slavish devotion to law-and-order.

The film’s denouement also seems to abrade the willing suspension of disbelief identified by the poet, Coleridge, as necessary for immersion in fiction. There may be just one too many double-crosses here. The original short story had a rather complex finale also, and it’s a toss-up as to which one was better. Certainly, from the standpoint of cinematography, it’s a lot easier to explain things the way Spielberg did, but it seems to leave the viewer somewhat unsatisfied.

The film is fascinatingly noire; shot in widescreen on Super35 by Spielberg’s favorite DP, Janusz Kaminski, and it features some intentionally edgy film developing techniques and a terrific editing job. Spielberg’s vision of the future still falls short of that sense of seamless reality à la Blade Runner, one of director Ridley Scott’s best films, but all in all it’s one heckofa ride. If you haven’t seen it yet, head for the nearest DVD store and take the Minority Report home with you.

(See John's other essays (Click Here).

Copyright © 2000-2018 CinemaToast