Speculative fiction has long entertained the hypothetical question: if you could go back in time and kill a murderer before he claims his first victim, would you? Is the murderer really a murderer beforehand? And is taking him out of the equation turning him into a victim by replacing one crime with another? In the 1950s, Philip K. Dick—a man with no small preoccupation with the themes of authority, individuality and free will—explored the reverse of this trope. What if you really knew that somebody was going to commit a crime and had the means to arrest them before the crime was committed? Is that person still guilty of something they never actually did? And what if you build a justice system around that certainty? How much freedom is such a system really protecting, anyway? A lifetime later, Steven Spielberg revisited Dick’s story with a modern update that still manages to ask the same questions and deliver that same sense of unease with the things that supposedly make us more free by figuring out how to take away something we might not notice is missing. The result is perhaps the first-ever whowouldhavedunit: Minority Report.
It’s 2054, and Washington, DC is concluding the test phase of its PreCrime system, a method of law enforcement that relies on a trio of precognitive psychics who float in sensory deprivation tanks all day and scan the future for any acts of murder about to happen. When they detect one, it falls to investigators like John Anderton to spring into action and apprehend the culprit before they can actually carry out their crime—often with only moments to spare—and imprison them in a kind of virtual reality for life. Anderton is really good at his job, despite the fact that his life is a shambles. His son Sean disappeared a few years ago, driving his separation from his wife Lara and a descent into drug addiction. On the eve of a national referendum to roll out PreCrime nationwide, Anderton’s name comes up as about to kill some guy named Leo Crow. Anderton doesn’t know Crow, but suddenly, he’s guilty of a crime he hasn’t yet committed, and so he does what everybody does: He runs like hell. In the chase that follows, Anderton’s colleagues are torn between trying to help their friend and trying to do their job, all while Anderson does a deep dive into the PreCrime system itself, certain that there must be a fatal flaw in the system that he can use to prove his innocence. There are flaws, to be sure. And they will prove to be fatal. But to whom?
Minority Report is equal parts head trip, neo-noir murder-mystery, conspiracy thriller and high-octane chase movie, the kind of movie that shows off both Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise at the height of their powers. And as such, it’s an enormously entertaining movie, complete with a compelling look at a new future with details both inspiring and revolting. When things inevitably descend into tense chases and narrow escapes, it feels like it’s found a sweet spot the size of Texas and stays right in the middle of it.
Near-future Washington feels like the kind of city we have been promised by previous iterations of science fiction, wrapped up in enough familiarity to make even its most fanciful notions seem at least plausible, if not probable. And like a lot of science fiction, the things it promises us have two edges. Sure, personal jetpack are awesome until the cops chase you in them. Sure, a world with psychic powers offers a glimpse into our highest potential until you remember what humans always do to those with gifts that are worth more to the group than to the individual. Sure, a world without murder is peaceful until you have to account for the fact that no system is ever perfect, especially if it’s a justice system. Therein lies the story’s most central irony: that to seek total justice requires, if only to a small degree, committing just enough injustice to render the thing morally pointless. The Anderton runs from a system he has helped to enforce proves the point. Deep down, he knows something is out of whack here even when the system is running as it’s supposed to. Especially, then.
Like a lot of Philip K. Dick adaptations, Minority Report is a lot more pulse-raising than its source material, which prefers to think about these things more than to run through them. But that’s alright; two different versions of the same story that both work so well just prove the inherent quality of the source material. But the movie does give up something Dick probably would have preferred for us to dwell on for a bit longer: how much sympathy we are supposed to afford to a protagonist who has no way of knowing if he really is innocent. But to spend too much time there robs the movie of its resolution, which raises questions that could not be addressed were we to remain within the realm of Anderton’s paranoia over whether or not we really have free will when somebody knows what we’ll do before we do it.
The moment of truth, then, comes at a great scene midway through Anderton’s run from justice, when he finally tracks down Leo Crow and begins to understand why somebody might think he would want to kill him. Anderton knows he should turn around and go the other way. And yet, he heads straight down a path that will lead him to murder, but only if he fails to back out at any of the many steps along the way. With each step, backing out gets twice more as difficult. Until the very last moment, we don’t really know what is going to happen, and that’s the point. Nobody ever does. Least of all, ourselves. But whether the results are noble, selfish or tragic, the discovery is ours alone to make.
3 thoughts on “Minority Report”
One of the things the filmmakers did for this movie was to hire a bunch of advertising consultants to show what advertising might look like in a major metro area in the 2050s. The notion that ads (and other things) would recognize people and personalize on the fly was downright creepy and put things over the edge for me. Anderton was living in a dystopia.
Minority Report came out in 2002. For advertising, things have got much creepier. If you wanted to make a Guinness ad that shouted people’s names at them as they came by, the technical wherewithal isn’t the thing holding ad tech companies back. It’s the potential backlash and maybe a few lingering annoying data collection laws.
If you took away my free will and put me in an urban landscape that aggressively stole my attention every time I went out in public, well, that’s kind of my idea of dystopia. Especially if I can’t drive my own car.
Totally agree, Tom. I didn’t get much into the surveillance state and media environment of Minority Report, mainly because there was so much dystopia in that story, I wanted to focus on its biggest symptom. But the media aggression here was very unsettling.
FWIW, the EU’s GDPR suggests that at least in Europe, there is a point at which people push back against marketing, advertising, and individual data rights. I suspect that will eventually spread. But we’ll see. I still haven’t found the will to delete my Facebook account yet…
Nice write up on a great story. One of my favourite movies.