Minority Report (2002)
(for violence, language, some sexuality and drug content)
Released: June 21, 2002
Runtime: 145 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Max von Sydow, Colin Farrell, Lois Smith, Tim Blake Nelson, Kathryn Morris, Neal McDonough, Steve Harris
Available to rent through Amazon Video.
Ready to amp up the action without diminishing the philosophical debates, Minority Report finds Steven Spielberg in a strong Kubrick afterglow following A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. His second sci-fi film in a row, Spielberg dives into a nearer future – the year 2054 – in the closest thing to Blade Runner he’s likely to make (which is fitting since this, like that Harrison Ford classic, is based on a Philip K. Dick short story).
Minority Report is sci-fi noir with heavy doses of Hitchcock and even weird splashes of David Lynch, and it’s the most straight-up suspense thriller for Spielberg since Jaws. It’s also a murder mystery mixed with a Fugitive-like “man on the run” hero trying to prove his innocence. And while not a 9/11 parable in any way, the film’s core themes broach that tragic event’s first major ripple effect: pre-emptive strikes. At 2 ½ hours, Minority Report is a movie that never drags because it’s packed with so much – action, style, and brains, plus Tom Cruise flexing both muscles and range – that’s firing on all cylinders, and fueled by some really spectacular set pieces. Dadgum, this is a helluva movie.
It’s the mid-21st Century, and for six years in Washington D.C. there hasn’t been one murder. That’s all thanks to their Department of PreCrime, a branch of the police force that has developed a system to predict murders before they actually happen. Law enforcement stops the lethal crimes before anyone is harmed, yet would-be killers are still arrested and imprisoned. With a staggering success rate of 100% for over a half-decade, PreCrime is now on the verge of going national.
The system has been developed both operationally and legally. It’s fascinating to see how it works, particularly as it involves a check-and-balance with a live patch-in by two judges from the judicial branch. The chief law enforcement officer – Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) – processes and prosecutes every arrest with their oversight. This has been seriously thought through to fit within a Constitutional system, force accountability, and avoid Orwellian overreach.
But of course, the system has a dark side. There’s the most obvious issue: arresting and sentencing people based on a prediction of their actions and not actual murders (a thorny ethical dilemma that the film actually does a credible job of arguing in favor of). Then there’s the source of the predictions themselves: three humans (twin males and a woman) that, by virtue of a scientific experiment that went awry, have extra sensory psychic powers.
When joined in PreCrime’s technology, these PreCogs (short for Pre-Cognitives) are able to see murders in detail before they happen, most often days in advance. (The PreCogs can’t see other crimes, like rape, because those acts – while brutal – don’t reach the ultimate breach of life that serves as the trigger for these visions.) That’s a lot of setup, yet Spielberg dispenses it all with fascinating, entertaining clarity.
But here’s the real hook: what happens when the chief officer who’s made every PreCrime arrest (Cruise’s aforementioned Capt. Anderton) pops up as the killer in one of the PreCogs’ visions? Killing a guy, no less, that Anderton’s never even met. It’s riveting to watch it all unfold, particularly as it builds toward the seemingly inevitable murder (which goes down at the peak of the film’s second – not final – act, spiraling the story in a new, more complicated direction for the last third).
Suffice it to say, there’s not merely a bug in the system; someone’s actually rigged it (impossible as that seems) and Anderton’s been set up. It’s up to him to figure it all out while being hunted down by police and federal agents, for a murder that he hopefully won’t commit.
The moral dilemma works on several levels. First, on the face of the premise, it may seem there’s not much to debate; we shouldn’t arrest people for murders they haven’t committed, plain and simple. It’s wrong. But that 100% drop in murders is hard to argue with, and it raises a counter moral argument: if we can eliminate murders with absolute certainty, don’t we then have a moral obligation to implement the very system that achieves it? This becomes particularly convincing as would-be murders have been reduced to crimes of passion; people have come to realize the futility of pre-meditation.
Then there’s the PreCogs themselves. In order to be operational, they’re forever quarantined, unable to live anything close to resembling normal lives. Compounding this inhumanity is the fact that, by the very nature of what they foresee, they’re psychologically and spiritually burdened with the intensity of every murder they predict because they’re experiencing it as well. It’s tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, an altruistic torture. (As Anderton says at one point, “You can’t think of them as human.”) If such a system were even possible, it’d be hard to stomach what those PreCogs are put through, even with a 100% success rate.
In short, the core ethical debate becomes one simple but very hard to answer moral question: Utopia, but at what cost?
Anderton is a complicated character in his own right. A hero and crusader to the masses, he struggles with a secret drug addiction, one he’s battled since the kidnapping and loss of his son. That tragic event led him to lead the PreCrime initiative, but it’s also torn him apart as well as his marriage, leaving him to ease the pain by scoring narcotic hits. He’s faithfully held a moral integrity on the job, but his tormented soul does make you wonder: is he capable of murder?
While the surface setting is clearly sci-fi, the dark and seedy core of Minority Report is Film Noir through and through (making for Spielberg’s edgiest effort, complete with illegal drugs, some gruesome violence, and occasional sexual proclivities in various corners of the city’s underbelly). Anderton is the classic morally compromised gumshoe, he’s seemingly framed by a mysterious perpetrator that may have roots in a government conspiracy, and Agatha – the female PreCog – puts a tragic, mesmerizing spin on the femme fatale. It’s a heartbreaking turn by Samantha Morton in a criminally under-recognized performance that must’ve been absolutely exhausting to undertake – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
For Cruise’s part, it’s one of his all-time best (and also criminally ignored). A wide range of scenarios require just the right level of nuance to be made credible. The would-be murder, in particular, has Cruise running an emotional and moral gamut. I can’t account for his controversial personal life, but on-screen the man can flat out act with the best of them.
The rest of the cast is pitch-perfect, including Colin Farrell and Max von Sydow, but a particular highlight is character actress Lois Smith. Her one scene, right at the film’s halfway mark, is crucial to the plot, and unforgettable because of what she does with it. Smith plays the co-inventor of PreCrime (now retired), a sweet grandmother type with an eerie, possibly deviant edge. Anderton goes to her for clues and possible answers.
During the course of their meeting, she unpacks vital backstory before revealing a possible loophole (the titular “minority report”). Smith delivers it with a strange, hypnotic charisma, and caps the whole scene with a, um, “goodbye” that you’d never see coming (Anderton sure doesn’t).
Minority Report is also a standout effort by Spielberg’s perennial cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. He creates a visual texture that places the sleek, clean, highly advanced area of D.C. in the same world as the dark, dank, and sleazy corners. And the climatic standoff (there’s always one in a noir) is shot and framed like something straight out of the 30s or 40s, with stark lights and shadow that, at times, form art deco patterns. He also strikes artful compositions, most notably the symbiotic placement of John and Agatha’s heads during an embrace, in close-up. The symmetry is beautiful and, with the emotion of the moment, breathtaking.
Kaminski also reels off a few patented Spielberg Oners, most notably an overhead see-through tracking shot of an entire apartment complex that involves the choreography of action, effects, and precise timing. But there are several other Oners more subtly staged, too, like an early elevator confrontation between Cruise’s Anderton and Farrell’s federal agent.
Oh, and Spielberg throws in some pointed satire about advertising saturation, too, something he (and his team of futurists) had forecast for 2054 but is already beginning to look familiar in 2016.
The final climactic turn does revolve on an errant slip of the tongue, something perhaps a bit too convenient for a plot so perfectly constructed and flawlessly dense, but it’s a forgivable choice as it’s not only a classic genre staple but also expedites the inevitable. By the time it happens we know where this is going (and we’re supposed to, it’s all part of how Spielberg ratchets the suspense), so laboring the reveal even more would’ve be counter-productive.
Despite its financial and critical success, Minority Report sort of remains one of Spielberg’s hidden gems. It has the intelligence, style, intensity, and whirlwind of emotional pathos (from Anderton’s arc to Agatha’s tormented soul) that more summer movies should aspire to, plus it confronts still-relevant issues (back in 2002, it tackled the notion of “pre-emption” just as the Bush administration was preparing to invade Iraq as a preventative measure against what Saddam Hussein may have done in a post-9/11 world).
So before you plop down money for an obligatory Transformers sequel (or other money grabs of its ilk) – the kind you’re already complaining about before you’ve even stepped foot in the theater – stop! And rent Minority Report instead.
Available to rent through Amazon Video.
- This was Spielberg’s first film (other than the Indiana Jones movies) since 1941 to be shot in the wider-screen 2:35:1 aspect ratio. Starting with E.T., Spielberg shot his films in the more-regularly shaped rectangle aspect ratio of 1:89:1 (the same frame size as modern-day HDTVs). No specific reason for this differential is known, but the shift to 1:89:1 back in the 80s was likely due to the advent of home video and “pan-and-scan” visual cropping. By shooting in 1:89:1, less of the original image needed to be cropped out.
- The “PreCogs” were all named after famous mystery writers. Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie.
- Three years before filming began, Spielberg assembled a team of 16 future experts to brainstorm what technology would look like in all aspects of modern society in the year 2054.
- The car factory action sequence is based on an idea that Alfred Hitchcock had for North By Northwest but had been unable to shoot.
- The short story on which this is based was almost initially produced as a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Total Recall, with the setting moved to Mars.
- In Philip K. Dick’s original short story, John Anderton is short, fat, and balding.
- Spielberg’s version was almost filmed right after Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg decided to put the script back into rewrites, but not before having decided to cast Cate Blanchett as Agatha, Matt Damon in Colin Farrell’s role of Witwer, and Ian McKellen instead of Max von Sydow.
- Cruise’s Vanilla Sky director Cameron Crowe makes a cameo appearance as a train passenger reading a newspaper. Vanilla Sky co-star Cameron Diaz sits behind him.
- This was Spielberg’s first film for 20th Century Fox.
- The film’s title doesn’t appear on-screen until the end credit roll.