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
Following A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report finds Steven Spielberg in a strong Kubrick afterglow.
Ready to amp up the action without diminishing the philosophical debates, Spielberg’s second sci-fi film in a row dives into a nearer future. Set in the year 2054, it’s the closest thing to Blade Runner that he’s ever likely to make (which is fitting since this, like that Harrison Ford classic, is based on a Philip K. Dick short story).
With heavy doses of Hitchcock and even weird splashes of David Lynch, Minority Report is sci-fi noir. It was Spielberg’s most straight-up suspense thriller 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 two-and-a-half hours and packed with action, style, and brains, Minority Report is a movie that never drags. Tom Cruise flexes both muscles and range in a complex narrative, one firing on all cylinders and fueled by some really spectacular set pieces.
Dadgum, this is a helluva movie.
It’s mid-21st Century Washington D.C., there hasn’t been a single murder for six years. That amazing statistic is all thanks to the Department of PreCrime, a branch of the capitol’s police force that has developed a system to predict murders before they actually happen.
Through it, law enforcement agents arrest and imprison would-be killers before their potential victims can be harmed. With a staggering success rate of 100% for over a half-decade, the system has been been perfected both operationally and legally.
Now, PreCrime is on the verge of going national.
It’s fascinating to see how it all works. Along with the police swat squads, the system also incorporates a live patch-in with two judges. It’s all stages of the judicial branch neatly condescend into a single operation.
The chief law enforcement officer is Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise). He processes and prosecutes every arrest within the system, one that has been seriously thought through. With a built-in forced accountability, the Department of PreCrime guarantees that it can operate within Constitutional parameters while also avoiding Orwellian overreach.
But of course, the system has a dark side.
First and foremost, there’s the most obvious issue: PreCrime arrests, convicts and sentences people based on a prediction of their actions, not on actual murders. (It’s a thorny ethical dilemma that the film actually does a credible job of arguing in favor of.)
The other big issue is the the source of the predictions themselves: three humans. This trio of twin males and one woman gained extra-sensory psychic powers following a scientific experiment that went awry. They’ve never been wrong.
When they are joined in PreCrime’s technology, these PreCogs (short for Pre-Cognitives) are able to see murders in detail before they happen, often days in advance. The PreCogs, however, can’t see other violent crimes like rape. Despite the brutality of other non-lethal assaults, the end of a life is the only thing that will trigger predictive visions for the PreCogs.
That’s a lot of setup, and yet Spielberg dispenses it all with fascinating, entertaining clarity.
And that’s when the story’s real hook kicks in: Cruise’s Capt. Anderton — i.e. the chief police officer who has made every single PreCrime arrest — pops up as the killer in one of the PreCog visions, murdering someone that Anderton has never even met before. It’s riveting to watch as it all unfolds, particularly as momentum builds toward the seemingly inevitable murder.
Further complicating the mystery: the climactic crime goes down at the peak of the second act, not the third, sending the narrative into a new, more complicated direction that spirals out down the final stretch.
Suffice it to say, the problem is bigger than a bug in the system; it’s something more sinister. As impossible as it seems, someone has actually rigged the system, and Anderton’s been set up.
Having been “proven” guilty, it’s up to Anderton alone to get to the truth. He takes on this daunting task while being hunted by police and federal agents for a murder that he hopefully won’t commit.
The moral dilemma works on several levels.
At first, it may seem that there’s not much to debate. It seems self-evident that we shouldn’t arrest people for murders they haven’t committed. To do so would be fundamentally wrong.
But that 100% drop in murders is hard to argue with.
That success rate then raises a counter moral argument: if we can eliminate murders with absolute certainty, then don’t we have a moral obligation to implement the very system that achieves it?
But what of the PreCogs themselves?
To utilize their gifts requires an inhumane solitude. In order to be operational, the three PreCogs must be constantly quarantined, 24 hours a day, unable to live anything close to something that resembles a normal life.
Compounding that inhumanity is the fact that, by the very nature of their visions, they are psychologically and spiritually burdened as well. They experience everything they predict. As a result, each PreCog is haunted by the intimate intensity of every murder they foresee.
It’s tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, but it’s for an altruistic “greater good.” In order to ignore the necessary evil that it requires, Anderton says at one point, “You can’t think of them as human.”
In short, the core ethical debate is a simple but very difficult moral question: Utopia, but at what cost?
The characters are complicated in their own right. Anderton, for example, is a hero and crusader to the masses, but he also struggles with a secret drug addiction that began after the loss of his son, who was kidnapped.
That tragic event led Anderton to lead the PreCrime initiative; it’s also torn him apart, as well as his marriage. Scoring a narcotic hit is the only way he’s found to ease the pain. Despite having faithfully executed the demands of his job with moral integrity, his tormented soul does make you wonder: is Anderton capable of murder?
In terms of genre, Minority Report may be sci-fi on the surface, but it’s Film Noir at its dark, seedy core. That combo makes for Spielberg’s edgiest effort, complete with illegal drugs, gruesome violence, and occasional sexual proclivities found in corners of the city’s underbelly.
The characters fit classic noir archetypes. Anderton is the morally-compromised gumshoe, framed by an unknown perpetrator who may have roots in a government conspiracy. Samantha Morton‘s Agatha (the female PreCog) puts a tragic spin on the femme fatale in a performance that’s criminally underrated. It’s a heartbreaking turn, one that must have left Morton absolutely exhausted every day, not just physically but mentally and emotionally.
For Cruise’s part, it’s one of his all-time best (yet also criminally ignored). A wide range of scenarios require an equally wide range of nuances, all rooted in a would-be murder that causes Anderton to run an emotional and moral gamut. Cruise 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, which comes right at the film’s halfway mark, is crucial to the plot, but it’s unforgettable because of what Smith does with it. She plays Dr. Iris Hineman, the co-inventor of PreCrime. Now retired, Iris is a sweet grandmotherly senior…but with an eerie, deviant edge.
Anderton goes to her for clues and possible answers. During the course of their meeting, Iris unpacks vital backstory before revealing a possible loophole — a.k.a. the titular “minority report” — and Smith delivers it with a strange, hypnotic charisma. She 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 works as equally for the sleek, clean, highly advanced metropolis of Washington D.C. as it does the city’s dark, dank, 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. Stark lights create stark shadows; some even form art deco patterns.
Kaminski strikes artful compositions, too, most notably a close-up of John and Agatha. As they embrace, the shot frames their heads in a symbiotic union. The symmetry of that image is beautiful and, given the emotion of the moment, breathtaking.
Kaminski also reels off a few patented Spielberg Oners. One favorite: an overhead “see-through” tracking shot of an entire apartment complex. It involves the choreography of multiple actions, visual effects, and precise timing. Several other Oners are more subtly staged, like an early elevator confrontation between Cruise’s Anderton and Farrell’s federal agent.
Oh, and Spielberg throws in some pointed satire, too, about the saturation of advertising and marketing. Now nearly twenty years after the film’s release, it’s probably not surprising that what Steven and his team of futurists had predicted for 2054 already looks familiar in 2020 (and, quite honestly, has been common for the past few years).
For all the intricate, clever plotting, the final climactic turn does revolve on an errant (and convenient) slip of the tongue. It’s a cop-out in a plot that, otherwise, is flawlessly dense, but it’s also a minor, forgivable one. By the time it happens, we know where this is going. We’re supposed to. That’s all part of how Spielberg ratchets up the suspense. And so, instead of belaboring the reveal, Steven utilizes a classic genre staple (the tongue-slip) to expedite the inevitable.
Despite its financial and critical success, Minority Report has become one of Spielberg’s hidden gems. It has intelligence, style, and intensity. And from Anderton’s arc to Agatha’s tormented soul, it also delivers a whirlwind of emotional pathos that more summer movies should aspire to.
Plus, it confronted an issue that may have been the most relevant of its time. Back in 2002, 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, Minority Report tackled the notion of “pre-emption.” It’s an issue still worth chewing on today as various crises may tempt us to cede our liberties to acts of government overreach.
So before you plop down money for yet another obligatory franchise sequel (or other money grabs of its ilk) – stop! Rent Minority Report instead.
- This was Spielberg’s first film since 1941 (other than the Indiana Jones movies) to be shot in the wider-screen 2:35:1 aspect ratio. Starting with E.T., Spielberg shot his films in the less-wide, rectangular aspect ratio of 1:89:1, the same frame size as an HDTV. No specific reason for this differential is known, but the shift to 1:89:1 back in the 80s was likely due in part 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 to fit a square TV, the universal screen shape prior to the HDTV era.
- The three “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 sixteen “future experts”. Together, they brainstormed what technology would look like in all aspects of modern society in the year 2054.
- The action sequence in the car factory is based on an idea that Alfred Hitchcock had for North By Northwest, but had been unable to shoot.
- Prior to this film being made, the short story on which it is based was almost 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 (essentially, more like how Tom Cruise looked in the comedy Tropic Thunder).
- Spielberg’s version was almost filmed right after Saving Private Ryan, but decided to put the script back into rewrites. Before making that delay, Spielberg had decided to cast Cate Blanchett as Agatha, Matt Damon as Witwer (the role that would go to Colin Farrell), and Ian McKellen in the role eventually played by Max von Sydow.
- Cruise’s Vanilla Sky director Cameron Crowe makes a cameo appearance as a train passenger reading a newspaper. Cameron Diaz, Cruise’s co-star from that 2001 film, 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.